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New wine review: A Lambrusco from Cameron Hughes

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Cameron Hughes Non-Vintage “Soft Red Wine” Lot 841 Lambrusco (Reggiano); $15. Few wines illustrate the heterogeneity of the American public’s taste in wine more than this one. Some people will love it; others won’t. Count me among the latter, but that’s not a diss of the wine so much as an expression of my personal taste. To me, sparkling wine should be pale and elegant, not purple and rather heavy, as this one is. I also prefer dryness in sparklers, and this has a sweet, candied edge. So much of what we like about individual wines, though, depends on we’ve been exposed to, and it may be that my lack of experience with sparkling Lambrusco accounts for my reaction.

As for the wine, it is sparkling, but isn’t particularly fizzy. The froth is barely there, a slight prickliness. Underneath is fulsome fruit: cherries, strawberries, raspberries. The wine is very clean, and the alcohol level is very low, a mere 8.5%, making it by definition gulpable. It also has a bit of the carbonic zip of a young Beaujolais, for which it can be substituted at the table. No question but that it’s well made.

This is not a “serious” wine, if you know what I mean. It’s a “fun” wine, also an adjective that can be misunderstood. The price makes it attractive. The winery itself suggests pairing with charcuterie or hard cheeses; I can’t disagree. Make a platter of salumi (prosciutto, mortadella, salami), paté, olives, sharp cheddar or a hard Italian cheese (Bitto, Pecorino), carrots and zucchini, almonds, sourdough bread, roasted red peppers. Munch, relax, enjoy with friends, and don’t compare this wine with Champagne because it isn’t; but it is what it is. Score: 87 points.


New Wine Reviews: Cameron Hughes

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I don’t know if Cameron Hughes invented his California business model, which is to buy wine from other wineries who, for one reason or another, need to get rid of it for immediate income. Then Cameron slaps his own label on it, gives it a Lot number, does some publicity, and sells it, at a fraction of the original purported price. (Wineries, including some very famous, expensive ones, get rid of unwanted inventory more frequently than the public is aware of; this is perhaps the industry’s, or at least Napa Valley’s, most closely-guarded secret.) But if Cameron didn’t invent this model, he perfected it and gave it a face; and I have to assume it, and he, are doing well.

I remember, shortly after he launched, Cameron invited me for lunch here in Oakland (at Oliveto), where, over several glasses of wine, he explained his business model. I was impressed. He never reveals which wineries the wines are from, but he hints at top vineyards and famous wineries. Although I never had any reason to doubt this, as a journalist, it bothered me: the real source of the wines was unsubstantiated, so we’re left to take Cameron’s word for it. That left the wines to speak for themselves—and I must say they often spoke eloquently. As I was to find out over the years, Cameron Hughes’ wines could be amazing values.

The winery recently sent me some new releases for review, which I’m happy to share with you.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 683 Zinfandel (Sierra Foothills): $10. The Sierra Foothills, a vast swath of eastern California running down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the great growing regions for Zinfandel. With very hot summer days, the grapes get ripe, but cool nights, from downdrafts off the snow-clad peaks, preserve vital acidity. You’re always going to get fairly high alcohol in a Foothills Zin; this one’s 15%, which not only results in an enormously fruity wine but also gives it some heat. Raspberries, cherries, roasted coffee, raisins, vanilla and a fabulous range of spices—what a delicious Zin. Yet it’s not at all heavy; you can almost read through the ruby translucence. And the tannins are soft and silky. Lots of charm here, and lots of Zinny character. I think of all sorts of foods: barbecue, baked ham, roast lamb, pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, pizza, broiled chicken—the possibilities are endless. This is easily the best of the new Cameron Hughes releases. (Note: The winery paperwork said the price is $10, but on the website it’s $12. Either way, an amazing value!) Score: 93 points.

Cameron Hughes 2018 Lot 673 2018 Russian River Valley ($15). Hits all the right notes for a Russian River Pinot Noir: brilliant, translucent ruby color, bright aromas of strawberries and mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and a dry, spicy finish. Although the flavors could be more concentrated—the wine is a little on the light side—they’re pleasant enough. It’s not a blockbuster, but elegant and clean. I’d drink this wine with lamb above all other meats, especially if you can sneak some bacon in there. Score: 90 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 689 Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley); $13. This Chard plays it right down the middle, appealing to the American palate with tropical fruit and oak flavors, wrapped in a creamy texture. It’s simple, but satisfying in a California Chard way. Will drink nicely with almost anything; if it were up to me, it would be cracked crab and sourdough, with a great EVOO. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2016 Lot 686 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $15. This is textbook Alexander Valley Cab, based on everything I’ve studied and known for 40 years. The tannins are soft and sweetly mellow, making for easy drinking now. The acidity is just fine, providing a pleasant lift to the fruit. And the flavors! Oodles of ripe, sweet summer cherries and blackberries, mouth-tingling spices, a touch of herbaceousness, and a kiss of smoky oak. You don’t want to put bottle age on this lovely wine, you want to pop the cork and drink it. Barbecued steak while the hot weather is here is a natural. By winter, it’ll make a fine companion to beef stew or short ribs. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 674 Field Blend Syrah-Petite Sirah (Mendocino County); $13. Rugged and simple, this old-style wine has bigtime flavors of raspberries, beef teriyaki, sweet tobacco and baking spices. It’s tannic, but the tannins are smooth and silky, making it easy to drink now. I’d have this fairly rustic wine with just about anything calling for a dry, full-bodied, fruity red where the food, not the wine, is the star. Score: 87 points.

Cameron Hughes 2015 Lot 641 “Paicines” Merlot (Central Coast); $10. The Paicines Hills are in San Benito County, northeast of the Salinas Valley, and warmer due to the inland location. The grapes certainly got ripe; the wine brims with the silky essence of Beaujolais-like black cherries. Deliciousness goes a long way, especially in such an affordable wine, and it really is easy to drink and enjoy with simple fare: a cheeseburger, beef or pork tacos or, for something more offbeat, Chinese restaurant Peking duck. Two other things stand out for me: the overall softness, a result of melted tannins and low acidity, and an aged quality. Even though the wine is only 4 years old, the fruit is maturing, picking up secondary dried fruit features. For ten bucks, this is a good deal. Score: 86 points.


A tasting of current Cameron Hughes wines

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Cameron sent me another batch of wines, which I was glad to review. In general, the Cameron Hughes brand continues to provide fantastic value for the money. His business, briefly, is to function as a negociant: vintners who want or need to sell their wine, privately and off-the-record, know and trust Cameron. We never know where the wines come from, although Cameron does provide “hints.” I did have a problem with one bottle, as you’ll see, but the rest are wines I would gladly drink anytime.

95 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 596 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley); $35, 15.2%. This is one of the more expensive Cameron Hughes wines, but it is from the deservedly famous Monte Rosso. And it’s quite a good Monte Rosso: dark, deep, rich and ageable. Cabernet hardly gets more intense than this, with an explosion of blackberry jam, black currants, blueberries, cassis liqueur and a penetrating minerality suggestive of graphite. Throw in the oak, and you get smoky-sweet vanillins. This is a serious wine for red wine drinkers, a wine of sinew and muscle, potency and mouth-filing depth. But it never loses that inimitable grace and dignity we expect from the vineyard, far above Sonoma Valley. The alcohol is admittedly on the high side; there is some jalapeño heat. But it’s an integral part of the wine’s personality. Delicious to drink now despite the massive tannins; a good steak will cut right through them. But I would not be surprised if this wine were not evolving over the next ten-plus years.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 597 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $32, 14.9%. This wine is so inky black and tannic, you might think it was a Petite Sirah. Cameron says it’s from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard, and it does have fantastic mountain concentration. The tannins are considerable: they sting the mouth and shut it down. A fatty, char-broiled steak would work, but far better is to age this wine for eight years, maybe even longer. There’s so much going on way down deep under the astringency: black currants and black raspberries, cassis liqueur, leather, violets, dark chocolate, mushu plum sauce, smoky oak, herbs, spices, the works. The wine is absolutely dry, none of that semi-sweet cult thing going on, and while there’s some headiness from alcohol, it’s even-handed, just enough to let you know this is a wine of heft. I really admire this Cabernet.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 470 Petite Sirah (Oakville); $19, 14.9%. And while we’re on the subject of Cabs that might be Petite Sirah, here’s a strong, young Petite Sirah that might be a Cab! It’s black in color, except around the edge, where it glows garnet. The aromas and flavors are thick with blackberries, black currants, blueberries and dark chocolate, wrapped into firm, authoritative tannins, and finished with significant new oak. There’s also a meatiness, like the salted, charred fat on a steak. This is a big, big wine, entirely dry, but sweet in fruit. Cameron calls it “bombastic”; not a bad word. It’s Petite Sirah, Napa-style. In fact, Oakville-style, which is to say, classy and sophisticated. This is by far the greatest value in Petite Sirah I’ve ever seen. Get as much as you can; it is not only fantastic now, it will develop in the bottle for many years.

93 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 457 Meritage (Napa Valley); $18, 14.9%. Great price for a blend this rich and satisfying. It’s a little generic, in the way of a good New World Bordeaux blend, but I can’t imagine that anyone would fault it for that. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot, it’s fleshy, with broad black currant, bitter chocolate, plum and cherry fruit flavors. Shows its pedigree in the finesse of the tannins and crisp acidity. Very good now, and should hold for six years. A steal at less than twenty bucks.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 444 Meritage (Napa Valley): $19, 14.9%. This is quite a distinguished wine, but it’s very young and rather impertinent at this time. (“Impertinent”: I always liked that old-fashioned term for a wine that’s immature, gawky, all primary fruit and barrel influences.) Here are the particulars: bone dry, full-bodied and tannic, with deep, complex blackcurrant, dark chocolate, espresso and oak flavors, and a firm minerality that adds to the architectural integrity. Cameron suggests that the wine, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, comes from Oak Knoll, which might account for its fine structure. The wine will improve over the next 5-6 years, maybe a little longer, so decant and enjoy with its ideal partner, steak. Nineteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 599 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29, 14.9%. This is a very good Cabernet and a good value. Cameron says it’s from a producer that “sells for $135.” I don’t doubt it, given the plethora of Napa Cabs that now cost triple digits. The wine is inky black. It smells of black currants and oak, a young, vigorous aroma. Flavorwise, it’s very rich in black currants, cassis, unsweetened baker’s chocolate, charred beef fat and spices such as cloves and black pepper. The finish is long, clean and thoroughly dry. All in all, a fancy wine that gives lots of pleasure, and develops in the glass as it breathes.

89 Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 503 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley): $15, 15.3%. At a time when Pinot prices are rising, this is a very good value. On the minus side, it’s a little too hot, with a distinct red chili powder heat from high alcohol. That aside, it’s dry and silky, with pretty tannins and good acidity. The flavors, of cranberry, raspberry, cola, spices and leather, are complex. Ready to drink now, especially with grilled lamb or salmon.

88 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 600 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $29, 14.9%. The grapes got exceptionally ripe, to judge from the flavors of chocolate-covered raisins and raspberry jam. There’s also a lot of smoky oak, and thick, sweet tannins. It’s a good wine, full-bodied and soft, and benefits from some olive and herbaceous complexities, but it’s not really what you except from a top-notch Oakville Cab. If it cost a lot more, as Oakville Cabs do, it wouldn’t be worth the price, but for less than $30, it has enough fanciness to recommend it. Drink up.

Not Rated But Reviewed Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $75, 15.5%. This is a big, rich, soft wine, made in the modern cult style of high alcohol and generous oak. For me, though, it’s marred by bretty aromas, which may be why the actual producer unloaded it. It may have been an off-bottle, but I can’t recommend it.


A Cameron Hughes Cabernet vertical

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Cameron Hughes Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. Sold as a six-pack vertical, 2006-2011 vintages, $449.

Cameron Hughes was kind enough to send me this six-bottle vertical for review. (Full disclosure: He also was kind enough to come all the way to Oakland and buy me a sushi lunch.) All the wines are obviously related to each other, being strongly similar except for bottle age; but negociant Cameron cannot reveal his precise sourcing, except to strongly hint we’re dealing with major sources and famous winemaking consultants.

I begin with a lengthy discussion of the youngest wine (2006) and the oldest (2011), since they frame the conversation. Then it’s on to briefer considerations of the ’07, ’08, ’09 and ’10.

I expected more color differentiation between the 2006 and the 2011, with the older wine, at nine years, being paler. It is, kinda sorta, but you have to squint to see it, which means either of two things: The ’11 is looking old now, or the ’06 is looking young. In this case, it’s decidedly the latter, but that may be the high alcohol level. I would not guess the ’06 for being nine years old. It’s still dark, a gorgeous ruby garnet, like the ’11. So much for color: then I inhaled the wines, which is where the ’06 begins to show its age. Where the ’11 is all fresh black currants—sprinkled with cocoa nibs and anise, with that telltale hint of fine, smoked new oak—the ’06 (alcohol high, at 15.7%) is more yielding and pliant. No more currants: blackberry and blueberry jam, but what is that lurking underneath? Bay laurel? Violets? Teriaki? Definitely mocha. The new oak has evolved into old cigar box. These are scents that are hard to define, easy to appreciate. But it’s in the mouth that the vastest difference occurs: The ’11 (alcohol 14.5%) is so tannic, it assaults the gums and tongue like an attack tank, hard, raw in its immediacy, stinging. Old-style tannins, mind you. Mountain tannins. Who knows, given the secrecy. The wineries that sell to him are, presumably, in some kind of financial trouble. It seems to me that all the wines come from mountain vineyards, but in the ’11 the tannins are especially blunt. Of course, 2011 was a chilly year. Score for the 2011: 92.

Then we come to the ’06. It was not a particularly great vintage: okay, adequate, fine. I would not hold this wine much longer. It’s good to go now. The tannins are resolving: the wine has achieved a maturity where ripe, fresh fruit is fading. Complex, interesting, mellowing. But there still are those cabernet tannins. Give it greasy protein fat—a charbroiled steak—and it’s a match made in heaven. Score: 91.

By the way, I did let the ’06 and the ’11—the oldest and the youngest of the wines—sit in the bottle, opened, for 48 hours, to see what happened, which can be very interesting. Both wines went downhill, showing an overripe quality that wasn’t evident to me on opening.

Here are my notes on the other four wines:

2007: Alcohol 15.9%. Very dark, in fact midnight inky black. The aroma is oaky and quite rich in black currants, with shavings of baker’s unsweetened chocolate and black licorice. The flavors are similarly rich, and while the tannins are strong, they’re finely-ground and sweet. You can feel the high alcohol in the form of a slight jalapeno pepper heat. This is quite an interesting wine, one that fans of ripe Napa Cabernet will love. The alcohol level makes its future troubling. Drink now-2016. Score: 91.

2008: Alcohol 15.3%. A bit more elegant than the ’07, but still somewhat hot in alcohol, with similar flavors: black currants, baker’s chocolate, black licorice, and plenty of sweet, smoky oak. Bone dry, with good acidity, a wine to sip on a cold winter night. Score: 91.

2009: Alcohol 15.3%. Like the others, this is an ultra-ripe Cabernet, brimming with black currant, black licorice, shaved chocolate and oak flavors. The tannins are, like the other wines, exceptionally smooth, but they do have a fierce quality. You can taste that Napa Valley sunshine and heat all the way through. Almost identical to the ’08, this is a rich, somewhat Porty wine to drink with rich meats and cheeses on a winter night. Score: 91.

2010: Alcohol 14.9%. Fits right in with the rest. Super-dark black and garnet color. Rich, Porty aromas of black currants, dark chocolate, black licorice and oak. Deeply flavored. Cabernet doesn’t get any riper, yet still with that peppery heat from alcohol. Like the other wines, it will drink well with a rich, fatty steak or filet mignon. I would decant it first and drink it over the next three years before the overripeness takes over. Score: 91.

Discussion: At an average bottle price just under $67, these Cabernets are pricy. For the fullest intellectual appreciation, they require some belief on the buyer’s part that they are from super-famous wineries, or vineyards, or winemakers, that are distressed enough to have had to sell to Cameron Hughes. In their own way, each is distinctive, showing Napa’s classic Cabernet luxe. But each also is marked by overripeness and subsequent high alcohol, with a finish almost of sweetened crême de cassis liqueur and even, at the more chocolatey extremes, Kahlua. Although I recommended drinking them with steak, you could enjoy them slowly as after-dinner wines, like Port or a cordial, to be sipped on the way to oblivion and bed.


Can Cameron Hughes negotiate good times as well as bad?

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Nice to see negociant Cam Hughes getting some love from Big Media, in this case Forbes, who says he “spends his time hunting opportunities that translate into great deals for wine buyers.”

I’ve been a Cameron Hughes Wine fan for years. I nominated Cam for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” award this year (he didn’t get it, alas), because I believe the man has more or less reinvented the old art of the negociant in a way uniquely suitable for the 21st century.

Negociants used to be central to business practice in Bordeaux. Indeed, as Eddie Penning-Rowsell says  in his masterpiece “The Wines of Bordeaux,” “the wines of Bordeaux owe so much to the merchants (negociants) and their enterprise, and they are so entwined in the history of Bordeaux’s growth and production as well as the sale of wine, that to give them…no more than the passing attention they have received so far would be inadequate as well as ungenerous.”

Such names as Barton, Jernon, Skinner, Nerac, Lawton and Guestier are part and parcel with the rise of Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. They bought the wine in cask from producers, blended it and sold it on the market, at a time when the chateaux had not the ability to do so. To be sure, the negociants were not always trusted. Thomas Jefferson warned a friend not to buy from negociants: “I can assure you that it is from them [i.e., the chateaux] alone that genuine wine is to be got, and not from any winemerchant.”

In the 20th century, of course, the Bordeaux negociants lost their primacy, as chateaux developed estate bottling and rising prices enabled them to market their wines directly. The concept of the negociant, by contrast, never really caught on in California (unless you can call something like Gallo a negociant, which I would not). This is why Cameron Hughes is so important.

Not that he was the first. Don Sebastiani first brought the modern concept to my attention in a major way when he established Don Sebastiani & Sons, which did win Wine Enthusiast’s 2005 Wine Star Award for Best American Winery of the Year, on my nomination. But Cameron Hughes has expanded beyond anything Don Sebastiani & Sons envisioned, becoming a worldwide presence. The Recession may have been disastrous to high-end wineries, but it’s proved a boon to Cameron, who profits from Bad Times. He’s able to pick up superpremium wine at discount prices, bottle it under his brand with his now-famous Lot numbers, and give the consumer some of the best values out there.

Not everything Cameron touches is gold. A 2009 Meritage, with a Napa County label, even at $10 was barely drinkable, while a 2010 Field Blend, $11, was rustic and brusque. Perhaps this is solely a function of their prices, for above $15 or so, a Cameron Hughes wine is as near a guarantee of quality as you’re likely to find in a California wine. I don’t have the time or patience to count all the Best Buys and Editor’s Choices I’ve given them over the years.

Will the recovering economy hurt negociants like Cameron Hughes? Probably. When I asked him where his Napa Cabernets came from (the agreements are strictly proprietary), he replied, “If you drive Highway 29 between Yountville and Rutherford, you’ll see.” These are precisely the wineries that were caught in the wringer by the Recession; buying on the cheap must have been as easy for Cameron as shooting fish in a barrel. But we have every reason to suspect the economy is recovering, and as it does, these wineries should be able to return to their normal $40-$60 a bottle price point. It will be interesting to see how Cameron Hughes deals with Good Times as well as Bad Times.


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