Welcome to the wine shop tasting edition of Squid Ink, an occasional roundup of current offerings at select local wine shops. Take note of the word “select,” as it basically means those we can afford. As in, this writer is not reimbursed for sips of any kind (probably a good thing) and so the wines must be within a certain price range. Translation: Under $20, half that price wouldn't stink.

Fortunately, that works out just fine in L.A., where we may be lacking in master sommeliers (Michael Shearin, how's that next level going?), but we make up for it in our eclectic range of wine shops. From the wine geeks like Lou Amdur to Italophiles and sure, corporate types like Trader Joe's, you can find plenty of folks offering up reasonably priced tastes around our metropolis. Did we just give a compliment to urban sprawl? Blame it on too much wine. If we find wines we like, we'll tell you that, too. And by all means, please share your own specific bottle loves/hates from the wine shops we review. Sharing is what wine drinking is all about.

We're kicking off the tasting round at our local Trader Joe's simply because we happened to notice an extensive wine aisle revamp recently. Those Two Buck Chuck times change, right? So we hoped.

Bordeaux Still Life With Green Peppers; Credit: J. Garbee

Bordeaux Still Life With Green Peppers; Credit: J. Garbee

The Wine Shop (or aisle): The Trader Joe's Nearest You

The Selection: A scatterbrained collection of wines that involves an ever-changing assortment with a few never-ending bottles (Two Buck Chuck). But with so many bottles under $10, gosh, even under $5, it's almost impossible not to try at least one or two on each olive oil run. Fine, a dozen bottles.

The Best Deals: We returned to our local TJ's for an extensive tasting after lucking into a $3 2008 Il Valore Sangiovese that has become our go-to table wine when that rent check is due and there's not much left in the wine budget. Is it brilliant? Of course not. But unlike Two Buck Chuck, which we find fat and flat, we actually don't dread having a glass of this while we whip up pasta. A little acidity goes a long way in making a cheap wine more interesting. Or maybe we just have a thing for Italians. Quite possible.

As for that 20-bottle Trader Joe's tasting after our Il Valore high, suffice it to say that we should have stuck with the Sangiovese. Several that we tasted were so dominated by a strong vegetal, green pepper flavor (often signifying under-ripened grapes) they went straight to the cooking bin — two $5 Bordeaux among them (a 2008 Les Caves Joseph and a 2009 Les Portes de Bordeaux, in the photo above).

We tasted through mediocre Chablis, some forgettable French Pinots, Chiantis best left for the spaghetti sauce, a Portuguese Vihno Verde that soon turned into a cocktail. We did spy a 2009 Côtes du Rhône from Perrin & Fils that we'd snagged at K&L Wines recently (that Wine Shop Report coming soon) for $2 less (Score!). We already considered it a great deal at $8.99, so it will be making pizza appearances regularly now.

We also picked up a couple of Spanish wines under the La Granja 360 (“The Farm”) label that we've been seeing around at potlucks. A Syrah ($5), Tempranillo ($4), and a Garnach/Tempranillo blend ($5). We really, really wanted to love these (yes, we have thing for farm animals), and while we liked them much better than Two Buck Chuck, none struck us as case-worthy. We would buy a single bottle of each again, though, at that price — how's that for a backhanded compliment? As for those farm animals, we'll stick with Big Table Farm wines on a regular basis. Right. We can't afford them.

The Winners; Credit: J. Garbee

The Winners; Credit: J. Garbee

The Verdict: Half the excitement here is buying up a case for less than $45 (!) and then opening the bottles whenever you please. Meaning there is no cash-down-the-drain guilt if you don't like that Pinot you opened five minutes ago. Just open another. Though the Trader Joe's tasting was fun, it wasn't terribly fruitful for our wine closet. Then again, we were tasting wines that ranged in price from $3 to $8, most hovering around the $5 mark, so it's hard to complain. We'll be sticking to that occasional cheap $3 Italian fling and $7 Côtes du Rhône.

Overall Grade: C+ to B- depending on your pay check status.

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