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Spotlight: Cameron Hughes


With this post, I’m introducing a new, occasional feature to my blog: Spotlight. I’ll be writing about interesting people doing interesting things in the wine and food biz. If you’d like to be spotlighted, or know someone who should be, let me know.

I’ve been a fan of Cameron Hughes’ wines for years. An admirer of the man, too. He took a business model–the negociant–that was far from a proven success, and made it work. I’ve given a lot of Best Buys to Cameron Hughes wines over the years. His Cabernets and Bordeaux blends are some of the best values on the market.

• age — 40.
• company name — Cameron Hughes Wine
• title
• founding date — 2001
• HQ — San Francisco
• # employees — 25 + 400 contractors
• total case sales — approx. 400,000
• rank, U.S. wine companies — #31
• # SKUs produced — over 100 this year
• why so many? — The idea is to preserve the initial identity and quality of the source wine.
• most expensive wine — $28 [Stags Leap and Napa Valley Cabs]
• cheapest wine — $5 Romanian
• how many countries do you make wine from? — At least ten
• do you level off or keep growing? — Keep growing. Sky’s the limit.
• your background in a few sentences — Started as cellar rat at Corbett Canyon, went into marketing and sales with The Wine Group. Worked at an importer for a year, then started this company.
• born — Modesto. Dad worked for Gallo, then Wine Group.
• describe Cameron Hughes Wine in 1 sentence — We’re a virtual winery and negociant company.
• how find/select your wines? — Through turning stones over. Brokers bring us deals, and we actively go out and try to acquire partnerships and wines. And people come to us.
• are there confidentiality agreements? — Yes. At the very high end, a few folks require those. Folks sell bulk wine for a variety of reasons. For example, we get between 13,000-16,000 gallons of wine blended for us from a super-super high end Napa producer I can’t identify. They’re component wines that didn’t fit into their blends. So they purpose-build blend it for us, not just dregs.
• what do you drink at home — Everything. I buy lots of different wines from lots of retailers all the time. I’m constantly trying new and different things. I’m very eclectic.
• hobbies? — Big skier. Newbie triathlete. Rehabbing my shoulder so I can swim.

On the matter of Trump’s mental state



Even President Obama’s fiercest critics, such as Trump, never questioned his sanity. They called him stupid, or evil, or a terrorist, or naïve, but never insane. In the dozen Presidents I’ve watched in my lifetime, none was ever suspected of being mentally ill.

Until now.

It’s become a meme in the political conversation, not just in America but all over the world: Trump is nuts. Just what specific illness, or illnesses, people think Trump suffers from, though, isn’t clear. Lots of people think it’s narcissism; a Google search for “Trump” and “narcissist” brought 837,000 hits, including this one, from the New York Daily News, which quoted psychologists as diagnosing Trump as showing all the symptoms of “malignant narcissism.”

Then I searched “Trump” and “mental illness” and got even more hits, 1,570,000, including this one from the Atlantic magazine, which adds “grandiosity” to narcissism in the Trump diagnosis. “Grandiosity” is, of course, delusional: an exaggerated sense of superiority to others, to the point of losing touch with reality, which does sound like this President: the personal insults, the authoritarian streak, the disdain for viewpoints other than his own. But then, narcissism and grandiosity are linked: there’s even a mental illness called “Grandiose Narcissism” that’s defined as a flamboyant, assertive, and interpersonally dominant style. Grandiose narcissists are more likely to attain leadership positions, they have an inflated sense of self, are overconfident in making decisions, and don’t seem to learn from their mistakes.”

Sound like someone you know?

Then I Googled “Trump” and “insane” and the results just about blew up my laptop. Number of hits: 23,500,000. Clearly, for a lot of people, when they hear the word “Trump” their immediate word association is “insane.” I like Louis C.K.’s description of him as “an insane bigot.” The film director, James Cameron, went Louis C.K. a step further and indicted Trump’s entire crowd, not only his direct associates, like Bannon, Conway and Spicer, but the Republicans who voted for hm. “These people are insane!” Cameron told the Daily Beast.

But the award for “Most Google hits” goes to “What is wrong with Donald Trump?” Results: 90,400,000. Of course, these hits don’t just include speculations on his mental state; they also include analyses of his draconian, reactionary policies, from the Muslim ban to his war on Mexico to his lies about the size of the inaugural crowd and numbers of illegal voters.

All of which leads up to the Big Question: What will it take for Trump supporters to turn against him? We can’t know the answer at this point, but History can perhaps give us a hint. When Nixon was spiraling down the drain during Watergate, his fans stayed loyal almost to the very end. Until about the late Spring of 1974, they still cheered him on, believing that Watergate was all a plot by Democrats and establishment elitists to drive Nixon from office. It wasn’t until the Smoking Gun tapes came out that all but the most diehard Republicans finally realized that Nixon had to go.

What will Trump’s “smoking gun” be? His mental state. Even the reddest of evangelical tea party Republicans has some rudimentary understanding that it’s not a good idea for a President to be mentally ill—even if he’s from their own party. They’ll tolerate a lot, for a while, but eventually, as Trump becomes ever more irrational, angry, reckless and abusive, they’ll start to talk about it, over coffee or beer or around the water cooler. It will take a lot for them to abandon him: they have massive amounts of emotional energy invested in him, and it’s never easy to admit you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life.

But they’ll get there, and when they do, Trump’s gone. Which will leave us with Pence. Now, a lot of Democrats are warning us, Be careful what you wish for, because if we get rid of Trump, we’ll be stuck with something even worse.

I don’t agree. Pence may have disgusting views, particularly those based on his religious fanaticism, but he’s not insane. When we get rid of Trump, we’ll deal with Pence. One battle at a time…

Wine Reviews



This is another of my occasional wine reviews. I’m not looking to do this a lot, but if wineries care to send me tasting samples, I’ll review them. I have no financial connection to any of these wineries.


En Garde 2009 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $98. I gave their 2007 Reserve 95 points and a Cellar Selection back when I reviewed it 1-1/2 years ago. This was my first taste of the ’09 Reserve, but my former colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, recently gave it 94 points, and another Cellar Selection. There’s something about the aroma, right out of the bottle, that suggests fresh blood that must come from Diamond Mountain’s volcanic soils. Also an eruption of black currants, cassis liqueur and vanilla-y new oak, with something herbaceous: black olive tapenade? An impressive, well-structured, even dramatic wine, but very young. The official alcohol is a mere 13.9%, but it actually feels more spirituous than that, suggesting pairing with a well-marbled steak. You really do want to cellar it for at least six years. Score: 93.

En Garde 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $78. It’s not clear why En Garde has three major Cabernet-based wines from Diamond Mountain, when it seems like two would do: a regular and a reserve. Having said that, this “regular” Cab is quite impressive, rich and bold in blackberries, black currants, red licorice and blueberries, with a grip of tannins and the acidity to get your mouth watering. It has the same blood-iron tang as the Reserve. It’s the brightest, most accessible of the three, which is why it’s my top-rated of their ‘09s. But it also will develop for a dozen years in the cellar. Score: 94.

En Garde 2009 Adamus (Diamond Mountain); $78. I’ve always given high scores to En Garde’s Cabs, and here’s another one. It’s a rich, generous wine that, at nearly six years of age, is starting to shed its youthful precociousness and develop true bottle bouquet. There’s intensely concentrated mountain fruit, in the form of black currants from Cabernet Sauvignon and red cherry liqueur from Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot contribute additional complexities of perfume and structure. There’s a grain of rocky stone that comes from the soil that feels structurally hard in the mouth. We do have to talk about the alcohol which, at 15.5%, is quite high. It does not impact the wine itself, except to give it some body and heat. But it does make it heady. I would drink this lovely wine now. Score: 92.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 545 Cabernet Sauvignon (Coombsville): $29. Who knows where Cameron Hughes gets his grapes and/or wines? He’s a negociant of sorts, and the details of his deals are secret. But somebody sold this to Cameron at a great price, and consumers benefit. It’s a very good Cabernet, dry, full-bodied and richly tannic, with proper varietal flavors of blackberries, black currants, black licorice and dark, unsweetened baker’s chocolate. There’s some spirituous heat throughout, but all in all, this is quite an interesting wine that grows as it breathes in the glass. What a super value. Score: 92.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 515 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $32. Monte Rosso Cab for thirty-two bucks? Yes, and it’s a very good one. It shows the mountain concentration of this famous vineyard, with intense flavors of black currants, cassis liqueur, licorice and raisins, with a firm minerality. The tannins are wonderfully smooth and complex. At 15.4%, it’s high in alcohol, but the slight heat is part of the overall package, and the wine is balanced. This is really a wonderful Cabernet that will gain in the bottle over the next four years, but it’s fully ready to drink now. Score: 93.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 535 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29. From a Calistoga mountain vineyard. Lots of juicy cherries, licorice and red currants in this lovely Cabernet, along with a touch of cocoa powder, anise and pepper. The tannins are ultra-smooth, and there’s a great bite of acidity. Full-bodied and silky, it combines power and elegance, the way Napa Cab should. It’s an absolutely delicious wine right out of the bottle. No aging necessary, just a top-notch Cab. Score: 92.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 525 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29. This is a Cabernet that tastes more expensive than it is. It has a plush, full-bodied mouthfeel that’s so expressive in black currants and blackberries, it could only be New World Cabernet, and quite a good one, at that. There’s some oak here, too, just enough to provide a hint of smoke and woodspice. The tannins play an important role, being thick and complex, but silky, making the wine easy to drink now. You’ll find some liqueurish heat from alcohol that characterizes many Napa Cabs, but it’s nothing a great steak can’t handle, and provides a pleasant, heady buzz. Forget spending $50 or more on a Napa Cabernet if you can find this one. No wonder it’s so good; it’s from Stagecoach Vineyard. Score: 91.

Save Me San Francisco 2013 California 37Cabernet Sauvignon (California); $15. Burgers? Pizza? Tamales? Chopped liver? Sure. This wine is just fine. Don’t be snobby, just gulp it down. Shows nice, ripe blackberry jam and cassis liqueur flavors, with a touch of smoky oak. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.


Save Me San Francisco 2013 Calling All Angels (California); $15. Chardophiles will find the usual buttered toast, peach, orange, pineapple, vanilla, cream and toast flavors. The wine is a bit thin and watery, but the price is fair, and it’s clean and zesty. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.


Save Me San Francisco 2012 Hella Fine Merlot (California); $15. Tastes like cherry-flavored cough medicine, with a slight sweetness and a punch of acidity. It’s the kind of wine someone will serve you at a party, and you’ll drink it with burgers or beef teriyaki and not get all bent out of shape. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 83.


Krupp Brothers 2012 The Doctor (Napa Valley): $100. The blend on The Doctor this year is 48% Tempranillo, 30% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot and 1% Malbec. Tempranillo always plays a major part in The Doctor, and good for Krupp for continuing to tinker with this elusive and often frustrating variety. The 2012 is a lush, complex wine that will have you reaching for metaphors. Raspberries, blackberries and cherries are there, jammy and savory. So are violets, licorice and sage, and a leathery sweetness that may include a touch of brett. Oak barrels bring that smoky, charred wood edge, leading to a finish that’s impressively long in spices and cherry essence. With firm tannins and fine acidity, it’s a wine you can drink now, after careful decanting, but it will have no trouble negotiating the next 12 years. Score: 92.


Handley 2014 Pinot Gris (Anderson Valley); $20. I’m sure there are lots of foods that will pair well with this wine, but pot stickers surely must be among the best. It’s a little sweet, with residual sugar of 1.8%, which gives a honeyed taste to the oranges, papayas and nectarines. The malolactic fermentation was prevented, so the acidity is just right, giving the wine balance and savoriness. It’s a clean, satisfying sipper from a region that does very well with these Alsatian varieties. Score: 89.


Handley 2012 Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley); $32. Handley’s Pinot style is to make a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine, and they’ve succeeded. The ’12 is very dry and elegant, with complex flavors of raspberries, cherries, cured tobacco, dusty spices and dried herbs. The acidity is just fine. It’s not a blockbuster Pinot, and not an ager, but a very pretty, polished and interesting wine for drinking now. The price and quality make it a good restaurant by-the-glass wine. Score: 89.

En Garde 2012 Olivet Court Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $54. A pretty wine, silky and polished, showing lots of deft winemaking skill. The alcohol is a refreshingly moderate 13.5%, so there’s no heat to the cranberry, pomegranate and raspberry fruit. But there is a pleasing earthiness that suggests cured tobacco and dusty Asian spicebox. Plenty of acidity too, to cut through the fat of roasted salmon or lamb. It’s a bit light in body, and probably not ageworthy, but a very pleasant, upscale Pinot Noir for drinking over the next three years. The Olivet Court name refers to a part of the south-central Russian River Valley that produces distinctively cool-climate Pinots. Score: 90.

En Garde 2012 Starkey Hill Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $54. Give this wine a little time to breathe before you drink it. Right out of the bottle, it’s tight and earthy. After a little while, the prettiest aroma of raspberries emerges, although there’s still a wild mushroom scent, and the sweet, charred richness of broiled steak fat. Very fine, refreshing acidity and smooth tannins give the wine tremendous structure. The wine is from a vineyard near Green Valley, planted in the famed Goldridge soil, which seems to give it a distinctive translucency and delicacy. The alcohol is a moderate 14.1%. I would decant it for an hour or two and drink it now, or hold it for up to four years, but only in a cool storage place. Score: 92.

En Garde 2012 Reserve Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $60. A bit severe and brittle, with lots of acidity and a bone dry finish. There’s a nice core of raspberries and cherries, and sweet, smoky oak has been tastefully applied. But that acidity is quite searing. It’s also a little hot, even though the official alcohol is only 14.3%. Needs rich, fatty foods, like grilled salmon, to balance it out. Score: 88.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 483 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $24. For the price, this is one of the best Pinots on the market. It’s so easy to drink, with a silky texture and rich flavors of raspberries, red licorice, cola and toast. All the parts are nice; it’s just a little on the watery side. Score: 87.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 482 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $22. This is a Pinot Noir a good restaurant could sell by the glass at a very fair price. It’s a bit thin, but elegant and silky and dry, with proper Pinot flavors of raspberries, licorice, cola and spices. It has lots of vital acidity. There’s some heat from alcohol, which suggests drinking it with rich, smoky, fatty meats, like steak or lamb, although it would probably overpower salmon or sear Ahi tuna. Score: 88.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 481 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $24. Nicely dry and silky in the mouth, showing real Pinot delicacy. You’ll find flavors of cola and raspberries. The wine turns somewhat harsh towards the finish, the result of acids, tannins and some green tannins. Give it an hour or so of decanting and drink now. Score: 86.

Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 480 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $22. I don’t think this wine is capable of aging, the way many 2012 Russian River Valley Pinots are. It’s too thin. But it does offer plenty of Pinot quality, and drinks very well now, which makes it an especially good value at this price. Bone dry, with plenty of mouthwatering acidity, its flavors are fairly complex, ranging from raspberry and cherry Lifesaver candy to root beer, leather, coffee, mushrooms and exotic baking spices. Oak adds a layer of toast and sweet vanilla. If I owned a restaurant, I’d look for this for my by-the-glass program. It’s the best of Cameron Hughes’ new 2012 Pinot Noirs. Score: 90.

Save Me San Francisco 2013 Soul Sister Pinot Noir (California); $15. With Pinot Noir more than any other variety, you get what you pay for. With this wine, you get a fifteen buck Pinot Noir. It’s delicate and silky enough, and the alcohol is nice and low, but the wine is tough and gritty, with a scoury mouthfeel and thin strawberry, smoke and spice flavors. The brand is from the rock band, Train, and their hearts are in the right place: All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. Score: 84.


Senses 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $??. This polished blush is marked by three things: dryness, acidity and delicacy. The grapes come from near Occidental, and the vineyard is sustainably farmed. The color is sort of salmon-orange, which is typical of Pinot Noir rosés, and there’s an earthiness that accompanies the strawberry, grapefruit and orange peel flavors. The alcohol is a refreshingly low 13.2%. It’s a lovely rosé, fancy and sophisticated. I’d love this with sushi. Sorry I don’t know the price. The winery didn’t tell me, and it’s not on their website. Score: 89.

Siren Song 2013 La Vie Est Belle Pinnot Noir Rosé (Lake Chelan): $25. The Lake Chelan appellation is located within the greater Columbia Valley of Washington State. With an unusual salmon-orange color, the wine is 100% Pinot Noir, a variety that not too many people are vinifying into rosé. It’s a good, sound wine, marked by dryness and mouthwatering acidity. Flavorwise, it’s all about strawberries with a slightly green tinge, with complexing notes of orange and lemon rind and an intriguing herbal quality suggesting dried sage. The alcohol is a refreshing 13.5%. In a day and age when everyone is trying to get a rosé onto the market, this successful bottling is a welcome addition to the club, less fruity than most California rosés and perhaps for that reason more interesting. Score: 88.


Save Me San Francisco 2013 Bulletproof Picasso Sauvignon Blanc (California); $15. This brand is from the rock band, Train, and its guitarist, Jimmy Stafford. The label depicts the famous “Painted Ladies” on San Francisco’s Steiner Street, near where Train used to rehearse. All profits go to Family House, a San Francisco charity that provides temporary housing to seriously ill kids who are being treated at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital. The grapes hail from Monterey County, and that region’s cool climate up in the mouthwatering acidity. The wine is quite dry, with interesting flavors of guavas, green melons and lemon curd. The alcohol is a refreshingly modest 13.6%. Production was 15,000 cases. The winemaker suggests pairing with garlic prawns, and I can’t do better than that. Score: 87.


Siren Song 2013 The Muse Blanc de Noirs (Lake Chelan): $45. This is a good, proper, everyday sparkling wine. It has an invited aroma of baked dough, vanilla, limes and raspberries. In the mouth, it’s a little scoury, with vanilla bean, toast, citrus and raspberry flavors. You can taste the dosage in the sweetness. There’s a nice creaminess throughout. Score: 88.

Millennials and Napa Cabernet: An uneasy relationship



The most interesting part of Silicon Valley Bank’s new report on the future of the wine industry concerns its predictions about Millennials. As Baby Boomers age and die off, Millennials will become the U.S.’s dominant wine purchasers, but “The big issue with millennials is they’re the largest buyers of international wines. They’re also really good with buying the discounted bottles,” said the bank’s founder, Rob McMillan.

International wines and discounted bottles. Hmm. That’s good news for South America, Australia and old Europe, and also good news for California companies like Cameron Hughes, Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group and others who sell inexpensive wines. But what are the implications for high-end wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

They can’t be good. Millennials didn’t grow up worshiping at the shrine of Bordeaux, which is the model that Napa Valley mimics, and so far they [Millennials] haven’t given any indication they’re in the thrall of the cults. And why should they be? Millennials pride themselves on their independence. They’re not as hidebound as their parents, and they’re a lot more open to new experiences. Nor are they as hung up with matters of prestige and conspicuous consumption, which are two phenomena that–like it or not–are associated with the allure of cult Cabernet Sauvignon.

There are so many anecdotes about high-end Napa wineries having difficulty unloading product. Like the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Triple-digit Cabs took a real hit during the Recession, and there’s no evidence that they’re recovering now. What I hear through the grapevine is remarkably consistent: retailers who traditionally dealt with expensive Napa wine tell me they can’t even give it away anymore.

Here’s a bullet quote from the Silicon Valley Bank report: “Today we find ourselves at a crossroads, one in which the younger consumer is being trained to believe luxury purchases should come with a discount, and wine is as good or even better coming from foreign sources. With Boomers hitting retirement age, we have a real question about the ability to increase wine sales when older generations who are willing to pay for a good bottle simply can’t consume the volumes they used to, and younger generations can’t afford a good bottle but could consume more.”

That’s an uh-oh moment for the cults. But there is a potential bright spot: “But as Millennials age if they develop the capacity (income) to buy wine, and if their appreciation for wine is strong as reported in the press, they will be the long-term growth opportunity we can anticipate in the business out past 2020,” McMillan writes.

That’s a big “if.” Actually, two big “ifs.” It means that a generation that grew up on Madonna, Pixar movies, Friends and the Internet is suddenly going to turn 40 (starting around 2022) and then develop an infatuation with Screaming Eagle, Colgin and Bryant. Exactly how is that supposed to happen? Why? Isn’t it easier to think it won’t? Besides, even if their income rises so high that they can afford triple digits for wine, why should Millennals restrict their appetites to Napa Valley? McMillan repeatedly stresses the “international” orientation of Millennials. They would look abroad for prestige wines, further eroding the market for high-end domestic wine.

Ever since I started visiting Napa Valley, in the late 1970s, it’s been clear to me that the vintners up there, who are a smart bunch, looked to Bordeaux as their model and inspiration. They wanted their wines to have the worldwide prestige of Bordeaux–and they also wanted Bordeaux prices. That tendency only grew more pronounced in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it’s the prevailing model in Napa Valley.

But could it be based on a false assumption? That assumption was, if Bordeaux could do it, Napa can, too. However, history (and markets) are replete with singularities. Bordeaux came of age when good wine was scarce. Because the Bordelaise, and the Englishmen who drank their wines, were masters of the export trade, which was then a virtual monopoly of the English by the 18th and 19th centuries, Bordeaux became the lingua franca of great wine, for the wealthy white landowners who could afford it,

Do any of those conditions exist today? There is no monopoly of trade. Instead, we have free trade across the world, making it much more difficult for any one product or region to dominate the market. A few gatekeepers can no longer influence whatt everybody else drinks. And good wine is no longer scarce. It’s ubiquitous. You can’t swing a dead chicken without hitting a bottle of something tasty. Nor are most consumers any longer wealthy, white, or landed gentry. There also is the problem, in Napa Valley (to which I alluded the other day in this post) that Napa is not proving to be adept at new forms of communication. There’s a growing hideboundness affecting the culture up there. Of course, we do hear from the “Next Gen” of Napa winery families that they’re concerned about this or that, and intend to craft a message that relates better to average people. But this article, which appeared last week in the San Francisco Chronicle (and has been widely ridiculed, even in Napa Valley), suggests that the Napans may have an uphill battle in their quest for Millennial credibility

Have a great weekend!

Lots of good values in wine, as the economy recovers



This article about how well Gallo is doing in the super-premium tier ($15 and above) squares well with the chatter at the recent Napa Valley wine auction concerning the rather sudden turnaround in the wine business. From misery to marvahlous was the song on everyone’s lips, cults and commoners alike, leading me to believe that, while the general U.S. economy may still be tottery, wine has become a leading indicator of recovery.

(Until yesterday I might have said wine has become the canary in the coal mine of recovery, but Chuck reminded me that that metaphor has a rather unfortunate implication.)

Gallo is selling a lot of MacMurray Ranch, Louis M. Martini, Frei Brothers and Ghost Pines, all of which indeed do offer sound wines reasonably priced. So I thought I’d dig through the Wine Enthusiast database and see what some of my best-reviewed wines have been over the last year in the $11-$20 category.

Exactly 50 scored 90 points or above. Several brands appear more than once: Cameron Hughes, Minassian-Young, Tangent, Rodney Strong, Courtney Benham, Zaca Mesa. These may be described as a deep bench of talent. Of course, some of them also produce much more expensive wines (Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah, for example, is $60 retail), but I like it when a winery can do more than one thing well.

Other names on my list appear only once, but that was over the past year. If you go back further, they appear with greater frequency. Longboard, Sebastiani,  Huntington, Tercero, Claiborne & Churchill, Firestone, Kendall-Jackson,Vina Robles, Geyser Peak–we’re lucky to have them (or the consumer is). It is brands like these (and again, some of them produce super-ultra-premium wines) that make me put on my populist hat and be happy that someone is giving consumers wine they can afford.

On the other hand, here are two very good but expensive Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed lately. Both are from the Russian River Valley, and both are 2011: Rochioli River Block ($60) and Lynmar Quail Hill ($55). It never fails to amaze me how River Block–which as its name implies is on a bank above the Russian River, and whose soil consequently is pure, crumbly sand and gravel–can produce, not just Chardonnays of such exquisite poise, but Pinot Noir. In theory, it should not do so; and Tom Rochioli himself told me he doesn’t consider River Block his best. But don’t tell that to the wines! It just shows to go that, once again, the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. Or maybe all it shows is that great viticulture can make up for deficiencies in the soil. Or both.

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