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New Wine Reviews: Cameron Hughes


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.

  1. connie winners says:

    Hi Steve, See your newsletter promoted me to send this off. I was the Sales & Marketing director for Bernardus Winery when the brand first released. I recalled that you met Mr. Pon at the winery and showed up in a VW Bug. I don’t know if you have hear, but Mr. Pon passed away in Holland on Monday, September 30th.

  2. Dear Connie, I’m very sorry to hear that. Of course, I didn’t know him well, but he seemed like a very nice man. And the wines were quite good. My condolences.

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