Some days you just need a bottle of wine and change back from your ten dollar bill. You know that means the goal is simple pleasure -- no hopes for gustatory greatness. To help you with such a search, I convened a small group of amateur drinkers and eaters (OK, and one very talented chef, too) and we sampled what I've billed "five for six at TJ's" -- that's five chardonnays, purchased at $5.99 each at Trader Joe's. You could do this, too, if you were very thirsty or had enough like-minded friends.
The wines, chosen at random, were as follows: Trader Joe's Grower's Reserve 2012 Chardonnay California (organic); Trader Joe's Petit Reserve Napa Valley 2012 Chardonnay; Meridian Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay California; Oreana Project Happiness 2012 Chardonnay California; and one out-of-California ringer/experimental control, a Columbia-Crest Grand Estates 2010 Chardonnay Columbia Valley from Washington.
You pick up on lots of little things doing this kind of tasting. First, it's harder to distinguish among the less distinguishable -- these wines don't even have time for too much barrel age and too much oak. Second, while it's generally true that white wines are served too cold, bottle temperature seemed to do different things with this batch: the TJ's Grower's got better as it warmed to room temperature, while the Columbia-Crest grew sluggish and sharp. Third, at this price point, no one spends money on labels; the Oreana has the hip/kitsch factor with its yellow smiley face, but as one taster put it, "If I'd been stoned, I might pick it," and another added, "If it were an expensive wine, that might draw me to it, but at $5.99 I'd say, 'Woah!'" Fourth, does "Petit Reserve" mean the wine is almost a reserve, like milk just a little bit sour? Fifth, the Grower's Reserve has a pull-tab around its non-foil foil, which makes it easier to open, and there's really no reason to have to fight for a $6 chard. That none of them were screw tops attests to our romance of the cork and the hope it elevates a lesser wine to the myths Bacchus taught us.
If you look online you'll find all sorts of the usual chardonnay descriptors for these wines -- lemon, toast, pineapple, corn silk, apricot, vanilla, peach -- but despite having two poet laureates (really, I promise) in the group, we tended to get no more flowery than Lemon Pledge on the nose for the TJ's Petit Reserve, and that was said as a compliment. Instead, our wit tended to lead to zingers, from what was said about the Meridian: "My memories of it when I had less money to spend are fonder than they deserve;" To one about the Oreana: "Bland, when it's not bad."
Our kind and creative chef got excited about the possibility of turning them into something else, suggesting a mix with peach and berry and basil for a white sangria. It was interesting that the favorite of the evening was the Grower's Reserve, officially made from organic fruit. Maybe organic really is better.
The final judging order, from best to worst, was:
Trader Joe's Grower's Reserve 2012 Chardonnay California (organic)
Trader Joe's Petit Reserve Napa Valley 2012 Chardonnay
Columbia-Crest Grand Estates 2010 Chardonnay Columbia Valley (with the "grippiest" acid, so perhaps best with food?)
Meridian Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay California
Oreana Project Happiness 2012 Chardonnay California
So Trader Joe's actually does know what they're doing when they market you value-priced wines. Future tastings will have to test if that's transferable knowledge to other price points and varietals.
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