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The Dueling Inexpensive Red Wine Line-Ups — Which Ones Went To The Drinking Round And Which Ones Went Down The Drain?

John Tilson • 5/2/11        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

I have always been curious. In all of my endeavors, I have referred to this trait as “turning over rocks.” You have to turn over rocks to see what is underneath. That takes some effort. Many people do not care. But for those that do, there is no assurance of what you will find. Maybe it will be a gold nugget or maybe it will be a rattle snake! Or, even more likely, it will be something in between. So it is with wine. In order to learn about wine, you have to taste new wines. You need to be adventuresome and try new things. In over 40 years of drinking and writing about wine I am still curious and still learning.

So it is that I finally succumbed to the widely advertised Wall Street Journal wine offer. Maybe you have seen it? It is called the Discovery Club WSJwine. You can order an introductory case of red wines, white wines, or a mixed case of red and whites. They cost the same – $69.99 plus $19.99 shipping and tax for a total of $89.98. This works out to about $7.50 per bottle. After the introductory case the price jumps to $139.99 plus $19.99 shipping and tax or $159.98. This works out to just over $13.00 per bottle. I ordered the introductory case of 12 red wines which consisted of eight different wines –- one bottle of four wines and two bottles of the other four wines.

And, being even more curious, and having a particular fetish for turning over rocks among other things, I decided to buy some inexpensive wines using approximately the same budget. I chose two different national retailers who carry a large selection of wines at very good prices, Trader Joe’s and Costco. I have been buying from both of them since the 1970s. (However, you could also do the same exercise by selecting wines from a local retailer if you have one that has a large selection of wines in the $10 range.) The goal was twofold. First, to see if there were any advantages to buying a pre-selected variety from the Discovery Club WSJwine versus buying wines yourself. Second, I wanted to see what could be found in the lower price ranges. After all, we are in a time of over-supply for wine. That translates into some really good bargains for wine drinkers who drink wines as opposed those who collect big number trophy wines. Besides the price and quantity (at least as many different wines for approximately the same total price as the Discovery Club WSJwine), my criteria for selecting wines to buy was based again on two factors. First, I wanted wine that I had never tasted before. That would coincide with the wines from the Discovery Club WSJwine which were all new to me. Second, based on my personal taste, I eliminated anything I thought would be an alcoholic fruit bomb (arbitrarily selecting 15% alcohol as a cut-off which also coincided with the wines from the Discovery Club WSJwine where there were no wines over 15%) because I mostly do not like this style of wine.

All of the wines reviewed here were tasted and evaluated over a period of several weeks. Individual wines were tasted over a period of 2-4 days. They were tasted alone, in comparison with other wines, and with and without food. This is, in my opinion, the only way to taste finished wine (that is wine that is bottled and offered for sale). I think the “Drive By Sip And Spit” evaluation of 100-200 wines at a time by some of the big numbers boys is simply an absurdity that has no value no matter what the number (see Underground Wine Line “It’s The Ol’ Drive By Sip and Spit” October 15, 2010).

So here it is – The dueling inexpensive wine tastings –- A three-way shoot out: Discovery Club WSJwine vs. Underground Club JTwine from Trader Joe’s vs. Underground Club JTwine from Costco. Let the games begin!

Discovery Club WSJwine – Tasting Notes


2010 J. Opi aka Rudolpho Sadler Malbec Mendoza Argentina. Malbecs have become quite popular because they can be very flavorful, yet balanced and not over the top. And, they are generally very well priced. This is a very nice one. It is dark in color with a deep blackberry perfume with hints of cedar and spice. With loads of fruit, the wine is rich and full with balanced tannins. Appealing now, but it should age gracefully for several years. This wine was tasted over three days and softened with aeration –- Highly Recommended. Imported by Lionstone International, Manteno, IL. 2-yellow-stars

2009 Celita Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore. This wine is from an area in Northern Italy where the Sangiovese grape variety is believed to have originated. But, it is a different clone than that grown in Tuscany which is the grape used for Chianti. Superiore is a designation for wine made exclusively from grapes grown in the best hills of the zone that reaches a minimum of 12% alcohol (this one is 12.5%) With a deep color and a faint perfume, this wine has nice spice and cedar-tinged fruit and a firm backbone. It is tight and firm without a lot of depth or fruit. Even decanting for several hours and tasting over several days, the wine did not show any noticeable change. Imported by Lionstone International, Manteno, IL

2009 Il Papavero Primitivo Puglia. Primitivo is a grape from Southern Italy which has the same genetic background as Zinfandel. With a deep color, this wine has a nice perfume of plummy fruit with an earthy, cedary nuance. It has nice fruit flavors and is well balanced, if a bit rustic, but could use more complexity and flavor interest. Again, with decanting for several hours and tasting over several days, this wine did not show a noticeable change. The back label modestly says “…this wine is to be savored by the lucky few.” Say what? It is a pleasant wine, but you don’t have to be that lucky to drink this one. And, if you don’t drink it … Well, I’ll leave that up to you –- Recommended. Imported by Lionstone International, Manteno, IL. 1-yellow-star

2009 Barón De Barbón Rioja (Tempranillo) Selection Especial. Tempranillos are gaining in popularity as they are easy to drink and age and gain complexity with time. The wines from Spain are generally very affordable and California is producing some lovely Tempranillos as well (See my notes on Hearst Ranch Winery and Quinta Cruz in earlier articles).This is a really nice Tempranillo with a deep color and a complex perfume of plum, cedar, spice, and earth. It is rich and flavorful with lots of fruit and a cedar, chocolate-tinged complexity. Well structured with good backbone and a long crisp finish, this wine can be consumed now or aged for many years to allow for further softening and complexity to develop. Tasted over three days, the wine opened and began to soften with no signs of oxidation. This is a very good indicator of its aging potential –- Highly Recommended Plus. Imported by Lionstone International, Manteno, IL. 2-n-half-yellow-stars

2010 Schroeder Estate Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Patagonia Argentina. This is a big, dark wine. It has a faint tarry quality underneath the fruit. The wine is initially very closed and tannic without much complexity. With air it did open a bit, but remained tannic and one-dimensional. Tasted over three days there was no change. This is an unknown quantity. Too backward to drink now even with air, and with no pedigree as to aging potential, this is one to pass on. Imported by Lionstone International, Manteno, IL.

2009 Parnell Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley California. Contrasted with the Argentinean Cabernet, this wine is balanced with lovely fruit and complexity. This is a fourth generation estate, but I had never heard of it before tasting this bottle. And, based on this experience, I would say that this is an estate to look for and follow. The wine has a deep color and a lovely perfume of boysenberry, plum, and cedar. On the palate, the wine has complex fruit flavors with hints of spice and cedar and is nicely balanced with a lovely finish. This wine drank beautifully over three days –- Highly Recommended. 2-yellow-stars

2009 Chateau Florie Aude Bordeaux. From the greater area of Bordeaux, this is a pleasant wine. It has a nice perfume with hints of cassis and cedar. It follows through with cassis and cedar notes on the palate and is nicely balanced. It showed virtually no change over two days and is best consumed in the next year or two –- Recommended Imported by Lionstone International Manteno, IL. 1-yellow-star

2009 William Knuttel Pinot Noir Épée Cuvée Sonoma, California. Like the Parnell Estate Cabernet from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma, I had never heard of this wine. It turns out that William Knuttel has a long history of winemaking at wineries such as Saintsbury. This is a wine made under his own label. But, also, like the Cabernet, this is a lovely Pinot Noir and the William Knuttel wines are worth watching. The wine has a deep color and a lovely cherry, berry perfume with faint floral, exotic notes. With lots of fruit, it has lovely balance and is rounded and flavorful with a nice finish. Initially the wine was a bit closed. But on the second day, with air it opened and became very expressive. This note is based on the later tasting –- Highly Recommended Plus. 2-n-half-yellow-stars

Underground Club JTwine From Trader Joe’s – Introduction


I went to one of our two Trader Joe’s in Santa Barbara to make my selections. The goal was to buy as many different red wines as possible for around $90 that I thought would be comparable or better than those from the Discovery Club WSJwine. I have been buying wine and food from Trader Joe’s for over 40 years, long before there was a store in Santa Barbara. Joe Coulombe founded Trader Joe’s in 1958. Actually, the first store was in South Pasadena and was called Pronto Market. The larger Trader Joe’s stores followed in 1967. Back in those olden days, I knew Joe and many of the staff. The goal was always to have really good quality food and beverages at affordable prices. And when it came to wine, back then it included Classified Growth Bordeaux (including First Growths), Burgundies (including DRC), and a wide range of other wines including great values sold under the Trader Joe’s label at prices as low as $0.99 per bottle! Many wines (including wines that were being considered for private label) were tasted by a panel of employees and a few outsiders. From time to time I would sit in on these tastings and the selection process was rigorous and driven by quality and value.

Joe sold the business in 1979 to the late Theo Albrecht who was one of the founders of the German supermarket chain Aldi. Expansion had slowed in the years before the sale, but since then Trader Joe’s has expanded rapidly and now has over 350 stores in 28 states. Today you don’t see the high end wines at Trader Joe’s, but you do find many really good values. The most famous, of course, is the ubiquitous Two Buck Chuck. So for two bucks you can drink it, but by stepping up to the $4-10 range you can find many wines that are much better. There was a very large selection to choose from and I could have easily added a dozen more that would have met my criteria for price and potential quality. The cap was the total amount to be spent. I wound up buying a total of 16 wines for a total cost of about $100.

Underground Club JTwine From Trader Joe’s – Tasting Notes

16 Bottles

2009 Purple Moon Shiraz California. With a deep color, this wine has a perfumed nose showing blackberry fruit with a herbal, smoky undertone. It has lots of blackberry fruit and is rounded and creamy. Not complex, but balanced and very fruity with a nice finish. Tasted over two days the wine held very nicely –- Recommended. $3.99 1-yellow-star

2009 Chariot Gypsy California. From Jim Neal Wines, this wine is a blend of 34% Zinfandel, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petite Sirah, 15% Merlot, and 5% Sangiovese. I don’t know where the chariot gypsy comes in, but based on this blend I guess you could call it the kitchen sink. No matter, it works. The wine has a deep color and a nice perfume of berries and plums with hints of cedar and spice. It is soft, round, and supple with lots of sweet fruit showing a spice and cedar nuance. Tasted over three days, the wine showed no appreciable change –- Recommended Plus. $4.99 Best Buy 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Albero Tempranillo Barrica. The back label says that this wine is made by Spain’s oldest estate bottled winery and that it is made from organically grown grapes. Quite a combination, but, whatever, it is a nice wine. Dark in color, it has a very nice perfume of berry fruit, tinged with cedar, herbs, and spice. Flavorful with nice fruit showing hints of cedar and spice, the wine has good backbone and balanced tannins. Tasted over three days it took awhile for the wine to soften, but with sufficient air it is very nice –- Recommended Plus. Imported by Latitude Wines, Danville, CA $5.99 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2005 Monte Ducay Cariñena Reserva. Cariñena is an area in Northern Spain which was the origin of the Carignane grape. That grape, now known as Cariñena, and is still grown there, but the area is also known for wines made from several different grape varieties including Grenache and Tempranillo. This is a really lovely wine that with age has gained complexity and softness. It has a deep color, just amber at the edge and has a gorgeous perfume of toasted nuts, spice, coconut, and vanilla. With lots of rounded plummy fruit on the palate, the wine has hints of cedar and spice with a faint nuttiness, and a nice finish. Tasted over three days this wine held up beautifully –- Highly Recommended. Imported by Latitude Wines, Danville, CA $5.99 Best Buy 2-yellow-stars

NV Oceana Winery Project Happiness Syrah California. This wine is unusual in several respects. First, I could not find a vintage anywhere on the bottle. So either it is a non-vintage blend (unusual) or they forgot to put the vintage on the label. Considering the statement on the back label I would say that is certainly a possibility. Here’s what it says: “Finally, somebody put it in a bottle, Happiness. Sure took a while though, seeking happiness? We winemakers pondered this one afternoon in the cellar.” (Geez, don’t these guys have anything better to do?). “ Marriage? Kids? Satellite TV? Get your boss fired?” (Double Geez, what’s getting your boss fired got to do with marriage, kids, and satellite TV?) “Remember the 1950s, try to forget the 1980s. Wear seersucker at least once?” (Well, I guess we know that these guys are probably on the senior side of life). “Adopt a dog? Maybe a car? Perhaps you are the box turtle type?” (Gimmee a break, what is this? I am so damn old I still remember turtle soup! ) And it continues, “As bold…” (or is it bald?) “… suppliers of the mischief that ensues upon opening a bottle, we pose the question to you and hope that in the end, you at least believe in the satisfaction of an empty bottle…What makes you happy?” Whew! It made me wonder what was in this bottle and if this was the same stuff these guys were drinking on that fateful afternoon in the cellar? But, undeterred, if not a bit mystified, I plunged into the glass looking for Happiness. Here’s what I found: Dark color, nice fruit and spice in the nose and on the palate, the wine is rounded with nice fruit backed by some tannin and a bit backward. Perhaps it will soften with age, but I did not find that to be the case. No, I didn’t find Happiness, but maybe I did not drink enough. And, I certainly was not unhappy. I did taste the wine over three days and found it little changed. And, yes, still no extra dose of Happiness. But, maybe you should try a large quantity and see what happens to you –- Recommended. $5.99 1-yellow-star

2009 Leonhardt Zinfandel Reserve Dry Creek Valley. This Zinfandel is dark in color and has a nice woodsy, briary, spicy, berry perfume. With lots of spicy, vanilla-tinged fruit, the wine has good backbone and balanced tannin. Tasted over four days the wine softened just a bit and retained its fruit. Still I would drink this wine young for the fruit –- Recommended Plus. $9.99 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Darien Tempranillo Rioja. Dark in color with a lovely perfume of cherry, spice, and cedar, this wine has lovely fruit and flavor with a faint cedary spiciness. It has a very good structure and a nice finish. Tasted over three days the wine was very consistent –- Highly Recommended. Imported by Signature Imports Mansfield, MD $5.99 Best Buy 2-yellow-stars

2009 Castle Rock Pinot Noir Mendicino County. This Pinot Noir is cellared and bottled by Castle Rock meaning that they bought the wine after it was made and bottled it under their label. It has a deep color and a nice spice tinged berry perfume. It is clean, fruity, and rounded with a faint tinge of spice and a nice finish. Tasted over three days the wine did not change. This is one to drink now –- Recommended. $9.99 1-yellow-star

2009 VINTJS Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Oregon. This wine was produced and bottled by Joe Dundee in Oregon for Trader Joe’s. It has a very nice color, and a subdued nose with a faint perfume. It is fruity, rounded, and supple with a nice finish. Tasted over three days there was no change in this wine. This is a wine for early consumption –- Recommended. $8.99 1-yellow-star

2009 Sebastopol Hills Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast. This is a very nice, elegant, and tasty Pinot Noir. It has a very nice color and a lovely perfume showing berry fruit with floral, spice, and herbal tinges. The fruit is balanced and shows a floral, spice nuance with a lovely finish. Tasted over three days this wine improved and gained complexity. This note is based on the wine after a considerable amount of aeration –- Highly Recommended Plus. $9.99 Best Buy 2-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Casella Wines Shiraz Yellow Tail South Eastern Australia. This Shiraz has a dark color and a nice blackberry perfume. With lots of fruit, the wine is rounded and tasty. Not complex, but very nice. Tasted over four days this wine showed no signs of decline, but also did not exhibit any additional flavors or complexity –- Recommended. Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Son, Ltd., Harrison, NY $4.99 1-yellow-star

2009 Casella Wines Shiraz-Cabernet Yellow Tail South Eastern Australia. This blend has a deep color and shows a lovely perfume of spicy blackberry fruit. It has loads of fruit with a nice roundness and balance. It finishes with a touch of spice and is very flavorful. Tasted over three days this wine opened the second day to show a bit more complexity. It definitely benefitted from the aeration –- Recommended Plus. Imported by W.J. Deutsch & Son, Ltd., Harrison, NY $4.99 Best Buy 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 La Granja 360 Tempranillo Cariñena. This wine is made from Tempranillo grown in the Cariñena region of Northern Spain. La Granja 360 means the farm 360. The label depicts a flying pig. Who says pigs don’t fly? Well, according to the back label: “The little pig is flying because it experienced a song which the Spanish children sing when somebody has asked for something which is impossible to realize, has a dream, or says something absurd.” Well, I assume that the Spanish children do not drink wine or at least not too much. But why is it that they sing when somebody has asked for something which is impossible to realize, has a dream, or says something absurd? What do these things have in common that prompts the singing? And, given the scope of these events there must be Spanish children singing pretty much 24/7. That being the case, the Spanish skies must be full of flying pigs! Yikes! Look out below!! I wonder if there are any of the black Iberian pigs up there? If so, maybe the price of the great Bellota ham will drop along with the pigs? But, after all this, which I think is all very cute, does anyone care about the wine that’s in the bottle? If so, read on. Dark in color, the wine has a deep blackberry perfume with a hint of smoke and cedar. It is tasty with lots of blackberry fruit showing a faint smokiness and a nice tannin balance with a clean, crisp finish. Tasted over three days the wine stayed very well and softened a bit –- Recommended. Imported by Evaki, Inc., San Luis Obispo, CA $3.99 1-yellow-star

2009 La Granja 360 Tempranillo/Garnacha Cariñena. This is a blend of Tempranillo and Grenache grown in the Carinena region on the same farm 360 that brought you the flying pig. This time they present a Zebra on the label. I have no idea why the Zebra is there. So far as I know, Zebras don’t fly, but who knows what those Spanish kids are up to? As for the wine, it is deep in color and has a nice perfume with a faint smokiness and a hint of roasted nuts. It is rounded and supple with a nice complexity of roasted nuts and spice intermingled with the fruit. It lasted beautifully over three days – Recommended Plus. Imported by Evaki, Inc., San Luis Obispo, CA $4.99 Best Buy 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Marquis De Montañana Garnacha Calatayud. This wine is from the Calatayud region of Northern Spain. It has a dark color and a nice perfume showing berry fruit with a faint smokiness. Balanced and soft with a nice spice tinged fruit, this wine is easy to drink with a nice finish. Tasted over three days it was very consistent –- Recommended Plus. Imported by Evaki, Inc., San Luis Obispo, CA $4.99 Best Buy 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Aquila D’ Oro Tuscany. The back label says that Tuscany signifies “Super Tuscans.” Well, I guess. But is anything that is not 100% Sangiovese and, therefore, Chianti, classified as “Super Tuscan?” Maybe, but to me this wine is not super. It is nice and it is inexpensive, but that’s it. With a deep color, the wine has a lovely fruity perfume with a hint of smokiness. On the palate it has nice fruit and is very clean and pure with a nice crispness. Tasted over three days the wine was little changed –- Recommended. $3.99 1-yellow-star

Underground Club JTwine From Costco – Introduction

I also chose Costco to buy a selection of wine. Costco is a membership warehouse discount club operating nearly 600 stores in 40 states in the U.S. and internationally. Today they are largest retailer of fine wine in the world. In my area, our store is about 15 miles away in Goleta, California. My wife and I shop there about once a week. But, because Costco follows a policy of carrying goods geared to local markets, the selection of items in individual stores can vary greatly. In the case of the Goleta store, the wine selection is heavily slanted to Santa Barbara wines, most of which are in the $15-$30 range. That’s fine, but the store did not have the selection to accomplish my goal for total price and number of different wines. But it just so happens that I was traveling around quite a bit at the time and stopped in three other Costco stores to complete my selections. I would have not done this had I not happened to be near the stores anyway because the distances to make a dedicated visit would have been cost prohibitive. So, in this regard, it is not strictly an “apples to apples” comparison, although most of the wines were available in all of the other three stores and a few were available in our local store.

As is the case with Trader Joe’s, my history as a customer of Costco goes back over 40 years. But in those days, there was no Costco. The company that preceded Costco was Price Club which was founded by the late Sol Price as a membership discount warehouse store. In fact, he invented this concept which Costco and others follow today. In the late 1970s my wife and I visited and shopped at the first stores in San Diego, California which were about 120 miles from where we lived at the time. Later, when the company went public, our investment management company invested in Price Club for our clients. So I often visited with management and continued to drive long distances to shop at Price Club. Like Joe Coulombe at Trader Joe’s, Sol Price decided to slow expansion. But this was not popular with many of his senior management including a young man by the name of Jim Senegal. Jim left, and joined by Jeffrey Brotman, raised some money, and put together a team to open a “new and improved” version of Price Club which they named Costco. (This was a daunting challenge since the late Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart which is now the largest retailer in the world, said then that Price Club was the greatest retailer in the world. In fact, he thought so much of Price Club that he attempted to duplicate it through his Sam’s Club stores.)

But Costco and Jim Senegal and his team were not intimidated. To the contrary, they hit the ground running at full speed, forged ahead, and never looked back. They constantly improved the variety and quality of a wide variety of products and foods, including wine.

All the while they a maintained a strict price discipline that assured that customers were always getting great values. Soon it became very clear that neither Price Club nor Sam’s Club was a match for Costco. Sol Price and his son Robert, as well as the rest of the management and shareholders of Price Club, soon decided it was better to join ‘em than to fight ‘em. So the two chains were combined. And, with Jim Senegal and Costco as the leaders, the Price Club stores were converted to Costco. Costco is simply amazing. In my opinion, there is not a store in the world that can match them for selection, quality, and value. And buying a lot of things there, including wine, is a “treasure hunt.” By that, you never know exactly what you will find, but if you see something you like you had better buy it because may not be there the next time you go back.

I wound up buying nine different wines for a total of about $100. Two of the wines were under the Kirkland Signature brand. This is Costco’s private label brand. It is used on a wide variety of products, but always all products bearing this brand must meet the same objective. That is, to offer the same quality or often better quality than competing national brands, but at a significantly lower price. In the case of Kirkland Signature wines, there are always quite a few available, but they change frequently and not all wines are available at all stores.

Underground Club JTwine From Costco – Tasting Notes

9 Bottles2008 Santa Ema Carménère Reserve Barrel Select Cachapoal Valley Chile. Carménère is today a relatively unknown grape, although its ancient origins lie in Bordeaux where it is thought to have been a clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. In the 1850s it was imported to South America with many other Bordeaux grape varieties. Today the largest plantings are in Chile, where until the early 1990s, the grape was thought to be Merlot. Since then, with careful research and vine selection, there has been a resurgence of Carménère. This is a lovely, complex example. It has a dark color and a deep perfume with hints of chocolate, spice, green olive, and herbs. It is rounded, rich, and intense with lots of blackberry fruit accented by green olive, spice, and cedar. It is a large scaled wine, but has balanced tannin and alcohol and is very appealing. Over three days the wine softened and showed no sign of decline. This is a good indication of aging potential –- Highly Recommended. Imported by T.G.I.C Imports Woodland Hills, CA $7.99 2-yellow-stars

2009 Kirkland Signature Malbec Mendoza Argentina. This is Costco’s private label brand. It is a great example of the value that the brand can deliver. The wine is dark in color with a deep perfume showing mulberry, blackberry, and cassis with a faint hint of vanilla and spice. It has lots of rich, supple fruit and is rounded, lush and concentrated with great balance and a cedary nuance on the finish. Delicious now, this Malbec should age gracefully for many years. Tasted over four days, it remained delicious, softened a bit, and showed no sign of decline –- Outstanding. Imported by Misa Imports, Dallas, TX $7.99 Best Buy 3-yellow-stars

2009 Colosi Nero D’Avola Sicily Italy. Known as “Black of Avola” in Italian, this grape has existed in Sicily for hundreds of years. It is considered to be the most important red wine grape of Sicily and one of Italy’s most important indigenous varieties. It is often compared to new world Shirazes. This wine is impressively rich with very ripe fruit that stops just short of being over the top. After three days, the wine retained its intense fruitiness, but developed a faintly jammy fruit quality. Based on that, I would say that this wine is best enjoyed young for the intense fruit. It is dark in color with a great perfume of cassis and blackberry. Loaded with cassis and blackberry fruit on the palate, it is lush, rounded and very tasty –- Highly Recommended Plus. Imported by Vias Imports Ltd., NY, NY $10.99 Best Buy 2-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Doña Paula Estate Malbec Mendoza Argentina. This is a stunning Malbec with complexity, depth and balance. It is dark in color with an intense perfume showing hints of chocolate, cedar, spice, and cassis. Rich and full on the palate, the wine shows a lot of lush cassis fruit with chocolate, cedar and spice nuances. With balanced tannin and good backbone, it has great structure for aging. Tasted over three days, the wine softened just a bit, but basically retained all of its fruit and complexity and showed no sign of decline –- Outstanding Plus. Imported by Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, AL $10.99 Best Buy 3-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Cameron Hughes Pinot Noir Lot 203 Russian River Valley. This Pinot Noir has a deep color and a faint perfume. It is grapey and fruity with herbal nuances. It’s not bad, but it is lacking in fruit, complexity and balance. Tasted over three days the wine went nowhere and started to decline in the third day. $11.99

2007 Monte Antico Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon Tuscany Italy. This wine is mostly Sangiovese (85%) with 5% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. The blend is very attractive. The wine has a deep color and a lovely perfume of cherry, cedar, and spice. It has lovely tart cherry fruit with cedar and spice nuances and a lovely crisp finish. Tasted over three days the wine began to soften and retained its balance, fruit and intensity with no sign of decline. This was terrific with a tomato sauce pasta –- Highly Recommended. Imported by Empson USA, Alexandria, VA $7.99 2-yellow-stars

2009 Kirkland Signature Meritage Rutherford Napa Valley. Produced and bottled by DC Flynt MW Selection, this wine is composed of 70% Cabernet, 15% Merlot, !2% Petit Verdot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. It is a nice blend. The wine has a deep color and a very nice perfume of plum, cedar, and spice. The same components follow through on the palate and show an additional faint dusty quality. Balanced, supple and rounded, this is a very nice wine for early consumption. Tasted over two days, it showed virtually the same –- Recommended Plus. $13.99 1-n-half-yellow-stars

2009 Lamadrid Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Agrelo Argentina. This is a balanced, very tasty Cabernet that should improve with additional age. It has a deep color and a gorgeous perfume of berries and cassis with hints of spice and cedar. On the palate the wine has lovely cedary-tinged fruit and a very nice structure and balance with a nice finish. Tasted over four days, the wine softened a bit and showed no sign of decline. It should repay aging for a few years –- Highly Recommended. Imported by Vinos Del Sol, Corralitus, CA $10.99 2-yellow-stars

2008 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot Indian Wells Columbia Valley Washington. This is a really delicious Merlot. It has a deep color and a gorgeous perfume of blueberry, cassis, cedar and spice and a faint exotic nuance. With heaps of layered fruit showing a faint exotic, cedary tinge, the wine is supple, lush and rounded with gorgeous balance and a long finish. Tasted over three days, this Merlot was terrific from the git-go and maintained its fruit and flavors with no sign of decline –- Outstanding. $12.99 3-yellow-stars

The Score

Discovery Club WSJwine

12 wines total.
8 different wines.
Price Range N/A
Average cost per bottle $7.50
Total cost $90.

1 bottle selections:
2 Highly Recommended Plus 2-n-half-yellow-stars
1 Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars
1 Recommended 1-yellow-star

2 bottle selections:
1 Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars
1 Recommended 1-yellow-star
2 Not Recommended


Comments: This selection had the highest percentage of Not Recommended wines. This is particularly disappointing since they both were from the 2 bottle selection.

Underground Club JTwine Trader Joe’s Selections

16 different wines total
Price range $3.99 to $9.99
Average cost per bottle $6.25
Total cost $100
3 Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars
6 Recommended Plus 1-n-half-yellow-stars
7 Recommended 1-yellow-star

Comments: This selection had amazing consistency in a range of very low price wines. It also had by far the greatest number of wines. All were Recommended 1-yellow-star or better. Over 50% of the wines were Recommended Plus 1-n-half-yellow-stars or better. The average per bottle cost of $6.25 was the lowest of the three selections and many of the wines represented the best values.



Underground Club JTwine Costco Selections

9 different wines total
Cost $100
Price range $7.99 to $13.99
Average cost per bottle $11.10
1 Outstanding Plus (highest rated wine of the tasting) 3-n-half-yellow-stars
2 Outstanding 3-yellow-stars
4 Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars
1 Recommended Plus 1-n-half-yellow-stars
1 Not Recommended

Comments: This selection had the only wines rated Outstanding 3-yellow-stars or better and had the highest scoring wine 3-n-half-yellow-stars. These wines represented 1/3 of the total selection. And approximately 80% of the selection was Highly Recommended 2-yellow-stars or better. Only 1 wine was Not Recommended. The selection also had the highest average cost per bottle at $11.10. But this is very reasonable considering the overall quality which far exceeded the other selections. In all fairness, as I mentioned earlier, I had to go to 4 different Costco stores to get this selection. However, with the exception of the Costco store (Goleta, California) closest to where I live, I believe I could have made a selection exclusively from any of the other Costco stores I visited that would have approximated these results. But, no question, this is a caveat. You may not have a Costco store near you or your Costco store may carry an entirely different and/or reduced number of wines.

The Final Verdict

  1. Underground Club JTwine Costco Selections
  2. Underground Club JTwine Trader Joe’s Selections
  3. Discovery Club WSJwine

Post Script

So there are the final results of the three-way shoot out. Please remember that the wine notes and scores reflect my taste. They should be used to match against your tastes and then you should decide what you like and don’t like. In this way, you can get away from buying a wine by the number and not knowing whether you should like it or not based on the number. You can look at the wine note on each wine and, if it sounds like something you would like, give the wine a try. And, should any of you who have not already formulated your personal tastes in wine decide to do this for yourself, I would suggest you simply do a random selection of different types of wine based on price. On the other hand, if you have already formulated personal taste preferences, again choose wine that reflects YOUR taste, being sure that they are wines you have never tasted. And, I cannot stress enough to not be overly dependent on numbers. Make sure the wine descriptions match what YOU are looking for in the wine. Should you ask for help in making your selection, carefully consider the criteria on which the advice is based. In short, be adventuresome in making your selections and don’t be afraid of making a few bad picks! (In fact, I even have a possible solution for bad picks which I will share in a future article. Stay tuned!) But, always remember, buying unknown wine is like turning over rocks. And, you will never know what is there until you turn the rock over!

Post a Comment

16 comments for “The Dueling Inexpensive Red Wine Line-Ups — Which Ones Went To The Drinking Round And Which Ones Went Down The Drain?”

  • Gopal says:

    interesting blog. I found it doing a search for Latitude Wines of Danville, which imports the Portes De Bourdeaux red blend that I bought from Trader Joe’s recently.

    I will have to keep an eye out for some of those Costco wines in the future.

    Another store that I like for $10-15 wines is K&L Wines in San Francisco, which has a tendency to “predict” via staff picks what the small bistros and cafes around town will be serving (at a steep markup) in the coming months.

    • John Tilson says:

      Glad you found us. Welcome to the Underground.
      K & L is one of the best retailers on the West Coast. Take a look at Gary Westby’s blog on the K&L website. He is their Champagne buyer and recently did an interview with me which I think you will find of interest.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • edwin rey says:

    trying out wines looking for the best in quality and price

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Edwin,
      That is a noble goal that we all continue to seek. The answer is to learn all you can, taste all you can, and develop your own tastes. In the end, nothing else matters! One of the goals of the Underground is to help people develop wine independence based on personal taste!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Andrew says:

    Enjoyed the article. However, as a satisfied member of the WSJ wine club I thought I’d point out a possible flaw in the methodology here.

    How did you select the wines from TJs and Costco: was it completely random or did you give yourself some discretion. If the latter, I imagine you “leaned” toward, at least in a few cases, some all-stars in the price range you knew something about regardless of how much you may have tried to avoid doing so. With WSJ you save the time and trouble of going to the store and choosing the wine since WSJ has pre-selected 12-bottle selections ready to go. Just click.

    Anyway, thanks for the article.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Andrew. No, I did not know any of the wines I selected. The only two producers I remember tasting before were Santa Ema and Ste. Michelle. But, I had never had the two wines from them that I selected. I based my selections on price with an objective of trying to stay below $10.
      I certainly am not trying to be an arbitrator of taste. I only offer my opinions based on my personal taste. And, for me, it was easy to select better wines for less money than was offered by the WSJ. However, if you are happy with the WSJ selections then you should stick with them. But, never stop experimenting with other wines. That is the key to learning your own preferences.
      FYI I plan on doing an article on very inexpensive red wines later this year. Hopefully, I can keep the average price point around $5! What I do not like so much will go into the Blending Game! Later, I may try inexpensive white wines in the same price range. And, lastly I may go to around $10 for red and white wines and see what I can find. Again, what doesn’t make the cut will go into the Blending Game.
      Stay tuned and please pass the UNDERGROUND on to your friends.
      In Vino Veritas,
      PS Some on my recent reviews of inexpensive wines have uncovered some real gems. You should check them out on the website.

  • Matt says:

    Thanks for doing the testing. I have been considering doing almost the exact same thing, except with an addition of Sam’s Club wines.

    I do have two questions for you though.
    1.How are you storing the wine as you taste it over the 3 days?
    2. Do you decant any of the wine before you drink it, or taste from the bottle?


    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Matt,
      No I do not normally decant. Some times I will decant if the wines seem very tight and closed. I pour the wines at cellar temperature for the reds and refrigerator temperature for the whites. I taste them over 1-2 hours as they warm up. The I cork the bottles and put them in the refrigerator. When I am ready to taste the wines again I take them out about 1 hour before serving. This is done usually over 3 days. But sometimes it can be a week or more. I never have had a problem with oxidation tasting young wines this way. It does not work for old wines, but it does for young wines and gives you a really good impression of the wines. I will write an article on the process using some examples at some point in the future. Stay tuned.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Diane Klammer says:

    We live in Colorado, having moved from California 10 years ago, so we miss Trader Joes and Costco. The only Costco that sells wine is in Denver, as the blue laws allow only one retail establishment per state to have an adjoining liquor dept. This is abysmal and hopefully will change. However, we have so excellent liquor stores in Boulder with an astounding selections of wine. I tried the WSJ wine club and it was disappointing from the start. I missed some of the more fruit forward wines from California. I tried to order their Pinot Noir collection recently and it was never shipped. I had to call back to be told it was out of stock. So the service is as dicey as the wine. I will select my own from now on.

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Diane,
      Thanks for your comments.
      For sure, some state laws make it more difficult for wine drinkers to find a lot of wines. But, so long as you have at least one good wine store nearby and can get wines in the mail, there should be plenty to choose from.
      And, yes, it is best to choose your own wines and find the ones that you like. Then matching those wines with food is the last challenge. But, always remember wine is just another good group. So, like with food, if you do not find something you like play the blending game! It’s fun and you can make some really good wine blends.
      I have written several articles on the subject that I would encourage you to read if you have not already done so. After all, I am, among other things, the Blending Man!

      In Vino Veritas,
      John Tilson

  • Andrew says:

    This is fantastic! I just received that offer from WSJ today and was wondering about the quality of the wines in the package.
    Thanks so much for your insights!

    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for the kind words.
      Buying pre-selected wines is a way to learn about wines. But, the point I was making is that it is more fun and less expensive to do it yourself!
      Happy hunting! Please pass the UNDERGROUND on to your friends!!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Charlie Delle Donne says:

    Nice job with “shoot-out” as you have given me a few additional choices @Costco. I don’t shop @Trader Joes but did see the WSJ ad. See you, Charlie

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Charlie. It’s good to be a Costco shopper and shareholder!
      We’re in the same place. If you are up our way please let us know.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Ctash says:

    Of course you are offering a great price on good wine, there is no doubt about it. All of the local and exotic wines you listed are some of the most popular and sought after wines in the world.

    Pairing tricks and tips would be the next best thing that will be helpful to individuals looking to sip their wine while nibbling on a good steak or a delightful seafood dish.

    As far as educating people interested in wine products your website exceeds the normal “explanation” of wine expectations and goals of the wine consumer.

    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks so much. I guess the great thing is that we have identified all these great wines that are know all over the world, yet the prices are inexpensive. Bravo for us. And I believe, as I always have, is the best thing to so is to keep it simple. When you make anything too complicated, I think that is not a sign of knowledge. but a sign of confusion. Please stay tuned and spread the word. There is lots more to come.
      In Vino Veritas, John Tilson

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