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Trader Joe’s Two (or Three) Buck Chuck and Musings About Wine Values: Are More Expensive Wines Better or Worth the Money?

IMG_1131The debate about what constitutes wine value will go on forever, and since it is always dependent on your own personal tastes and budget there will always be unlimited opinions.  Our own perspectives have changed over time, fluctuating with our individual tastes and income, but never really getting too far afield from their early roots.  We still love nothing more than finding a great wine for $15 that drinks like it costs $50 or more.  You can do that, if you look, sometimes.  We try to point those out in our Value List when we find them. But if you look at the Value List you’ll see categories that go from $20 to $40, and $40 to $80.  We stop there, because for our money there is rarely a major quality jump when you go higher.  In general you’re paying for a name or a reputation.  We have never even been in the vicinity of a crazy expensive wine, like a $10,000 DRC, or even the Bordeaux First Growths from a great vintage.  This super expensive list is quite extensive – there are a lot of them.  At these price points you’re buying this because you can.  It’s an interesting phenomenon that mirrors every other luxury good.  Does someone buy a $20,000 Hermes bag because it is that much better than a $400 Michael Kors?  No.  It’s because it is a Hermes bag.  Must be nice.

There’s a certain delusion associated with all of this.  Aubert de Viallaine of DRC (Domaine de la Romanee Conti in Burgundy) is quoted as saying ‘I don’t want the wines of the domaine to be collected and stored away only to be sold and resold.  They should be drunk with a meal and enjoyed with friends.  Our wines are made for food, not just tasting.”  Your wines cost thousands of dollars per bottle.  Hello???

But that’s the high extreme, let’s look closer to the lower end.  To bracket that we recently bought a few bottles of wine at Trader Joe’s in Massachusetts (since RI is barbaric and doesn’t allow them to sell their wine here).  Trader Joe’s made a name a few years back for their Two Buck Chuck, a $2 bottle of wine that was drinkable.  Even good.  The current version is $2.99, so let’s call it Three Buck Chuck.  It’s called Charles Shaw, but it’s still dirt cheap.  We generally have some Foxbrook Cabernet in the house for $4 and it is very drinkable at that price, even at twice that price.  But let’s see what the $2.99 ultra-commodity wine has to offer.

IMG_1131Wine:     2013 Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon

Winery Location:   CA – I’m guessing grapes from the Central Valley

Tasted By:      Neil & Cheri                 Date:     March 2015

Tasting Notes:  – out of the bottle drinkable but not much else.  Medium color transparent red.  Some fruit.  Not much noticeable tannin.  Medium length.  For $2.99 it’s not terrible.  Then we pumped it and opened it the second day.  Now it was bad, with a sour note and bitterness.  If you buy this and open it, drink it all.

Price Point –    $2.99

Would We Buy It?    No.  There are options about a dollar or two more that are much better.  Still, the cases of this were flying out of the store.  We have the Merlot as well, but aren’t expecting much.

So the low end is not good, but then again what do you expect for $2.99?  To balance it out we picked up a bottle of their Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $9.99.  Let’s take a look:

The "Reserve" Cab

The “Reserve” Cab

Wine:  Trader Joe’s 2011 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet – Lot 115

Winery Location:  CA – Napa grapes

Tasted By:  Neil & Cheri             Date:  March 2015   

Tasting Notes:  – this was much better, and had a nice, dark purple red color.  The nose showed dark fruit and some oak.  On the palate the wine has good fruit and structure.  The tannins are evident.  It has nice length.  In quality it reminded me of something like a Columbia Crest H3, which is not bad company, especially in this price range.

Price Point –    $9.99

Would We Buy It?   yes we would.  This is very good value at $10.   It’s not great, but it’s quite good.

Down at this range it’s all about various grades of good and pretty good, and sometimes bad.  So what happens when you ramp it up.  Are more expensive wines better?

We can unequivocally say yes, up to a point.  It might be a higher point, and we just don’t have enough experience in that rarefied air.  It is also true only generally, as there are always exceptions, and sometimes very painful ones as you pay $50 for something you don’t even really like.  But, in general if you pay more you get more.  Another question to ask is “Do you need more, want more, or can afford more?”.  Answer this before you venture to the neighborhood wine shop.

In our $20 to $40 range there are some great wines.  Wines of all styles and varietals.  Why would you step up to the $40 to $80 range?  Primarily because they’re better.  They’re noticeably better.  The difference is not as dramatic as it is on the lower end of the scale.  It’s about purity of fruit, perfect balance, power and elegance melded somehow together into a single glass.  You know it when you taste it.  You’ll have to decide if it’s worth it.  For us we do not buy wines that cost more than $60 very often, at all.  In fact we have two in the cellar.  Just two.  Maybe our budget changes in the future (upward we hope!).  But not now.

That’s because under $60 you have all of the great regions available to you.  You can find excellent wine from Rioja, Barolo, Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Priorat and more in this price range.   Here’s a good example.  We just opened a bottle of Bob Pepi’s Eponymous Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa.  We’ll be doing a full article look at Bob’s wines soon, but this was our first sample.  It’s the quintessential mix of qualities that make a lot of wines in this region great.  Beautiful fruit and great balance.  You drink it and look at the glass, analyzing.  It’s really delicious, and you want to figure out why, or maybe you don’t and just drink it.  Either way, it is better than just about anything you can find under $40.  There’s a difference.  It’s about $55 retail. and worth it if you can afford it.

We’ll be covering a few smaller producers in Napa and Sonoma over the next couple of months, and it will give us a chance to examine this $40 to $80 region in more detail.  We’re fortunate enough to get to try dozens of wines that break through the $100 barrier and head north from there, almost always at wine related events, and we can say that they are usually just not that much better than most of what’s under $80, as evidenced by the bottle of Eponymous we just mentioned.  There are some to be sure, such as the single vineyard Gaja Nebbiolos and the Gaja Barbaresco.  They are unworldly great, and we are so glad we got the chance to try them (read about that here), yet they check in at a suggested retail over $500 a bottle (for the single vineyard wines).  Not going there, ever.  They are not that much better (almost in this case though).  Now having said that, we are sure there are many, many bottles over $100 that might make us change this viewpoint.  We just haven’t tried them yet.  Maybe someday we’ll get close enough to a $5000 bottle of DRC to sneak in a glass and find out what all this fuss is about.  I suspect it will be disappointing and confirm what we already believe.  Nothing is that good.

In the end you need to figure this out for yourself: what level of quality is fine for you, and what level of price do you consider to be value.  We would suggest you always leave room for an occasional exception if you can.  Our two bottles over $60 are Grands Crus Burgundy, purchased for half what they normally go for.  That was too good to pass up.  The $99 bottle of 2000 Ornellaia at a restaurant was way to good to pass up (read about that here) as this wine goes for more than $200 retail.  And it was great.  It was absolutely $99 in a restaurant great, but not $225 retail great, at least to us right now.  The experience was worth the $99 alone.

Good luck on your journey of discovery and your personal definition of value.  Certainly not everyone agrees with us, because all those bottles of $$$$ wine are getting sold to someone, and it is not just collectors.  Still always remember you can get a really good bottle of wine for under $20, sometimes well under.  You can great one under $60.  If you’ve got the Hermes bag already, then what the hell, buy the bottle of DRC and carry it home in the Hermes.  Too each their own.

A votre sante!

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