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We were sitting around a table at a midwestern microbrewery. My uncle, after taking a sip of a pilsner that the brewery claimed was brewed according to the Bavarian beer purity law, asked me how much I knew about beer. “Enough to enjoy drinking it,” I replied. He took another sip and said, “Well, you should be a connoisseur of at least something.” I knew he had a penchant for fine wines and enjoyed taking my aunt to Napa, so it made sense he would say such a thing. Personally, I know just enough about beer and whiskey to know what flavors my palate should expect, but I would never consider myself some kind of aficionado. I wasn’t really an aficionado of anything, at least until I started drinking wine regularly.
I discovered that red wine was one of the few things I could drink that was delicious and reasonably healthy. A glass or two per evening is supposedly good for your heart health and doesn’t make you gain weight the way beer and other liquors do, with the exception of rye whiskey. But for a long time I thought good wine required a $20 minimum per bottle price tag. That is, until I started experimenting with Trader Joe’s wine section.
Most Trader Joe’s veterans know the Two Buck Chuck. TJs buys the dregs of expensive wines from nice wineries and sells it for a few bucks per bottle. Decent stuff for the high volume drinker, but I discovered for not much more money I could get even better wine not just from stateside, but from overseas. There were many familiar names from overseas, as European wine for the most part is not over-corporatized with catchy brand names and trendy-looking labels. There were Cotes du Rhones, Tuscan red blends, Bordeauxs, Chateauneuf du Papes (a distinct type of wine from the Rhone Valley), and Spanish riojas. Most bottles were under $15. Hell, many were even under $10 per bottle, and they were all as good, if not better, than any $20-plus bottle of wine I’ve had.
I educated and familiarized myself with some of these wines. I know the difference between Montepulciano the Italian village and the Montepulciano grape, which isn’t even grown near the village of Montepulciano. I know that Italians are good enough wine blenders to make the wine taste like it came from one grape, while tasty French blends are clearly blends, but still taste good. I know Bordeauxs are very sensitive to oxidation, and therefore are best finished within a couple of evenings. What’s crazy is that some great Cotes du Rhones and Tuscan blends you can buy at TJs for as cheap as $5.99 per bottle completely blow away highly rated California wines.
The more you learn, the more you taste, and the more you know, the more you realize that you can drink a fancy glass of wine with your pinkie up without breaking your wallet. More locations are now catching up to the price competition of TJs and are offering similar wines at a similar, albeit not as low, price tag. What’s the point of boxed wine anymore when you can get a tasty, quality wine not loaded with sugar for a similar price?
I love how America has so many options that we can experience many luxuries previously reserved for the very well-to-do at affordable prices. I don’t think it’s grubby. I love that I’m becoming a cheap wine connoisseur among the bourgeois. Leave the high price tag wines for the people who need the status symbol, I’m just in it for the wine..