I'm not a regular in the Wine board (I've posted elsewhere on CW) but I've been reading responses here about inexpensive wines, Trader Joe's, etc.
Having traveled in Europe, one thing that has always struck me is how available really GOOD cheap wine is there. France comes to mind, of course, but even the Czech Republic, which I get to visit on business. I remember French supermarket wines at about 4 bucks, really interesting and sometimes made from unfamiliar grapes with unusual (to us) flavor profiles, In the Czech Republic you can go to a "vinoteka" and they'll fill you up a plastic liter bottle with something bulk but decent for next to nothing, or you can spend a bit more on something like a botttled Moravian Tramin, totally delightful. The rock-bottom bar wines there are thin and acidic, however.
I guess it's the difference in our cultures. It's as though Europeans believe everybody has a right to nice wine, even if you can't spend a lot. American sub-$10 wine, including the jugs, is so often uninteresting, maybe even flabby, flat or unbalanced, and even many standard imports are not that great.
A possible exception: I imagine the situation in California is similar to the European, just because you're so close to the wine-making areas, yes?
I remember grousing about this to a friend whose response was, "In Europe, wine is a sacrament. Here, it's just a business." That was his take on it, anyway.
Not many great wine shops where I live. There's no TJ around here...I should get to the Manhattan store, but it's a schlep. I do get to Warehouse on Broadway when I'm in town. The best I can do near home is a big store in Elizabeth, NJ. There's a Portuguese community there, and the Portuguese (and Spanish) wines are some of the best bargains. And not just vinho verde (too distinctive, I feel, for everyday use) but decent dao, douro, palmela, and others. They range from $4 on up, and some of those $4 wines are just fine. I've bought them by the case.
Would like to hear your thoughts.