The Trader Joe’s Experiment (Part I)


Trader Joe’s has been open for a couple of months now and my wife and I have been going there as often as needed to stock up on anything we need. The reason I say as often as needed is because that place is AMAZING! The price you pay for a week’s worth of food whether you’re buying ingredients or quick, precooked or frozen food is ridiculously lower than Key Food or the corner super deli. The quality of their products is outstanding and they pretty much have everything you need. I could go on and on about the beauty that is Trader Joe’s but I must move on to my point.
Trader Joe’s also has a wine shop and being a wine geek I had to check this place out. I always see it when we are there; I am just too busy trying to weed through the crowd just to get items in the cool, little red cart and then waiting fifteen to twenty minutes in line that usually wraps around to the entrance of the store (I am not complaining I can dig why we are all there) that when we get out we just want to go home and start cooking. We figure we’ll just pop one from the old “wine cellar” I carefully wedged into the kitchen when we moved in. On our last trip, however, I told my wife I would meet her in the organized chaos after I checked out this Trader Joe’s wine shop thing.
The shop was packed with people. I had never seen a wine shop that small with that many people in it at one time. I browsed among the masses ogling at the prices. It was like the whole store was a bargain bin. Awesome. As I moseyed around I kept on coming back to an extreme yet potential bargain. It was a 2005 malbec from Argentina (Mendoza) for…drum roll please…. four bucks. I am a sucker for malbec and other Argentinean blends so I had to grab it. I was embarking on a journey, an experiment if you will, on whether the cheapest of the cheap can hold up to the rest. This was really fun, I thought to myself and wondered how my wife was doing over in the other throng. Ah…she can handle it.
I clutched my new four-dollar bottle with unexpected excitement and I walked another round just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I was pretty tight on cash that day so I didn’t want to go crazy and get a case or something. I just wanted one or two bottles to go home with and try with my wife over dinner. I wanted to take baby steps with this newfound bargain place. I wanted to be a bit selective. On the last round I came across a wine that Eric Asimov had reviewed and enjoyed in a recent $10 and under piece. It was a Mondavi Private Selection 2004 merlot…or was it the pinot noir? I turned around and behind me was the pinot noir Private Selection. I couldn’t remember which one it was that he had written about. After some consideration I decided to go with the one I had seen first, the merlot.
Sure enough when we got home I went online, found the article and it was not the merlot it was the pinot (oh, well…next trip). No stress here man, I was going to pop that Trader Joe’s pre-made pizza in the oven, break out the Trader Joe’s pre-made arugula salad with walnuts, raisins and gorgonzola, uncork both the four dollar malbec and the nine dollar merlot and just go for it.
The pizza was great. The salad was really good for a pre-made item. The wine was…well…not…too…bad. We started with the malbec. It wasn’t too bad. Keeping in mind that it was a 2005 I was not blown away but definitely pleasantly surprised. It was soft and full of berries with hints of smokiness that came out a bit more in the glass as it breathed. It was quite approachable with no insipid characteristics that would make one cringe and a nice roundness to it that I found went well with the salad. There was a bit of heat from the alcohol and the acidity was a little strong but all in all it was a pretty enjoyable four-dollar bottle of wine.
The pizza was ready and we poured a glass of the Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2004 merlot. It was immediately hard to find the subtleties of mild vegetal notes and interwoven fruit that I am used to with merlot. The nose was a bit mute and difficult to gauge. The color was nice though, so it was bound to have something going on on the palate. Sure enough it did. The palate was a bit lean but at least more impressive than the initial nose. We each had a glass of the merlot with the pizza and I guess it went well together. It had a sort of pinot noir quality when matched with the sauce that brought out the acidity and added some character to the wine. After the pizza we ended up going back to the malbec and corking the merlot for the night. I purposefully didn’t finish either bottle to see what twenty-four hours did to them. If nothing came of it I would cook with them or make nice sangria.
The next day I hit the farmer’s market in my hood and grabbed a bunch of fresh, seasonal produce and planned a nice, simple dinner for my wife and I. When all was said and done I had made baked acorn squash with a honey-Dijon mustard-butter sauce and a side of freshly shaved corn and couscous salad with pimentos. For dessert, fresh apples from the market (the only apples worth buying) with salted natural peanut butter from Trader Joe’s.
I decided to revisit the merlot while I was cooking. I poured a taste and gave it a swirl. It had actually improved some. I let it sit for a bit and continued to cook checking back on the glass every five minutes or so. It continued to improve. I wasn’t about to decant it but I was definitely enjoying much more than the night before. This was an interesting twist in my Trader Joe’s wine shop “experiment.” I kept it uncorked for the duration of the recipe and waited to polish it off with my wife.
When we sat down to eat she asked me which wine this was. When I told her it was the merlot from the night before she was kind of taken back. The wine had filled out more and the structure had come more into focus. The fruit was quite prominent and the tannins had shown up to say hi, subtly but definitely present. It went really well with both dishes soaking up the couscous and matching the sweetness of the corn with smooth fruit and mingling well with the acorn squash giving a lean flavor to the creamy-sweetness of the dish. Good stuff.
As for the malbec, don’t buy this wine unless you pop it and finish it in one sitting. All the nuances of this decent four dollar Mendoza were gone leaving nothing but the reminiscence of fruit and body. It was actually a bit salty with watered down candy on the palate. It was a complete reversal of preference in a twenty-four hour period. I would say the experiment was a mild success. Both wines were pretty damn decent. If the malbec is consumed in full the day it is opened it can be quite enjoyable. Also, because of the price, it has a structure for nice sangria. The merlot needs some time open up but it isn’t half bad. I know I was supposed to get the pinot but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. The experiment is not yet over. I am not done with finding decent wine in the crazy little shop. I have since gone back and purchased the private selection pinot, which is in the queue for the next blog.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Victor Owen Schwartz on September 20, 2006 at 3:30 pm

    As a wine geek and lover of Argentine wines, I thought you might want to know about an important tasting and seminar next week that my company VOS Selections is hosting. It is a trade event but I dont’t mind if you came.

    email me back if you are interested in details.

    Reply

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