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Trader Joe’s Wine Aisle

April 15, 2011

As part of the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 2.0 I doubled down on the effort to send a message to Trader Joe’s by getting the store listed in the 2011 Best of the Capital Region results.

Granted, this is a secondary effort, and it’s a daunting one at that. Since almost everyone shops for groceries, almost everyone has an opinion on the best store. But really in the area, we only have three real supermarkets to choose from, Price Chopper, Hannaford and Walmart. Given Price Chopper’s regional roots it has won handily for the past few years I’ve been tracking the poll.

Breaking into a three-way category with a fourth smaller business is a daunting task.

As fate would have it the Best Wine Store category is in a very similar situation. There are really only three major wine stores in the area: Exit 9, All Star, and Empire. I suppose there could be an argument to made that one of the smaller places is actually better like F.L.O.W. or Delaware Plaza. Perhaps I should be campaigning for one of them.

But I fully expect the results in this category to contain some kind of split between the big three merchants in town. And honestly, choosing the best among the three is splitting hairs. So I really feel fine mucking about with a write in campaign for Trader Joe’s both here and under Best Supermarket.

Not everyone was convinced by the wisdom of this decision.

Today though I want to focus on the Trader Joe’s wine experience, because it’s clear that there are some people out there who just don’t get it. And that’s fine. But I’d like to try and get them to understand, if at all possible. Here is what Scott Lemieux had to say:

I can see a case for citing it in the grocery store category. But in wine store? I don’t get that at all. I really don’t understand voting for a national chain that is substantially inferior by any standard to the local independents, where you can also get drinkable cheap wine but in the context of much better selection.

So here’s the thing. You may go to Trader Joe’s with a shopping list, or a desire to pick up a few certain things. But that’s not what the store is about. It is more about serendipity. This applies to food as well as wine, but let’s just talk about wine.

Before Two-Buck Chuck came along, Trader Joe’s already had a reputation for being a good place to shop for tasty cheap wine. And while the Charles Shaw may have flown off the shelves, I think it may have tarnished the store’s reputation a bit.

My understanding is that the first bottles of the stuff were actually pretty good, but subsequent bottlings declined in quality. But those who were buying cases of wine for less than $30 weren’t complaining. I never had any that I enjoyed. It was a lot like cheap jug or box wine, but instead of coming with a screw top and a handle or in corrugated cardboard, it came with a cork in a glass bottle. Classy.

But the wine shopping I enjoyed at TJs before T.B.C. is the same wine shopping I enjoy today.

Because amid the bottles of private label wines that have no real varietal character to speak of, there are occasionally things that are very special. And on rare occasions one may find that the prices on these wines are ridiculously low, like a quarter of retail.

In the past, I’ve found highly regarded wines that retailed for over thirty dollars a bottle priced at less than ten bucks.

Sometimes it has to do with a place going out of business. Other times it’s about a winery moving stock out of its cellars to make room for the next vintage, or selling down their inventory of an old vintage, so they can start selling the newer one.

The thing is that wine surplus happens. And these are amazing times to be a wine buyer. It’s even better if you can be a wine buyer with a cool dark place to lay down some bottles for a year or two. But I haven’t found a merchant out here that seems to buy opportunistically. It requires a customer base that is willing to take a chance on something they’ve never heard of before. It also requires a large store with significant buying power to relieve a winery of its excess inventory.

Frankly, it may be for the best. Trader Joe’s really encouraged me to buy a lot more wine than I needed. Because their stock was ever changing, if there was something that looked promising, you might need to buy it all up that day. With closeouts, once they are gone, they are gone for good.

It’s a dangerous place, but it is also a lot of fun. And in all seriousness, their pricing and selection encourages people to become more adventurous wine drinkers. So while they may not have a broad selection of the world’s great wines, Trader Joe’s is a damn fine wine store.

And don’t forget, only 8 more days to vote in the Times Union Best of the Capital Region poll.  Here is the ballot that I have submitted, for your consideration

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2011 9:08 am

    I’ve never been to a Trader Joe’s wine shop, so I can’t speak to it. That, in part, is why I didn’t vote for it. The Trader Joe’s I’ve been to (Commack, Hadley, Commack, suburban Philadelphia, Scarsdale, and Worcester … did I miss any? I don’t think so) did not have wine shops. Friends from the west coast have spoken of it, but not enough to make an impression on me. I know my mother’s coworkers like to go to the one in NYC to “stock up” when they’re down there for work.

    It’s funny – friends of mine who are planning to move (back) to Portland in the next 6 months (she’s from there; he is from the East Coast but met her while living there; she moved here with him, now they’re moving back), have talked about opening a boutique package store that sells specialty beer and wine, because they don’t really have anything like that in Oregon. They have it in the supermarkets. Higher end supermarkets even have sommeliers on staff (?!). I just think it’s interesting, and as much as I support the wine-in-grocery-stores legislation (because I think it’s stupid to NOT allow it), I do love that the result is that we do have such boutique, knowledgeable small businesses readily available.

    As to your point about buying opportunistically – All Star does, or at least they used to. Yes, it’s usually something “safer,” but I remember a few years back getting a couple bottles of a *divine* Zinfandel from the Russian River Valley for under $20. It was a steal, to say the least.

    I still went with Capital Wine and Spirits on Lark St. They run a great shop in there with a lot of great, boutique offerings and good prices on them. I also love their First Friday wine tastings. :)

  2. April 15, 2011 10:40 am

    I’m having a hard time understanding your reasoning here, and I am not invoking the “You have to BE in Albany to be the Best in Albany” argument. (But I do feel that way; sorry.) I frequently stop and shop at Empire Wine. I usually end up there for one reason. I am looking for a specific wine. I tasted it at a tasting. I read about it. I heard about it. I went to WineSearcher.com looking for it. More often than not, the WineSearcher results will show that Empire has it – AND at the lowest or close to lowest price in NY State. (Don’t trust me on this; you can look it up.) So I shop there frequently. Why would anyplace else be my favorite? Because they have a really interesting selection of inexpensive wines that I never heard of but I really should try? Not. But that’s just me. Other than that, I agree with everything you said :-)

  3. April 15, 2011 1:36 pm

    I appreciate your valiant efforts, but I’m still not entirely convinced. When I was in NYC, I actually got some value out of the TJ’s wine shop on 14th St., because the neighborhood wine shops in Astoria were terrible. But Albany has excellent wine shops, and not just the very useful big independents. The New Scotland and Slingerlands wine shops replicate the “quirky affordable bottles” experience very well, I think, and I worry that a TJ’s wine shop could drive places like that out of business.

    I also agree that Isiria that All-Star finds some excellent discounts.

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