Attack of the $3 Wines

If my Metro Transit experience is typical, only three subjects are deemed suitably uncontroversial ground for conversation among strangers on the bus: lousy weather, the most recent lousy performance by the home team, and Metro's ever-more-lousy service. So imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago another subject came bubbling up among my fellow passengers: wine. $3 wine ($2.99 wine, to be precise) available by the bountiful caseful thanks to the ever-vigilant bargain-hunting buyers of the California-based grocery chain Trader Joe's. T-Joe's, as its habitué³ call it, has come to dominate the "discount gourmet" grocery niche by relying heavily on odd lots, closeouts, and special purchases to stock its crowded shelves, and its offerings in the wine area are always priced to stop bargain-conscious shoppers in their tracks. But the current offerings are breaking new price ground, generating a buzz that continues to grow. And no wonder, when you taste what T-Joe's is selling under the "La Boca" label: vintage-dated chard, cab, merlot, even a malbec, all from Mendoza province in northwest Argentina. Settled in the main by emigrants from Italy, Argentina has long produced vast quantities of wine, and 70 percent of it comes from Mendoza, where "giant wineries with vat capacities which make the mind reel punctuate the featureless landscape" (Hugh Johnson). Until the Argentine economy collapsed last year, there was little profit and no point in exporting wine; with the peso worth a third in today's dollars what it was in 2000, Argentine wine, even bottled at the source, can undersell virtually any U.S. bottling of comparable quality. Trader Joe's is moving a lot of La Boca these days, but the brand's popularity may have a downside. Because alongside the La Boca bottlings stand stacks of cases of wine bearing the Charles Shaw label. Once a middle-quality family-owned California winery, Charles Shaw has been for a decade a house label of the Central Valley bulk manufacturer Bronco Wine Co. As toilet tissue or vitamin pill manufacturers produce anonymous products to order for Costco to sell under its Kirkland label, Bronco manufactures wine for T-Joe's to sell under the "Charles Shaw" label. So far so good. But what happens to Trader Joe's house-brand mainstay when people buy a bottle each of La Boca and Charles Shaw and discover that Argentinian-made plonk blows U.S.-made plonk off the table, as it did in our own in-house tasting? By introducing Argentina's beef wine to his customers, has Trader Joe killed his own cash cow? Only timeand the course of the dollar-peso exchange ratewill tell. GET THIS May we call your attention to the Betz Family's newly released 2000 Clos de Betz red table wine. In limited supply and priced at around $28, this Bordeaux-style blend is as supple and sumptuous as many Washington wines three and four times the price, and ready to drink now to boot, with no years of cellarage required to bring it to fruition.

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