Since starting my supermarket oils guide, I've received dozens of requests for an opinion on Trader Joe's olive oil offerings. Earlier this month I finally visited a Trader Joe's store in Spokane, Washington, where I bought six oils and tasted them at home. Results were mixed.
The Good News: The Premium 100% Greek Kalamata was quite good at an excellent price, and two other oils – the California Estate and the Premium Extra Virgin – were authentic extra virgins and good values. (Details on each oil below.)
The Bad News: I was sorry to see that Trader Joe's sometimes plays the same marketing bait and switch as many other supermarkets. One of the oils was labeled "Trader Giotto's" and "packed in Itay," yet in fine print in back, lasered onto the glass, was the message that it was a blend of "oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia". None of the bottles mentioned the specific place where the olives were grown, the name of the grower, or the harvest date, all of which consumers should know. In 4 of 6 products, the olive cultivar was not identified, likewise important information. Also, in all but 1 case the Best By Date (BBD) was much too distant: even the good oils I tasted will go bad long before they reach these dates.
Worst of all, 3 out of the 6 oils I tasted were defective, meaning that they shouldn't be labeled "extra virgin" in the first place.
Premium 100% Greek Kalamata
1 liter for $8.99
Aroma: spicy, complex, very fresh
Flavor: nice mature fruit, real zing of pungency, pleasant bitterness, a gentle nutmeg-like spiciness
Label: "Earthy flavor, delicate aroma, smooth finish." Don't know what any of this means, and "earthy" isn't exactly what you'd want in olive oil (in fact, it's a defect). But I really liked this oil.
Miscellaneous: Nice deep green color, very agreeable mouthfeel (pleasantly pasty)
BBD 02/10/2014 (credible)
California Estate Olive Oil
500 ml for $5.99
Aroma: very full ripe fruit
Flavor: typical of well-made arbequina: gentle, balanced, sweetish in a good way, quite spicy finish
Label: identifies the olive cultivar (arbequina), which is important information. "Lively olive flavor, mild peppery finish" (I agree with the latter, at least). But no BBD visible on the bottle, which is a big demerit, especially since this oil, like most arbequinas, will probably deteriorate fast
Premium Extra Virgin
946 ml for $7.99
Aroma: full ripe fruit aroma, a little tired
Flavor: no appreciable bitterness, pleasant pungency (gentle and persistent burn), quite flat and bland, faintly sweet, tastes of arbequina, very fluid in the mouth
Label: imported from Italy, packed in the USA. Made from oils made in Italy, Spain, Argentina and Greece. "Robust, fruity flavor. Full bodied taste. Fragrant and smooth." Sadly, little of this is actually true: I'll go along with smooth, and somewhat fragrant, but that's about it
Miscellaneous: Intense green color
BBD June 2015: This oil is already mature. There is NO WAY it will be good 2 years from now.
Trader José's 100% Spanish Organic
500 ml for $5.99
Aroma: obvious winey-vinegary defect. This isn't extra virgin olive oil.
Flavor: winey-vinegary defect, also slight fustiness, unpleasant and imbalanced. No appreciable pepper, virtually no bitter, almost no fruitiness
Color: brownish, straw-colored (can see why they put in green glass bottle)
BBD 04-2015. If this oil is defective already, it will be appalling in 20 more months.
Trader Giotto's Extra Virgin Olive Oil
500 ml for $3.99
Aroma: Faint ripe olive, very flat and tired - not fresh. There's a noticeable winey-vinegary defect, so it's not extra virgin olive oil at all.
Flavor: winey-vinegary defect, as well as a hint of mold. Faint but unpleasant bitterness, zero complexity. This oil is DOA.
Label: The familiar marketing game: label says "Packed in Italy," though the fine print on the back of the bottle informs you that it's made "with oils from Italy, Spain, Greece, Tunisia."
BBD 10/17/14 Like before, if it's bad now, think what 14 months will do to it.
Trader Giotto's 100% Italian President's Reserve
1 liter for $6.99
Aroma: strong winey-vinegary defect
Flavor: unpleasant bitterness, very stale, little to no fruit flavors. Strong winey-vinegary defect, so it's not extra virgin grade in the first place
Label: "Made from select olives and is cold pressed to provide a distinctive aroma, taste and an intense fruity flavor." All of which is pure marketing malarkey. Says the olives were grown in Puglia, Sicily, and Calabria, so "Product of Italy" seems appropriate here
BBD 10/30/14 Once again, the oil is defective now, so what it will be like in 14 months doesn't bear thinking about.
It's great to find a large-scale retail chain selling good-quality oils at very competitive prices. One of them, anyhow: I found the Premium 100% Greek Kalamata oil a standout. Still, a company with a reputation for food expertise should do better. Think what Trader Joe's could do to spread the good word about great olive oil, if they got serious about oil quality. And in more commercial terms, think what a competitive advantage some drop-dead-gorgeous extra virgins could become for them - "Trader Joe's promises you the real deal in olive oil!"
Truth in Olive Oil calls on Trader Joe's to take a stand on extravirginity, for the sake of their customers.