When it comes to wine prices, buyers often act irrational. With most consumer goods they search for the high quality at low prices, but with wine they stay within certain price ranges regardless of quality. Many convince themselves that defective wines they paid high prices for are actually good, while they think cheap wines are bad. Is that really so?

Recently a friend of mine, Mark Gibson, an opinionated aficionado and true quality seeker,  proposed that we assemble cheap wines from a store that carries a lot of them and let our palates decide. There is no better store for such a project than Trader Joe’s where wines less than  $10 populate many shelves. This was Mark’s upper limit for the tasting.

A privately held chain with over 450 stores,  in business since 1967,  Trader Joe’s rose on the shoulders of its wine business more than any other product  – it carries around 50,000. Nowadays its wine reputation is indelibly linked with Charles Shaw, affectionately known as Two Buck Chuck, currently selling in the vicinity of $ 3.00. We decided to exclude this label from our tasting.It is a separate subject by itself.

We assembled 13 whites and 10 reds for the tasting, held at Mark’s house in Pebble Beach. He invited several other guests for a total of seven tasters. First we tasted the whites in two flights, then took a dinner break, returning to the reds afterwards.

I drew two general conclusions  from the experience. The whites offered better quality in this price range, and most of the quality was in foreign labels.

In this blog I’ll report on the whites, leaving the reds to another occasion.

The group’s unanimous favorite  was an Ullrich Langguth Riesling ($ 6.99). With a typical orange blossom and kerosene nose, the wine was dry, with fine fruit upfront and long acid finish. We don’t drink enough Riesling. This one was good for sipping or as a food accompaniment.

Two New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough Nobilo ($9.99) and Sauvignon Republic ($7.99) also made the cut. Both had characteristic herbal noses and were a bit sweet in their entry;  the Nobilo stayed on the herbal side, the latter was more floral.

An Albarino, Portico Da Ria ($7.99) also showed well, with a mineraly nose, full bodied texture, hints of apricots and nuts in its fruit and good acid in the finish.

Two Pinot  Grigios Mezzacorona ($6.99) and Villa Sonia ($ 5.99) were easy drinkers, the group leaning more toward the latter.

Now for the failures. A Louis Latour “Duet” ($9.99), Chardonnay/Viognier mix was uniformly disliked. It had an unpleasant burnt toast nose, it was flat in its fruit, it had a short, bitter finish. I wondered if they blended viognier into their worst batch of chardonnay grapes with the hope of making the lackluster fruit shine. If so it didn’t work. There was no hint of viognier – usually quite floral – in the wine.

A Husch Chardonnay from Mendocino ($9.99) represented the worst in oaky, buttery California Chardonnay but might appeal to those who seek such wines. A Lachteau Vouvray ($7.99) (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley of France) was simple, floral and sweet, but lacked the food friendly acid finish of the real deal. Finally a Cuvee Azan, Picpoul de Pinet ($8.99), a little known varietal from the Languedoc region of Southern France was watery, bitter and off balance.

We started the tasting with a Prosseco, Cecili ($9.99), an Italian sparkler that is a good beginning to occasions less auspicious than those that merit champagne. It was an appropriate choice for ours. We finished with a Carayon La Rose ($4.99) from Languedoc. We don’t expect much from rose wines and this one could be excused for what it lacked in its amazingly low price.

Overall our group liked eight out of the twelve wines we sampled. At these prices you can afford your own personal experiments to see what you like. Whether you agree with our assessment of the wines I reported or not,  I bet you’ll discover a few personal gems of your own.