For this month's Wine Shop Report, we hit another grocery store chain, Fresh & Easy. Not because we are particularly fond of shopping for wine under fluorescent lights, but because that income tax check is still a little too fresh in our mind. And so we gathered up our recycled wine bags and hit the road to increase our carbon footprint during that 10 mile drive to our closest “Neighborhood Market” (their words, not ours). Turn the page for our tasting results.

The Wine Shop (or aisle): The Fresh & Easy Nearest You

The Selection: What's interesting about Fresh & Easy's selection is that about half the wines are sold exclusively here (the grocer partners with custom label winemakers such as Terravant in Santa Barbara's Santa Ynez Valley), and the majority of what you'll find on the shelves is under $12. They have their own version of Trader Joe's Two Buck Chuck, here known as The Big Kahuna, a Cab-Shiraz blend that we get a kick out of seeing on Cellar Tracker (hey, cellar-ablity is certainly subjective). A company spokesperson confirmed that the $1.99 wine — surprise, surprise — is also their best seller. Though we've tried the Big Kahuna several times, always hoping we will learn to love a $24 case, it either winds up in a generously spiced sangria or is relegated directly to our cooking shelf.

Like Trader Joe's, Fresh & Easy also has a surprisingly large number of wines in the $4 to $8 range. We've primarily had similar disappointing Big Kahuna experiences there. But we are happy to report that unlike our experience at TJ's, when we spent a few dollars more here on a bottle — we're still talking largely under $12, with a few exceptions — the quality at Fresh & Easy improved exponentially. Well, sometimes.

The Best Deals: Of the two dozen+ California wines that Fresh & Easy recently introduced and has been aggressively marketing as of late, we were most impressed with the WineWrights Pinot Noir out of Monterrey ($11), a real bargain for a light Pinot that has enough of a solid backbone to get you through whatever bird or beast you've got on the evening's agenda. We also liked those Santa Barbara custom label wines, Open Field. They are the highest price point of the new offerings, although here that means still only $10 to $20. We'd definitely grab that Open Field Pinot Gris again as the weather gets warmer for our Hollywood Bowl basket.

Of the international wines we've tasted here in the past, we've had mixed luck. Recently, our hopes for finding a new Prosecco favorite here for $7 here were short lived. The one we tasted from La Gioiosa was fine, but that's about it. We've had much better Prosecco in that price range elsewhere (though that nondescript flavor did make it a nice partner in a cocktail). But we will definitely be adding that $7 Montcadi cava, this one a rosé, to our summer drink menu. Cava is one of those under-appreciated wines that in this country is often given second shelf status to Prosecco. But the Spanish bubbly is an equally affordable, effervescent wine when done well. Unlike Prosecco, Cava is produced in the same method as Champagne, and has been known to fool a drinker or two. We agree with the blogger behind, who gave the wine a 7 out of 10 points on the value/taste scale for being a delicate wine with a hint of sweetness that finishes dry. And, well, how can you not love a blogger who has dedicated his online prose to reviewing a single grocery store's wine aisle?

The Verdict: One of the many pleasures of shopping at your favorite corner wine shop is hearing an enthusiastic sales rep talk about a well-priced bottle of Priorat that just landed on their shelves as if it is truly breaking news. That, coupled with the constantly changing off-the-beaten-path selections that a small shop owner can give, is why we usually prefer shopping close to home. But it's hard to argue with a well-edited chain store's selection, even if that selection doesn't change all that often. The trick here is avoiding the temptation to stock your cart with those $4 and $5 Cabernet and Chardonnay bottles. Stick to the $8 to $12 wines here, and you'll have much better luck finding that well priced — and drinkable — bargain.

Overall Grade: A solid B (a compliment for a grocery store chain), or when the bank account is in arrears, a B+ for value wines worthy of dinner guests.

LA Weekly