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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.

  1. Many wineries and negociants use long term contracts to provide good values in an up market: and allows growers a positive income when the market is downt. We are a bulk negociant to provide long term and spot market wine grapes and bulk wine.

  2. Steve
    This may be going back too far – but Glen Ellen Winery in the mid 1990’s might need to be included in some of the first negotciants. Their belief in “No Bricks and Mortar” allowed them to grow rapidly and most of it was initially fueled by the bulk market at the time. Not sure if this meets your definition – but thought they should be mentioned.

  3. Kathy Frederico says:

    Great article! As a retired sommelier, I now work as an independent contractor for Cameron Hughes. Doing my speil at Costco. People ask “free tastes?” I reply, “no, free talk”.

    These are really good wines at a more than fair price. Currently the is an Oakville Merlot at $12.99 that would honestly sell for 2-3 times the price if it had a recognizable label. And a very interesting Torrantes from Argentina at $7.99. That one’s a hard sell, no one knows what it is.

    Having been in the business for over 20 years, I wish I’d known about his wines a long time ago.

  4. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Eddie?
    Eddie??
    Eddie Penning-Rowsell???
    I am glad to know that you are on a first name nickname basis with good old EPR.

    This must be a major turning point if the main media is doing coverage of Cam. I hope he knows what happens after you reach the front page. Always a bad omen. He better innoculate pre-emptively for TCA and Brett, and hire a medicine man for good winter rains north of SF.

  5. Time flies – Glen Ellen’s real push was the mid to late 80’s.

  6. Dear Donn Rutkoff, I don’t know if media coverage is the beginning of the end for a wine businessman!

  7. I’ve always been curious to see what will happen with the U.S. negociants once the Recession ends and the grape glut tapers off. I think they’ll just source more juice from other countries.

  8. I have sold more Cameron Hughes over the past three years than any other retailer in Ohio but the “handwriting has been on the wall” since the crappy 2011 harvest in Napa.

    I hope the man can continue sourcing TOP NOTCH Napa wine and am keeping my fingers crossed for more stellar Lots.

    Bob Eppich
    Colonial Wine & Beverage
    Cleveland, Ohio

  9. Hi Steve- thanks for the good word and for posing an interesting questiheresy least to me).

    There is so much I want to say but I’m travelling right now and typing with my thumb so I’ll be brief. The negociant model is all about flexibility. We bought big in 2009 and 2010 and made a lot of Napa cab and other core varietals through our winer/grower partner program. To augment the mid sized and fairly uninspiring 2011 CA vintage we sourced a lot of wine from Chile, Argentina and Lot of high-value wines out of Europe (Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux, Brunello, Rhone, Rioja, etc). Now, Europe has tightened (briefly, trust me, and only at the low end) a bit but CA is about to burst at the seams again. For 2012, we crushed 5,000 plus tons in what amounts to 5 core facilities and another 20 smaller partner wineries. The key to a successful, sustainable negociant business is sourcing flexibility as well as being able to finance the ebbs and flows of supply…the lean/mean model stays the same as does the QPR equation…Cheers!

  10. Donn Rutkoff: 6-12″ of rain are forecast for Sonoma County by Saturday night. Maybe Cameron Hughes has already hired a medicine man.

  11. darn auto-correct…that was supposed to read “interesting question (at least to me).

  12. Clayton – my medicine man already delivered in 2012 ;-)

  13. doug wilder says:

    After tasting over a dozen wines (all California) from Cameron Hughes this year alone there were several pleasant surprises. Lot 288, a Lake County SB sells for $11 and is very decent quality. Even some I didn’t like as much still deserve a nod for relatively small (3000 – 6000 cases) of wine that are intended for casual drinking. I never forget a lot of wines are not available to 99.9% of the wine drinkers in America. I like the discovery part of sitting down with a box of CH and having no idea what is inside, pop, pour and scribble. Regardless of the economy there will always be grapes and juice out there looking for a home. He is well positioned to make sure some of it gets to market in a broadly diversified selection.

  14. cameron hughes is a good winemaker, and good winemakers make good wine.
    sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

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