Wine Styles vs. Trader Joe’s: who wins in a pinch?

On a trip this past summer, my family and I got stranded in Chicago overnight because of airline delays. We called a friend who was able to take us in when the airline would not; she put us up even though the delay was entirely their fault (canceled flight). So we decided to make dinner for our friend and I was dispatched to the nearest shopping center where I knew I would get the food at Trader Joe’s. But what about the wine?

Somewhat surprisingly for a suburb with $96,552 median household income, there didn’t appear to be an independent wine shop for miles. But Trader Joe’s sells wine in Illinois stores. And there was another choice: Wine Styles, a franchise wine store wedged in between a karate space and a day spa. I went to both to see what I could find.

winestylesWine Styles rests a display bottle on a small shelf next to a series of plaster alcoves, which contain a case of the same wine. The limited wine selection is arrayed theoretically by flavor profile, ranging from crisp to rich for whites and fruity to bold for the reds. But I wanted some Champagne to toast our friend’s generosity so headed to the “Bubbly” area where there was an uninspiring collection of a few cavas. The clerk admitted that the selection was thin now, stating that they tend to ramp up bubblies toward the end of the year.

So I asked for a cru Beaujolais, which can be refreshing at any time of year but is a particularly good red for summer in my view. The clerk did not know whether this would be Fruity or Mellow, searched in both, then headed over to the Rich where he came up with a a new proposal: a Cotes du Rhone. Hmm. Not exactly what I was looking for. I excused myself and started poking around on the white side of the store.

I noticed that they stocked some wines from Kermit Lynch and homed in on the baby blue font of Champalou, a family-run winery in Vouvray (who makes a fine sparkling wine too). The dry wine is an excellent expression of the chenin blanc grape. Even though it was about 20% over the retail price elsewhere (search for Champalou), I bought the wine and headed back down the strip mall on foot, past the karate studio, Staples and an expanse of tarmac, still hot from a day in the late summer heat.

At Trader Joe’s, I loaded my cart with various things for our meal and headed to the wine aisle–yes, aisle, and not separate store as with their location 14th street in Manhattan (but that may change soon). The wine selection was more varied, with lots of Italian wines, and the prices seemed lower. But because there are many private label wines only available at Trader Joe’s, such as the iconic Charles Shaw aka “Two Buck Chuck,” it wasn’t always possible for me to compare prices to wines outside the store–or to have an idea of what the wine tasted like. And there was no staff member there to talk me through although I suppose I could have flagged someone down to hear what they had to say. Instead, I decided to plump for a bubbly I had tried before, bypassing the Pol Roger Champagne for the Roederer Estate sparkling wine from Anderson Valley.

I headed back to our friend’s, uncorked the wines, cooked the food, and enjoyed the metaphorical lemonade that we squeezed from the lemons the airline handed us. But I couldn’t help thinking that if those were my only two local wine shops that I’d favor Trader Joe’s in a pinch. I’d also try to seek out other stores either downtown or in other suburbs since Illinois residents are legally prohibited from ordering wine from out-of-state retailers.

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23 Responses to “Wine Styles vs. Trader Joe’s: who wins in a pinch?”

  1. I’ve been pondering the question “Is Trader Joe’s a good place to buy wine” myself lately. My answer would be “Yes, but…” with a list of caveats too long to list here, but I will say that this past weekend when I was there the average shopping cart I saw had about 12 bottles of wine and some had as many as 4 cases! Meanwhile, the wine shop across the street was *empty* the entire 30 minutes I was there. My conclusion is that local wine stores need to do more to differentiate themselves vs. Trader Joe’s or they are going to go out of business.


  2. I am from St. Louis, where TJ’s sells wine and where there is, to the best of my knowledge, one Wine Styles store. I don’t shop at either for wine (though I like TJ’s for some food items), mainly b/c STL has some very good wine shops as well as Supermarkets which excel at both the bargain wine level and also at the fine wine level.
    But, if I were in a pinch, definitely TJ’s. For one thing the whole Wine Styles business model of relieving the buyer of the terrifying prospect of too much choice is, in my opinion, insulting. Also, TJ’s has some decent wine. However, let me offer a third option readily available in such markets, World Market. Cava and domestic sparklers really cheap, large house champagne at about average retail, and pretty good selection amongst 20 dollar and under wines, with some pricier options.
    I also find it funny that you asked for a cru Bouj at Wine Styles, oh how I wish I could see the look the clerk’s face! I have had similar experiences myself, though they rarely seem as funny at the time

  3. Small specialty wine shops offer a high level of passion and expertise with a friendly real world customer service approach that can not be matched by chains, franchises or big box stores. I feel that the best wine for you is the wine you like best. Getting customers into the right wine for them requires a personal experience with the selection. Wine is an experience not a commodity and wine buying can be very intimidating with the multitude of labels, laws, regions and grape types. Small wine shops have the personal experience and knowledge (including knowing what a Cru Beaujolais is) with their hand picked artisan selections to ensure the customer gets the right wine experience for them. Small wine shops have done the hard work for you by hand-picking what they feel are the best wines from small producers based on quality and price and not on commercial branding, kangaroo labels or promotional giveaways. The easy part is simply listening to the customers and putting them in the wine that fits their needs best.

  4. I agree that small shops SHOULD offer a higher level of expertise than a box store, but I haven’t found that to be the case with WineStyles. It seems they stock whatever the chain says and don’t have much knowledge of their own product, much less other wines so that they can try to substitute what you want and may be familiar with with something they stock.
    I do have a local independent in the south loop area of chicago now that I try to support, but i LOVE Binney’s. And, they have several locations around chicago and burbs.

  5. I have both within a mile of my house. I go with TJs every time I’m in a similar situation as you.
    While I initially thought WS was an interesting concept, I never found WS to have a logical approach to wine organization. Never mind that many of their franchises break the initial “below $25” rule which was supposed to be part of the original concept.
    Overall, WS is a gimmicky take on wine and seems to hold the most appeal to those who like the idea of being people who drink wine but are not interested in learning about it.
    But, different strokes for different folks…

  6. I agree with Arthur in that Wine Styles does seem to cater mostly to people who enjoy drinking wine and like to feel like they have an interest in it, yet don’t really want to get too deeply into learning about different varieties, vineyards, vintages, and so forth. All of it can seem intimidating to the inexperienced, and Wine Styles makes its bread and butter by trying to remove the intimidation factor as best they can, I suppose.

    I could handle a trip to Wine Styles if it was a real wine emergency, but I’m with the general consensus that I’d probably prefer Trader Joe’s if given a choice. Perhaps I’d be more of a believer if there were more of an effort involved in regards to actually educating consumers who are new to wine and helping them to figure out how to select the right wine for them, their guests, or their meal.

    I still think that the best way to go hands down when it comes to picking up a good wine to serve with dinner that night are small, local wine merchants. As someone else touched on, they are more invested in hand-picking a selection that they feel is right for their clientele, and the staff is often far more knowledgeable about the stock they carry, as well as more interested in the subject of wine in general.

  7. The canceled flight sounds like a blessing in disguise. Although initially it may have felt like an imposition, it’s rare that you are greeted spontaneously by old friends to share in a thoughtful meal.

  8. Trader Joe’s and its brethren have a dirty little wine secret: where it’s been and how it’s been treated. Think of a small, highly conscientious local wine shop. Now think of Trader Joe’s, CostCo, or Sam’s Club. Now think of the issues involved in making sure particular importers arrange for fully temperature controlled shipping. Now think about whether the store cares if the wine sits on the loading dock in the sun for hours on a hot day. Which merchant do you anticipate is paying attention to such matters? The prices are cheaper at the big boxes. As to whether the wine has been taken care of between the producer and you: well, in the immortal words of Dirty Harry, “Do you feel lucky?”

  9. Wine Styles margins are the highest in the business since they have to pay franchise fee’s, etc. A wine that sells at a large retailer for $10 will be $12 at a small independent neighborhood shop and $15 at Wine Styles. Also the staff usually has limited knowledge.
    TJ’s would be OK in a pinch but most of their wines are private label or overstock wines. They do have some nice big name brands on the shelf in case of emergency!

  10. I’ve never experienced Wine Styles but would think Trader Joe’s must be a clear winner. Granted you may not know most of the wines at either but a bad selection at TJ’s won’t set you back nearly as far as elsewhere. I’ve been chronicling my experiences there for a while and there are some ins and outs to to learn but I now have many more pleasant surprises then disappointments. If you need help weeding through the clutter here are my current favorites in Trader Joe’s Wine.


  11. Besides having some “house brands” of wine TJs also is known to buy up discontinued wines and vintages that producers are not very happy with.
    This does not mean all its wines are crap.

  12. It sounds like a opportunity for someone to open a good independent wine shop. Here’s an excellent model:

    Sharon has prospered when most people in the biz said she would fail. Refusing to sell big brands like yellowtail and beringer – relying instead on her and her staff’s knowledgeable and excellent tastebuds – has won her a loyal following.

  13. Tyler, sounds alot like Glen Ellyn (median income $96k) since there is a wine styles across the street from TJ’s. There is a Karate studio in the WS strip mall, but next to TJ’s is a Binny’s. Probably wrong.

    Either way, never been to WS and only go to TJs in a pinch for wine as I don’t care for their selections and as you say many things are private label. Most purchases I see are cases of Two Buck Chuck.

  14. I visited a wine styles (I live in Chicago) and was really not impressed. I prefer to shop independent shops, but sometimes…
    A couple of knocks on TJ’s wines: Some of their house labels are pretty terrible, given they are cheap. 2 buck chuck is the WORST excuse for wine in the world today. STOP BUYING IT so that it can become a thing o the past!!!!!!! TJ’s has a decent selection, off the top of my head Spain and South America come to mind, but I wouldn’t shop there too regularly otherwise these selections would become old.
    Lastly, in case I wasn’t clear enough, STOP BUYING TWO BUCK UP CHUCK!!!!


  15. Oh Alberto…I can understand why you do not care for Charles Shaw, but telling people to stop buying it just plays into the whole notion that wine tasting and snobbery go hand in hand. While those wines may not be on the top of my list, they are hardly undrinkable.

    Illinois shipping laws are indeed crazy, so I found a great solution by going to Lynfred Winery in Roselle. They make all their own wines on sight in Roselle and offer over 60 options. They have addition stores in Naperville, Wheaton,and Wheeling and ship to select states. It’s really a great selection and great tasting wine that wont break the budget!

    Check it out sometime, I know how Chicagoans love to buy local!

  16. I think of TJ’s as just another choice of buying experience like local wineries, Costco, independent wine shops, wine super shops and even chain grocery stores. I stick my head in TJ’s every so often to see what’s new and try one of their private labels. While i would never regard TJ’s as a premier wine retailer I certainly do appreciate having more choices.

  17. Louis, I appreciate the alternative perspective on this issue. I, however, counter with the idea that 2 Buck Up Chuck promotes the idea that cheap wine has to pretty much taste like garbage.
    There are myriad wines from Spain, France, Italy, and South America that are very inexpensive (at least in Chicago, but we tend to have competitive markets and hence comparatively cheap booze here) and still good.
    I’ve had the misfortune of trying 2 Buck Chuck on several occasions, each time marvelling how consistently awful it was. My approach is economic: if people stopped buying it, the evaporating demand would force TJ’s to abandon selling the swill–or heaven forbid, make an effort to make it taste like wine instead of vodka-infused cool-aid.

    Peace & cheers–


  18. […] pardon, few lists would include Fred Franzia for his federal offense (and, no, as much as reader Alberto would like, it wasn’t making Two Buck Chuck). But Franzia wants to own a gun. That’s […]

  19. Here’s an interesting article on who owns Trader Joes:

  20. I can’t believe what I’m reading. I’m a Wine Club member in the Frankfort location in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and these guys are great. You have to stop thinking about these stores with a “superstore” mentality and think about them for what they are: Great neighborhood shops! Cru Beaujolais? Really? Have you owned a business? That is less than 1/10 of 1% of the wine sold in the USA and you want them to carry that? Wow, that would surely put them out of business. I’ve been a Wine Club member for the nearly 4 years they’ve been open and have loved every selection they have given me. They know me, my taste and how to help me get the best bang for my buck. TJ’s was my old go to. They didn’t know me and, frankly, didn’t care. The people at the WS in Frankfort go out of their way to know everyone who walks through the door. It’s like Cheers! And they have free wine tasting every week, so you go and taste and you will get to know everything in the store. As for price, I’m a big fan of Duckhorn and pay less for it there than at Binny’s as a Wine Club member. Don’t take one experience and blow it out of proportion and don’t put the little guy out of business for not having every wine you may ever want.

  21. I previously owned a WS store and was attracted by the concept as to what it provided up front. The ability to not carry “grocery store” wines and provide smaller, lesser known but well produced wines from around the globe. I also made sure my staff was well trained, with the knowledge needed to handle just about all requests. We had quite a following and won awards for sales, Wine Club memberships and co-marketing. I even got a well-known and popular sommilier to work for my store, out of all the offers in that city.

    Some customers are just ignorant, such as one that wanted a well-known California Label’s varietal that he had at his wedding. Unfamiliar with that varietal/label, I called the vineyard. A nice woman there informed me in the 35 years she worked at that label, she had never seen that varietal in their label. For this I was labeled the ignorant one. Or the customer who screamed at me that he got a well-known and expensive icewine at a fancy hotel in a city for $10 per 8-oz glass out of a 750-ml bottle and that his special order was a rip-off for me charging what I charged for a 375-ml. Again, the vineyard rep had never seen the 750-ml version in 25 years. The bar manager at that hotel also confirmed that he sold a 1-oz for $10 from a 375-ml bottle. Hmm, I was the thief here?
    Then there were the regular customers that would call, say I am having X for dinner or the boss is coming, pick me out a great bottle and we would have it ready to go when they arrived.

    The point is, any wine store is a combination of selections, staff knowledge and management’s desire to be the best and provide the best service, regardless of size. Pick the one you like and support them; albeit the smaller ones will have the better experience.

    I had to close for personal reasons and moved out of that state and I have never found another good wine store. Even my wife is getting away from wines. And the WS in my new town? It is horrible, the exact opposite of how I ran my store. I visited once, called Corporate to complain and will never go back, except as a paid consultant.

  22. I used to work in a WS store. No, I was not sent to a “wine school” for training, but because I have a passion for wine I learned on the job. It really isn’t rocket science, but you should take the time to learn the basics. Most WS offer winetastings every week to educate people the basics about wine taste. Wine is meant to drink for the enjoyment with food, friends and family. Unfortunately, many still think, based on the comments here, it’s about image, labels and class, and just because the local wine store sales person doesn’t know all the answers, it doesn’t mean the wine is bad, some of the best wines I have ever had came from small, boutique wine stores that purchase from small mom and pop wineries around the world. Something you can’t get from mass production wines. So what if it’s a few dollars more, isn’t it worth it that these small business owners take the time to purchase unique wines for your enjoyment, does it hurt to support your local small business wine store, where everyone knows your name and your taste. If you give it a chance, you may find you won’t go back to the Big, corporate guys!!

  23. I love wine and I’m considering opening a WS store. It’s been interesting to read what people have to say. I had originally thought of opening a small private wine shop, but have been intrigued by the WS concept. I live in a fairly small city of around 100,000 people and I’m not sure how the private store will do here. There is obviously a lot to consider.


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