The unicorn of the wine world is an undiscovered, low cost but high quality wine that you can pick up (easily) on the way to a convivial gathering and have people say, after the lights are low, “What the heck was that?” This wine comes very close to unicorn status when you consider the price.
I wandered into a Trader Joe’s near me at approximately noon, clearly intoxicated and wearing a vintage Slayer t-shirt. The staff tittered amongst themselves, perhaps, but treated me like any other customer, which I appreciated. Looking through the wines, I found that the Petit Reserve Paso Robles Merlot sought my hand like a familiar sword or guitar, and I picked up two bottles.
“It’s subtle, but you should be careful,” one of the staff warned me. “It is not the pussycat it seems.” Apparently I brightened at this, because laughs went all around, but with the careless enthusiasm of the drunk, I thanked them and headed outside to my ride (unlike most people in my city, I refuse to drive after even a few drinks because I feel impaired, and cars are death machines when steered incorrectly).
Getting home, me and the posse wasted no time in uncorking one of these beauties. Of course, since we had to go home through traffic, I was near dead-sober and correspondingly surly at the time. A first sip of this wine alleviated that: dry with a fruity aftertaste, almost no acidity, and seemingly no alcohol.
Did we get trolled? Was I so intoxicated that I purchased grape juice instead? We sat around the table, with bong and a shotgun (I am still uncertain as to its relevance, but it was there) in audience, and sampled this wine. It almost forces you to sip it because while its flavor is gentle, it rolls over the tongue with a moist solidity that makes one want to savor it.
And then, thirty minutes into this impromptu drinking session, the alcohol made itself known. It was more of a subtle and nearly psychedelic effect, like a very gentle Tequila or malt liquor, than the usual frail abrasiveness I anticipate from wine. We slipped into a slowed-down time, sipping and talking, and halfway through the second bottle I realized I was in fact well on my way to face-flat drunk.
While Petit Reserve Paso Robles Merlot does not rank high in the ABV count, its effect creeps up on you like an SAS commando in the night. Its gentle flavors, balanced rather than directly contrasting, give it a background presence that slowly unleashes its elements: a dry autumnal grape, a light vigorous dryness, and a soft aftertaste of the sweetness of fruit without its heavy flavor like juice from concentrate.
Considered in price/performance terms, this wine is strikingly excellent. Independent of that, it might be a guilty pleasure: that relatively undistinctive flavor that becomes a favorite for doing everything well, and nothing to excess, while maintaining the subtlety I expect from continental wines. I will seek this out again, possibly while wearing the same Slayer tshirt, when Trader Joe’s opens tomorrow.