Think back to your first visit to Trader Joe's. Aside from the colorful displays and vivacious employees, you likely noticed its compact size. You might have wondered how limited its product options might be, compared to the giant supermarket down the street.
You weren't wrong. Trader Joe's carries around 4,000 product SKUs at any given time—a stark contrast to the industry average of 50,000. This is just one of Trader Joe's many quirks and a clear example of how the chain values quality over quantity.
One area where you're sure to find variety, however, is on the store's wine shelf. At most locations, bottles of reds and whites take up an entire aisle, and no category is missed. Much of this inventory is what people like to call "Two-Buck Chuck," or very inexpensive wine. This nickname was derived from a specific brand called Charles Shaw that was first sold at Trader Joe's in 2002 for—you guessed it—$2.
The store's vino selection does indeed cater towards affordability—the highest-priced bottles typically don't exceed around $50–but there are plenty of gems to be found.
To sniff out which options are worth adding to your home bar, I gathered up a sampling of bottles from my local Trader Joe's. With a budget of $15 or less per bottle, I ended up with nine popular selections in my cart from reds and whites to a sparkling rosé.
I am no wine sommelier, but I have attended my fair share of wine tours and tastings in cities across the country and in Italy this past summer. I think I have picked up on some knowledge on these adventures, though I would still fumble on my words if you asked me what a tannin is.
My loyalty and preference is for dry reds, but I went into each sip with an open mind and judged each bottle as objectively as possible. Here are my final judgments, ranked in descending order from the wines I didn't prefer to those I would gladly uncork again.
Trader Joe's Grand Reserve Pinot Noir San Luis Obispo Coast 2022 Lot #112
Planted among all the whites and reds of Trader Joe's intimidating wine aisle, you can find the store's private-label wine. This is known as the "Reserve" collection, and there is a specific ranking system based on price and presumably quality. Starting at the lowest price point, you have Petit Reserves, followed by Reserves and then Grand Reserves. When you're feeling a tad more ostentatious, you can also sometimes find Platinum or Diamond Reserves at an elevated cost.
I kept things humble and middle of the road with a Grand Reserve pinot noir. This wine hails from the San Luis Obispo area of sunny California and cost me $12.99.
The look: While the bottle and label give off the appearance of simple luxury, the liquid itself looks fairly drab. It takes on a light and almost translucent color—a feature somewhat standard for pinot noirs. Because of this thin nature, its shade was more similar to plum rather than dark maroon.
The taste: Watery, with a lack of flavor notes. Typically, in a pinot noir, I can pick out some kind of fruitiness—aside from the grapes of course. But, in this Grand Reserve, the tastes are just that, reserved. There is no punch or sweetness. It's a wine that is dry but somehow also has low tannin.
Ratified & Repealed California Red Wine 2019
For fans of red wine, blends are usually a safe bet. They are something of a melting pot of flavors and often produce a more mild product that doesn't alienate any palate. Many also lean towards the sweeter side of the spectrum. I hoped that this one from Trader Joe's called Ratified & Repealed California Red Wine would strike a good balance and not be too syrupy for my liking. According to Trader Joe's, it's a fusion of syrah, petite syrah, and cabernet sauvignon.
The look: A very dark, garnet-colored liquid is what emerges from this blacked-out bottle. It's certainly a deeper shade than I was expecting from a red blend. It was so dark that I couldn't see the bottom of my glass through it.
The taste: The fragrance is imposing, and I felt it in my nose hairs when I smelled it. The flavor is more muted and subtle. It's not sweet by any means, a little fruity, and fairly tart, leaving behind a bad, acidic taste in my mouth. The shape of its bottle gives off a funky vibe, and that's also how I would describe its taste experience. This is not one I would seek out again.
Opaline Pinot Noir Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine
I'll be the first to admit that I often choose a wine based on its bottle and packaging. It has to have that eye-catching x-factor to turn my head away from standard go-to bottles. And, let me tell you, this Opaline bottle has that certain je ne sais quoi. Its crystal-like texture is mesmerizing, and it shows off its liquid contents in all the best ways. Before I even left the store, I had already determined the bottle would be a permanent fixture in my home—whether I enjoyed the wine or not.
Once I got past the beauty of the bottle, I noticed that this is a sparkling brut rosé made from pinot noir grapes. This means it is a drier wine—brut is the French word for "dry"—with very little sweetness.
The look: Standard rosé in a pink to peach shade. Some bubbles appeared at the top of my glass as I poured, but they dissolved quickly, leaving the drink looking much flatter than Champagne or other sparkling wine.
The taste: I would describe it as a less fizzy prosecco with a couple of drops of rosé in it. Bubbles seem to be few and far between—if there was a category of wine between sparkling and still, Opaline would fit the bill. It is certainly dry, which isn't a problem as I typically prefer dry and less sweet wine. But, nothing about it screamed rosé to me—beyond the color, of course. Plus, the aftertaste was more acidic than I would have preferred.
I would drink this again if someone handed it to me at a celebration or get-together. But, other than that, I think the pretty bottle is better left empty on my bar cart.
Corvelia Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles
The iconic cabernet sauvignon is one of the most popular red wines in America and the world—and for good reason. A cab option always appears on restaurant or bar menus. And, grocery store shelves are usually full of them, too. Trader Joe's delivered on selections, and I struggled to pick just one from the shelf. I finally settled on this Corvelia cabernet sauvignon, which pushed the boundaries of my budget at $14.99. Corvelia's wines come from Paso Robles, Calif. In addition to cabernet, the brand also crafts zinfandels.
The look: Dark eggplant purple. It's almost ink-like, it's so pitch-dark.
The taste: My consensus is that this is a very average cabernet. Those are the words that kept running through my head as I lifted my glass. The initial smell is resemblant of sour grape juice and exhibits some sweetness. But, the taste reveals something earthy, and I picked up on some cherry flavoring. It is low tannin. I could hardly feel them at all on my tongue, and it left me with a strange and faintly nutty aftertaste.
Vignobles Lacheteau 2022 Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine
Muscadet is a kind of French white wine made with melon de Bourgogne grapes or just melon grapes. My encounters with it have been few and far between. This one caught my eye with its fancy French wording and long, slender bottle shape—enough to persuade me that it was high-quality and worthy of a taste. Plus, at just $9.99, the price was right.
The look: A light white wine. This one lacks the yellow tinge that other white wines, like chardonnay, exhibit and is closer in color to a pale beige or Champagne.
The taste: The scent is fruit-filled and floral, but that doesn't translate into taste. It's fairly simple on the tongue but was also dry, crisp, and a pinch citrusy. I would say this is a solid and basic white wine. It would pair well with a complex meal when you want to highlight the flavors of your dish and let your beverage be an accessory.
Honey Moon Viognier California 2022
I typically would have avoided this wine like the plague since something about it reminds me of Barefoot—a brand I don't get along with. But, a friend told me that this variety drinks quite nicely, so I gave it a shot. I was also excited by the fact that this is a viognier. My experience with white wine has mostly been limited to the basics like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, and this was new territory for me. I did learn, however, that full-bodied viognier isn't far off from these other white wine staples, while also being lighter and sweeter.
The look: Pale golden yellow—it looks very refreshing.
The taste: Smooth and sweet, not my typical flavor preference, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. From its smell, I thought that it would be sugary to the extreme, but it wasn't overbearing and was, instead, rather pleasant.
The bottle gives you a hint that you should taste flavors of peach, apricot, honeysuckle, honey, mango, and nectar. I thought some of these were a bit of a stretch, but peach did seem accurate, and a couple of samples also tasted citrusy. This is the kind of wine I could see myself sipping by the pool or enjoying on a patio for a Sunday funday.
Ruggero Di Bardo Susumaniello Puglia Red Wine
If I were to come across this bottle in the wild, I wouldn't guess that it was filled with wine. It reminds me more of a fancy olive oil bottle or a pint of liquor. It is dignified, and some research let me know that this is a popular Trader Joe's wine, priced reasonably at $13.99. The susumaniello grape is grown in Puglia, Italy.
The look: A pronounced midnight purple. Just like the Ratified & Repealed Red Blend, this one is not see-through.
The taste: I finally found some tannins. It has a more sophisticated flavor, while also remaining approachable. It's dry but not overly so. Upon the first sniff, I was worried about a heightened acidity, but it was more acidic in smell than taste. This variety is said to have flavors like fruit and vanilla, but they didn't jump out at me. I would still call it a dependable, everyday wine. With a little more time to breathe or if I had aerated it before drinking, I might enjoy it.
Rock Station Chardonnay Napa Valley 2022
When it comes to white wine, chardonnay is my trusty fallback. It's hard to describe exactly what it is that makes it a favorite. I think it has to do with its buttery flavor—typically a result of being fermented in oak barrels. I appreciate it as a change of pace compared to the fruitiness and sometimes floral notes of other white wines.
The look: A deeper, richer yellow than the other white wines presented here.
The taste: I can't say enough good things about this chardonnay. It's smooth and buttery, just like a good chardonnay should be. Before I put it to my lips, the smell told me that it would be agreeable and right up my alley. This Rock Station wine was one of the most expensive in my haul—priced at just under $15—but it is well worth it.
El Castilla Syrah Spain 2021
Syrah is a type of dry red wine similar to both cabernet sauvignons and merlots, one of my favorite reds. It's also sometimes mistaken for shiraz. These two wines are indeed made from the same kind of grapes and share many similarities. But, they have different countries of origin. Syrah traditionally comes from southern France, while shiraz has roots in Australia.
This particular syrah bottle is from Spain, however, and it cost me $9.99. I was once again persuaded to buy this particular wine because of its well-designed label.
The look: A deep ruby red. It is closest in looks to the Corveila cabernet.
The taste: Smokey and peppery, but with a delicious finish. I was proud of myself for being able to pick up on the smokiness right away as I smelled my glass. It was such a strong aroma that I sneezed right after taking a whiff. The rest is bold with strong tannins, and it has a ripe fruit taste that makes it a rich sip. After giving all wines a fair shot, this was the bottle I went back for—and it was empty shortly after.