Friday, January 2, 2015

Trader Joe's Reserve Brut North Coast Sparkling Wine

Nina was here for our weekly dinner Wednesday night, which happened to be New Year's Eve. That morning I was in Trader Joe's to pick up some salad, juice, and chips. The store had an endcap display of these bottles, which triggered a memory of seeing somebody post a picture of the same stuff on Twitter with a comment about how good it was. On an impulse, I decided to add a little bubbly to the evening's festivities.

You should probably know that I come very, very close to being a classic teetotaller. I just don't drink alcohol. If my entire lifetime consumption of alcohol were given to me all at once, I would not die (though I undoubtedly would be pretty unhappy the next day).

To the best of my recollection, I have had exactly two tastes of champagne before. (I realize that the French snoots object to using "champagne" as a generic equivalent of "sparkling wine," but I don't care. Let them sue me.) For New Year's Eve of 1999, going into 2000, my then-wife wanted a really nice bottle of champagne, so I bought her a $110 bottle of Dom Perignon. For the sake of comparison, I also bought the cheapest champagne I could find, which was some mass-produced $5 swill. I tried them side by side that night. Even being a complete naif to the genre, it took maybe one second of each of them being on my tongue to know with 100% certainty which was which.

I tell you that story, because the severe narrowness of my champagne experience leaves me with limited flexibility in how to describe the Trader Joe's bottle. The most economical version of the review is this: it brought to mind the $5 swill of 15 years ago.

A slightly fuller description is this: it was harsh, acidic, completely lacking in any fruitiness, unpleasant, rather like drinking carbonated vinegar.

Despite that, having shelled out $9.99 for the experience, I kept at it, in the desperate hope that it might taste better as I had more of it. It did not. I stopped after two small glasses. The second was the one I had poured for Nina, which was still almost full, missing only the few sips she consumed before declaring the stuff too nasty to continue with. (Will she add this to her list of Nina's Worst? You'll have to read on to find out.) I stopped after those two glasses, because by then I was feeling dizzy and lightheaded. I also noticed that I was making bad decisions, such as almost putting the cat's food in her litter box instead of on her food tray--and having a second glass of icky champagne.

Will I buy it again? 

Two-thirds of the bottle ended up poured down the kitchen sink. I think I can find better uses for a $10 bill than that.

Nina's View 

Good champagne is one of life's true pleasures. The tiny bubbles that tickle the tongue and yet evaporate in the mouth even before you can swallow them. The golden color, the mellow yet elevated essence-of-grape bouquet. The creamy smoothness and toasty warmth of an excellent white wine that has somehow been kissed by angels. 

In my youth I drank Freixenet and Korbel because they were inexpensive. Right up until I had some actually good bubbly.

I have had some lovely champagnes in my time. I drank an exquisite but moderately priced Taittainger at a celebratory dinner with my mother in a Parisian bistro. For years I kept a bottle of Veuve Cliquot (affectionately known as "The Widow," about $45 with the striking orange label) in my fridge in anticipation of the unexpected joyous occasion. I was always glad to have it on hand when something worth popping a cork occurred—like the arrival of an out of town visitor or, y'know, a really pretty sunset.

I always wanted an excuse to try a bottle of Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne (now apparently called "Belle Époque"), if only so I could keep the beautiful art nouveau bottle. Alas, I was never able to come up with the dosh and the occasion at the same time.

These days there are any number of cavas and proseccos and crėmants and California champagnes that are perfectly delightful and affordable champagne equivalents. They may not be fancy appėllation controllėes, but they're entirely acceptable festive alternatives that do not taste as if they were derived from fermented hog swill.

So, although I'm hardly what you'd call a connoisseur, I have had some experience with the good stuff.

And, Senator, this Trader Joe's swill is not the good stuff. In fact, it's probably some of the nastiest wine that has ever passed over my tongue. It gave Bob instant wino-breath.

It was so awful, in so many ways, that I don't even know where to begin. Think of every way in which a wine could be good and then take the inverse. That.

Which is why I was thoroughly flabbergasted when not only did Bob finish his glass, but he actually asked for and finished mine. WTF? I cannot fathom why a functional teetotaler would choose voluntarily to inflict this bilge on his nigh-virgin taste buds. OH THE HUMANITY.

I must beg my beloved from now on to only sample truly fine alcoholic beverages. I will serve as taste-tester, if I must. Since the devil's drink is such a rare sip, let's make sure it's worth the sin, shall we?

P.S. Bob wondered whether I'd add this to my 10 Worst List. I'll confess I considered it. But I'm not going to, because IT'S NOT EVEN WORTHY OF THE BOTTOM RUNG on the Ladder Of Awfulness. Putting it on the list would be suggesting that it is truly worth comparing to other champagnes in some way, which it is not. I banish this beverage to the outer darkness of oblivion.

We shall not speak of it again.

P.P.S. It's just barely possible that we got a "corked" (i.e. spoiled) bottle of this wine. I'm not about to run out and buy a bottle to find out, however. Life is too short.


  1. I'm sure your bottle was of exceptional quality--for swill. I love, love, LOVE my bubbly. I've had all the ones listed in this post, good and bad. Korbel is 20x better than the TJ, and I only drink that in mimosas. For ~$15/bottle, you can get a great sparkler from New Mexico winery Gruet. My faves are the rose' and the blanc de noirs, but all their bottles are excellent in quality and value. Please never abuse your mouth with the TJ swill again.

  2. I have loved the Big Bucks sparklers, and I thoroughly enjoy the TJS reserve brut-who are you snobs kidding?