EVERYBODY LOVES a wine bargain. Retail chains reflect the zeitgeist, so they’re rushing to cash in by creating house brands to keep their costs down and customers buying. The latest is US giant Walmart Inc., which rolled out its new Winemakers Selection collection in 1,100 of its nearly 4,000 stores in May.
My first reaction was a yawn. Walmart wines? Seriously, could they be any good? I was intrigued when Nichole Simpson, the company’s senior wine buyer, claimed that the chain’s $11 to $16 bottles “drink like they cost $30 or $40.”
After sampling all 10 of them, I’d say they don’t outkick their category as much as that. But more than half of them, from a bright, spicy French rosé to a savory Italian Chianti Riserva, are quite a bit better than I expected. In fact, all display authentic character of the region they’re from, and they are — mostly — good deals. (Ratings below.)
In a telephone interview, Simpson explains that each of the wines is made by a family winery in California, Italy, or France specifically for Walmart, though she declines to identify her sources. (The company, like foodie-on-a-budget-favorite Trader Joe’s Co., is famously tight-lipped about details.) Unlike most supermarket brands, each Walmart wine has attractive, individually designed labels with helpful information for newbies on the back one. They don’t look like cheapies you have to hide in the fridge or pour into a decanter if your snob brother-in-law is coming for dinner.
The price range is higher than you might expect, too, as if Walmart is deliberately trying to go upscale and is using wine to reinforce an image of quality for its grocery section — and maybe, the entire store. (Target Corp., on the other hand, recently launched its California Roots line at $5 a bottle — and the wine tastes like it).
After studying the big data Walmart accrues on what its customers want and buy, Simpson says: “I saw a gap in the market.” Her 18-month process, from concept to bottle, included months of tasting hundreds of wines to find winemakers to work with in various areas. These are not repurposed bulk wines, she says, but — in today’s buzzword — highly curated regional selections.
So far, they’re available in 37 states. Surprisingly, the line up doesn’t include any whites, but Simpson assured me they’re coming. One safe bet will surely be a snappy New Zealand sauvignon blanc. She hopes to extend the range to as many as 30 labels; a few might cost as much as $25.
How do these wines stack up against those at Trader Joe’s? The 477-store, 41-state chain, which has a cult following for such discount luxuries as private-label Parisian macarons, has offered wines for more than four decades. In a current TJ podcast, Chris Condit, the head of vino, said the stores carry about 500 bottles, all chosen through a tasting panel.
The best-known exclusive brand at Trader Joe’s is Charles Shaw, introduced in 2002, which earned the moniker “Two-buck Chuck” for its $1.99 price tag. The wines now cost $2.99 and are still forgettable — suitable for undergrads who want a buzz and don’t like beer. Nevertheless, TJ has sold nearly one billion bottles of the stuff, and it just rolled out a new Charles Shaw organic line.
The more expensive Trader Joe’s reserve wine brand (several quality levels, with platinum the highest) sell in roughly the same price range as Walmart’s, so I rounded up 15 bottles to compare. Many are tastier than you might expect; others, especially the pinot noirs, not so much. Blends and sources keep changing — you must check the lot number to ensure you’re getting the same wine each time — as the reserve wines are made in limited batches and don’t all turn up in every TJ store. The best disappear quickly, as did the terrific cabernet from Red Mountain in Washington State that sold out just before I filed this column. The rare platinum reserve bottles that go for $14.99 don’t last, either. As of this writing, all the TJ wines I recommend below are available in Manhattan.
It’s true that many wines from individual producers offer more personality at equally low prices: Chateau Ste. Michelle dry riesling sells for $9; Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages can be had for $10, as can Gabbiano Chianti Classico. The new 2016 Mouton-Cadet Blanc at $12 tastes like it could cost nearly twice that. But even these well-known labels aren’t found everywhere.
The biggest virtues of Walmart and Trader Joe’s wines are value for money and one-stop shopping with your groceries, which is nothing to sneer at.
Here are my picks of the best, ranked by rating on a scale of zero to 10.
THE BEST WALMART WINEMAKER SELECTION WINES
• 2017 Grenache Rosé ($11) — Produced in the Languedoc region of France, it’s spicy and bright and doesn’t have the synthetic cotton candy taste of many cheap rosés. Slurp this one by a pool. 6.5/10
• 2016 Grenache Pays d’Oc ($11) — This soft-textured, mellow red has some zingy fruit and a balanced of smoky-earthy-fruity flavors. (The rich, peppery 2016 Syrah Pays d’Oc is almost as good.) 6.5/10
• 2014 Chianti Reserva ($16) — Dry and earthy, this everyday drink-me red has the savory, sour cherry character of an pleasant Italian Chianti and is superior to Walmart’s simple Chianti Classico. 7/10
• 2015 Sangiovese Sanguis Jovis ($11) — Full-bodied, with ripe red fruit flavors, it’s another lively wine from Tuscany made from sangiovese grapes. It’s richer and rounder than the Chianti, with more tannin. 7.5/10
• 2017 Cabernet Franc ($11) — This juicy red from the south of France was my best-tasting Walmart wine and the best value for money, too. The aromas are herbs and violets; there’s warm fruit and even a little elegance. Grab it. 8/10
THE BEST TRADER JOE’S BRAND WINES
• 2014 Reserve Meritage Monterey County, Lot 168 ($10) — With fruity aromas and soft earth and fruit flavors, this tastes as if it includes a lot of merlot. 6.5/10
• 2016 Reserve Petite Sirah Paso Robles, Lot 143 ($10) — This intense red is peppery and bold, with lots of dark fruit flavors, energy, and verve. It’s also very smooth-textured: ideal to accompany grilled meat. 7/10
• 2016 Grower’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc California ($5) — A super-drinkable white from organically grown grapes, it has clean, clear flavors, with some spiciness and a mere 11.5 percent alcohol. Amazing for the price. 7/10
• 2016 Reserve GSM Dry Creek Valley ($10) — GSM stands for the blend’s grapes—grenache, mourvedre, and syrah. This lush red is all warm spice and dark-toned fruit, with hints of leather and tobacco. 7/10
• 2016 Grand Reserve Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Lot 87 ($13) — Lush lemony flavors, appealing floral aromas, and a bit of zingy acidity make this white — one of several TJ chardonnays — a deal. 7.5/10
THE WORST WINES FROM WALMART AND TRADER JOE’S
• NV Red Blend ($11) — This Italian red blend is warm and rich, but way more generic tasting than the other wines. 5/10
• NV Winemakers Selection Sparkling Rosé ($13) — This was my least favorite Walmart wine. The gummy aftertaste doesn’t make you want to take another sip. 4/10
• 2016 Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Chardonnay Organically Grown ($3.99) — Ugh! This white, part of TJ’s new organically grown Charles Shaw line, tastes simple and synthetic. 2/10
• 2016 Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw Shiraz ($2.99) — This has won awards, but I can’t figure out why. The rough taste of burnt matches lurks underneath the fruit, and there’s not much else. 1/10 — Elin McCoy, Bloomberg