Don’t Go There

I’m deeply suspicious of Trader Joe’s and suspect I’m not the only one who is.

Beyond the annoying and incoherent theme thing, TJ’s raises other troubling questions: Why do the bran muffins smell and taste like Barbie dolls (seriously.  Try their “moral fiber” muffins then TELL me it’s not like getting a mouthful of Malibu Ken)?  Where does all this stuff come from anyway, and who did they put out of business through their undercutting?   What is the relationship between Hawaiian shirts and faux Victorian illustrations?  Why do they make it so difficult to shop there if you actually cook – could it be to force you to just give up and buy their prepackaged processed stuff instead?  Why does this one particular “matey” (or whatever they’re called) at the Foggy Bottom TJ’s always high five me? And, scariest of all, are TJ’s private label ultra cheap and uber insipid vinos lowering the bar for everyone?

Of course, spineless hypocrite that I am,  I do shop there occasionally and do like certain aspects of it in spite of myself.  And the only reason I don’t shop there more is because there’s not one in my neighborhood (which I would vociferously protest by the way – then after it was built anyhow end up going far too often).  So let’s just get that out of the way.

We all know that the Albrecht family, who owns TJ’s, are notoriously tight lipped about their business.  They do not grant substantive interviews and, once they sign on a vendor, the business terms are once and forever under permanent lock and key.  All the cloak-and- dagger stuff is a little irritating and eye-roll inducing.  We do know they compensate their employees very well; beyond that I can’t comment on their business practices.

I do have a few comments however about their wines; specifically the very low end/cheap wines they carry (meaning the $3 – $5 ish stuff) – IT’S BAD.  Not undrinkable, sure you can drink it.  But if you are paying even the slightest bit of attention you’d wish you were drinking something else.  The always entertaining Jeff at “Viva la Wino!” hits the nail on the head in his spot-on and eloquent review of TJ’s Wingman Shiraz and Block Chard:

“This is a public service announcement: Both of these wines suck. Trader Joes has a way with taking really ****** wine and making it look like it might be cool. If anything, it’s a fascinating experiment in marketing to the most evolved of chimps…or maybe the least. I suppose it depends on your perspective on the matter. Regardless, you’d do well to stay way the ****away from these ****** wines, and buy something else instead.

We’ve talked before in this blog about the issue of expensive vs inexpensive wines, but it bears repeating: You can find great wines around $10, but they are rarely amazing.   The characteristics of an amazing wine include a wonderful aroma; complex, harmonious flavors; good structure (polished tannins, pleasant acidity); and a long, delicious finish.   But most important of all, we believe, is the relationship of flavorful wines and flavorful food.  Even a Whopper Jr with cheese will be elevated by an amazing wine -a complementary wine with the deep flavor and great finish to bring out its best aspects.

Just … don’t.

If you go even further down the scale – from a $10 wine to a $4 wine, your chances of running into a truly bad bottle increase exponentially.  The very most you can hope for is a flat generic tasting airline style wine that “could be worse.”  More often than not, you will uncover something Truly Horrible.   Cheap wine that isn’t someone’s closeout stock (and sad to say, you can find some great bargains that way) is cheap because the producers have cut corners during the manufacturing process –  in terms of time, labor and/or ingredients. Really cheap wine is likely to be adjunct-utilizing, garbage-ingredient-having, hangover-inducing crap. Not exactly a bargain!   Things like innovations in lower cost packaging and buying wine direct from the producer, using your own container like they do in Europe, can result in a satisfying wine purchase for the equivalent of a few dollars/bottle.  But when buying by the bottle from a US retailer – run and don’t look back!

Now on to the weekly recipe with wine pairing.  Of, you know, real food and wine.

You may not think you have time to cook, thus providing justification for frequent pillaging of TJ’s 10,000 aisles of bright – shiny – frozen – overly packaged – cleverly branded – sodium laden – processed stuff. But here’s a terrific recipe for broiled parmesan tilapia you can pull together in under 15 minutes.  Furthermore, the raw ingredients are so basic I’ll bet you could even buy them at TJ’s (if only you still shopped there)!

And what wine to pair with it, you ask?  Try one of First Vine’s great $10/bottle wines – Cave la Romaine Délice.  It’s a light-bodied white, with citrus, light white fruits, a little bit of a floral character too, but dry. Truly a delight!



Parmesan Crusted Tilapia


1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup butter, softened

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon dried basil (or small handful chopped fresh)

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon salt

Few cloves minced garlic

2 pounds tilapia fillets


1.         Preheat your oven’s broiler. Grease a broiling pan or line pan with aluminum foil.

2.         In a small bowl, mix together the Parmesan cheese, butter, mayonnaise and lemon juice.  Add basil, pepper, garlic and salt. Mix well and set aside.

3.         Arrange fillets in a single layer on the prepared pan. Broil a few inches from the heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Flip the fillets over and broil for a couple more minutes. Remove the fillets from the oven and cover them with the Parmesan cheese mixture on the top side. Broil for 2 more minutes or until the topping is browned and fish flakes easily with a fork. Be careful not to overcook the fish.

This entry was posted in Dare Wenzler, Inexpensive Wine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, recipes, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t Go There

  1. Sue says:

    I had only been to a Trader Joe’s a few times before. Then one recently opened around here and you would have thought that the Holy Grail had arrived. I’ve really tried to find out what the hype was about. Aside from the exceedingly cheap wine, very reasonable priced coffee and prepackaged fruit, (the andouille sausage isn’t bad), the entire rest of the store is basically snack food. It’s kind of everything that’s wrong with the way we eat (and don’t cook). It’s great if you’re desperate for something to serve with drinks, but it’s a challenge to find ingredients to cook with from scratch.

    • Dare says:

      Hi Sue, I completely agree … I for one am deeply divided over TJ’s (nutcase that I am, this is the sort of thing I actually obsess about )! On one hand I believe they raise the bar in terms of establishing a higher standard for certain food items, for example snack food , bottled lemonade, etc. But here are the issues as I see them:

      – To your point, if you do actually cook, TJ’s is not a practical place to do your shopping. There’s always at least one ingredient they don’t have: yeast, confectioners sugar, most dried spices ( some examples from recent experiences of my own).
      – The proliferation of processed packaged food bugs the living hell out of me. People who would not be caught dead buying basically the exact same stuff at Safeway fill their carts with it at TJ’s. And it’s all bc TJ’s has engineered some type of marketing induced hall pass. We are supposed to be getting away from this stuff, but I am afraid TJ’s is setting us back.
      – there is also a whole separate social and environmental sustainability issue that TJ’s has not so far been able to address. They do pay, and treat, their employees very well to their great credit. However TraderJoe’s is known for pushing supplier margins so low that producers cannot make a profit. For all the environmental questions, Utne reader did a nice piece last year called “the Eco myth of trader joes” that’s worth searching on.
      – which brings me to my last point – about the truly cheap wines ( $2 – $4/bottle range). This is what pushed me over the edge earlier this week. I visited a TJ’s here in DC , where they were pouring some of these at a wine tasting. Sorry people, it is just not possible to produce a great bottle of wine at these price points.

      As always, I would love to have someone challenge me to once and for all prove I am totally full of it! Post away – and if you have a lot to say, we would welcome a guest blogger!

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