Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Trader Joe’s

Mystery – Read the Ending First
Are you the type to read the ending first?  If so, I’ll save you some time: Trader Joe’s is an OK choice for purchasers with limited budget.  The sweet spot for nice wines is at price of $5-10 per bottle. Stick with Trader Joe’s house brand or Trader Joe’s exclusives and you give yourself the highest chance (but not a guarantee) of a nice bottle at a great price.

The source of the mystery

The source of the mystery

The Mystery of Trader Joe’s
“Can you help me solve a mystery, Mr. Holmes?” said the beautiful young woman who had just entered the office of the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. “You see, I’m a poor graduate student with a love of good food and wine, but I live on a budget just above a paupers’. My friends and I shop at Trader Joe’s and we need to know if their wines  are worthy of our scarce funds, or if they are just peddling swill. You’re an expert at finding the truth; can you help?”

Jackpot or Trap?

Jackpot or Trap?

Sherlock put down his pipe and considered, then agreed to take the case. Armed with only a few clues, the well known sleuth and the beautiful young woman went to their local Trader Joe’s store and walked out with a case of wine, determined to find out the truth: a case of treasure, a box full of poison or something in between?

Bleacher seats

That’s our heroine on the left

The part of the beautiful graduate student was played by my daughter, Casey, visiting Minnesota on a break from her PhD studies in Florida.  The part of the detective was played by yours truly; I made up the stuff about famous and expert.

Good Wine on a Graduate Student Budget – Trader Joe’s?
Any wine shop has a wide array of very nice wines for $20 a bottle.  At the other end, both Casey & I agreed that “Two Buck Chuck” is closer to poison than a great find.  Casey said she could go up to $10 a bottle, but no more. Thanks to the Fermented Fruit blog, we went armed with one key clue:

  • Purchase only Trader Joe’s brand or Trader Joe’s exclusive wines.

Trader Joe’s carries a mix of well-known wines available at local wine shops as well as Trader Joe’s exclusive brands and Trader Joe’s house brand. The well-known, widely available wine brands are not priced at any special value.  The hidden treasures, if they exist, would be in the guise of TJ’s exclusives. We came home with a full case of Trader Joe’s wines, and the tab for 12 bottles (before tax) was: $121.88 Our case included 1 $20 splurge, I was curious how the Barbaresco would taste.  We could have easily walked out of the shop for less than $120.

Here’s our haul:

Wine Price (MN, before tax)
Sparkling – Louise d’Estree Brut (France) $8.99
The Pass Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (NZ) $8.99
Jacques Bourguignon Chablis (France) $12.99
Trader Joe’s Coastal Chardonnay (unoaked) (CA) $4.99
Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Viognier Mendocino (CA) $8.99
Carayon la Rose Languedoc Rosé (France) $5.99
Liberte Pinot Noir San Luis Obispo (CA) $9.99
Incanto Chianti Classico Riserva (Italy) $10.99
Barreri & Rovati Barbaresco Riserva 2004 (Italy) $19.99
Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso (Italy) $8.99
Les Portes de Bordeaux (France) $9.99
Tripudium Rosso Sicilia IGP (Italy) $10.99

Here’s a quick run-down on my impression of each of the wines. (Click on any photo to start the slide show)

Since Casey’s visit was short, we decided to pick wines that might appeal to my old-world wine palate. Maybe Sherlock and I would agree on that one. Over the next few weeks, I opened each wine and enjoyed it with a meal or two, or tasted it and left it alone, or tasted it and poured it into the vinegar bucket.

Mystery Solved
How did Trader Wines stack up? They were inexpensive, but were they worth the money?  Should a graduate student trust Trader Joe?


  • Louise d’Estree Brut – A very lively Methode Champenoise sparkling wine.  We loved the lemony nose and crisp acidity.  We enjoyed it with a shrimp stir fry, perfect!
  • Carayon la Rose Languedoc Rosé – for $6, a killer deal on a very nice rosé. Bone dry, super crisp with nice fruit.
  • Les Portes de Bordeaux Haut Medoc – a very enjoyable red wine for the dinner table. Clearly recognizable as an old world Bordeaux blend. Red fruit, herbs, and a bit of earth. Nice astringency in the flavor, not overly lush or ripe.  Good effort, I enjoyed this very much with dinner.

Innocent Bystanders

  • The Pass Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – A nice New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but it’s not too difficult to find decent NZ Sauvignon Blanc for a similar price.  Still, not bad at all.
  • Trader Joe’s Unoaked Chardonnay – Not bad, typical ripe fruit from California.  Lemons and butter on the nose, but not overdone. Acidity is a little low, but someone who enjoys “smooth” wines would be happy.
  • Pasqua Valpolicella Ripasso – Recognizable as a Valpolicella and plenty rich, but a bit  dark in the fruit.  Definitely enjoyable, a nice effort.
  • Barreri & Rovati Barbaresco Riserva 2004 – Hard to believe you can find an 11 year old Barbaresco for $20. Indeed, it does taste of Nebbiolo, but it’s simple, without much complexity. For $20, you can find a Nebbiolo wine with more personality.
  • Incanto Chianti Classico Riserva – A nice example of Chianti, if a bit on the ripe side.  Nose shows nice cherries and a bit of tobacco.
  • Tripudium Rosso Sicilia IGP– the salesperson at TJ’s told us this is a winner and very popular with customers.  Rich ripe Italian red wine– if you’re looking for rich & ripe, this was well executed.

Take these Villains to Scotland Yard!

  • Pinot NoirThis is the first stinker of the bunch. Not bad for the Meiomi drinker, I thought it tasted more of Zinfandel than Pinot Noir, even by ripe California standards. Poured down the drain.
  • Trader Joe’s Petit Reserve Viognier Mendocino (CA) – Drinkable, not much more. Good color, on the lean side for Viognier. Oak and flavor just off-balance, this went into the vinegar jug.
  • “Jacques Bourguignon” ChablisSulfur & oak nose, likely a flawed bottle. No resemblance to Chablis. Poured down the drain, not even worthy of the vinegar jug.

More Research
What’s the deal behind the curtain of Trader Joe’s wines?  Putting my Sherlock Holmes hat on, I decided to see what I could find.

Barreri & Rovati Barbaresco Reserva
Barreri & Rovati sounds like a family operation, but there is no Barreri & Rovati winery.  The name is a trademark registered to a large winery in the region. When you think of it, you may actually be supporting the smallest grape growers, too small to have their own winery. The downside? They are likely growing grapes for the maximum yield (tons) per acre and not for maximum quality; a perennial problem with the cooperative approach.  This explains how you might find a wine with a higher DOCG labeling for a modest price. This showed in the wine, it was clearly Nebbiolo, but it lacked the nuance and complexity you would expect from an 11 year old Barbaresco.

Louise d’Estree Brut
Marcel Martin is listed as the producer of the Louise d’Estree Brut, and Marcel Martin is a real producer, with other wines sold commercially under their own name. Based in Mouzillon in the Loire Atlantique, they produce “attractive, fresh wines that are great value for money”, perhaps because they are outside the more famous towns in the region.  Louise d’Estree may be an additional wine they produce and sell through Latitude Wines for Trader Joe’s.

Who is “Latitude Wines”?
Latitude Wines is the importer for nearly all of Trader Joe’s European wines. One look at their website and you can see the point: they take care of the whole supply chain, cutting out all middlemen to reduce costs.  Size has its advantages.

One Mystery Solved, Another Mystery Created
This fun exercise at Trader Joe’s got me thinking.  I wonder if a graduate student with the same budget could do as well at a regular wine shop with the help of a wine shop employee? Since it takes so long to get through a case, I decided to scale down the next challenge a bit:

  • Challenge to Local Wine Shops:
    • 6 bottles of wine for $60 before sales tax.
      • 1 sparkling wine
      • 1 light body white wine
      • 1 full body white wine
      • 1 medium body red wine
      • 1 full body red wine
      • 1 surprise

Can they do it?  Stay tuned…









6 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Trader Joe’s”
  1. Lynne Pelos says:

    Great idea, Jeff! I forwarded to Ellen in case she isn’t already following your blog. Look forward to hearing from the wine shops…

  2. Very fun yet also very informative. Thanks Jeff.

  3. talkavino says:

    I’ve played Trader Joe’s detective many times, mostly with very positive results. Lots of great value selections. Now, your challenge can be really difficult if you will go to the random store – I also wonder how big guys (BevMo, Total Wines, Costco) versus small ones… I might support your challenge – will just need a bit of time…

    • thanks, Anatoli. I have two local wine shops who jumped at the chance to take the challenge. I’ll be reporting on those experiences this fall. Should be fun! I’m interested to hear what you come up with.

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