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11.28.2005

Cameron Hughes Wines, San Francisco: Current Releases

The continued evolution of the global wine marketplace has made many things possible for many people. Small regional wineries that couldn't survive, let alone exist twenty years ago are now thriving because there are folks out there like me and you that are looking for just the type of wines they are producing. Likewise, the proliferation of estateless wineries (bonded, licensed wineries that own no land and may even rent their winemaking facilities) has exploded in California in particular. Finally, a relatively recent phenomenon for California and the US (though old news to the negociants in France) has surfaced in what I will call surplus winemakers. These folks don't buy grapes to make into wine, they buy wine to make into wine.

ch.logo.pngMany consumers are unaware of the large amounts of wine that get made but never get bottled and sold to consumers. This wine is instead sold, by the barrel, so to speak, to other businesses who do everything from make vinegar to make those hotel branded bottles you will sometimes get in your suite. Increasingly, however, there are a whole class of folks who are searching out that surplus wine and turning around to bottle it themselves.

Cameron Hughes is exactly that type of guy. He's got a long background in wine sales, and has lots of connections to wineries as a result. Over the years he heard many times from winemakers who had multiple barrels of finished wine that they couldn't sell for some reason -- either there was no demand in the marketplace for it, or for some reason the winery ended up with more wine than they wanted. At a certain point the message sank in -- there was lots of wine out there, and some of it was really good wine, and it was available dirt cheap.

So what's an enterprising guy to do? Cameron decided to start a label to sell these wines at what he calls an "extreme value level." Though he won't ever advertise them this way, in public hell affectionately refer to them as "ten buck chuck."

His wines, made from vineyards and wineries that by contract cannot be disclosed, and blended by winemakers who by contract cannot be identified, are designed to have an extremely high QPR -- or Quality-to-Price-Ratio. Typically, the wine that Cameron bottles would sell for two to three times the price he puts them on the market for.

Cameron has been so successful with these wines that he has now gotten to the point where he's not only being opportunistic and snapping up wine when he hears about it, but is proactively working with winemakers to arrange for their excess juice, and to have some of them help him with final blends.

Sound too good to be true? Well, there's a slight catch to all this. You can't exactly run down to your local wine shop and pick these wines up. Most of Cameron's inventory is sold to Costco here in Northern California, and to other large retailers in Chicago and on the East Coast.

And are the wines any good? Well, you can read my tasting notes and scores below. These wines are mostly very jammy and fruit forward, which is a conscious choice on Cameron's part, and which may be responsible for why they fly off the shelf at Costco, but they may not be to everyone's taste. In terms of scores they're not off the charts, but compared to nearly every other wine in their price range at your local supermarket they're likely to be significantly better buys.

TASTING NOTES:

2001 Cameron Hughes "Lot 3" Petite Sirah, Lake County, CA
A deep inky garnet color, this wine has a perfumed nose of grape candy, blueberries, and cassis. In the mouth it is dominated by cassis and blueberry fruit flavors with surprisingly soft and insignificant tannins, and some light earth tones that don't restrain the very dominant fruit, but add some complexity. Score: 8.5. Cost: $9.99.

2001 Cameron Hughes "Lot 5" Zinfandel, Sonoma County, CA
This wine is medium garnet in color, with a nose of strawberry jam, ripe figs, and tobacco. In the mouth it is jammy and heavily tilted towards blackberry and blackberry pie flavors, and just a hint of spices in a reasonable finish. Lacks some complexity but the fruit will likely make this a crowd pleaser. 88% Zinfandel, 12% Petite Sirah, all from Dry Creek Valley. Score: 8/8.5. Cost: $9.99.

2002 Cameron Hughes "Lot 7" Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, CA
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nice nose of cola and cherry flavors with a hint of vanilla and oak. In the mouth it is well balanced with cherry cola, vanilla, and light mocha flavors buoyed by a nice acidity and very light tannins that carry the wine through to a fairly impressive finish. Definitely the best Cabernet I've ever had for the price. Score: 8.5. Cost: $9.99.

2003 Cameron Hughes "Lot 8" Pinot Noir, Monterey County, CA
A medium garnet color in the glass, this wine has a nose of pomegranate and roasted nuts. In the mouth it has primary flavors of redcurrant, and tart raspberry pie. Lacks some acidity that would make it lighter on the tongue. Score: 8. Cost: $9.99.

2003 Cameron Hughes "Lot 9" Syrah, Paso Robles, CA
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a promising nose of chocolate, cherries, and lavender. In the mouth it is over extracted with dominant, heavy fruit flavors of blackberry jam and candied boysenberries. This wine was just bottled, and may settle down into a little more complexity, but when I tried it, it was very lopsided towards fruit, fruit, fruit. Score: 7.5/8. Cost: $9.99.

2002 Cameron Hughes "Lot 10" Cabernet, Sonoma County, CA
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a classic cherry and tobacco nose. In the mouth it has nice tannic structure and decent acidity with primary flavors of cherries, with a slightly odd almond taste as well, which didn't integrate well for me, but gave the wine some distinct personality. Decent finish. Score: 8/8.5. Cost: $9.99.

WHERE TO BUY:

Check your local Costco if you're a California resident. You can also purchase some of his wines on the Cameron Hughes Wine web site, or if you're really interested, I suggest you contact Cameron directly at 1-800-805-197.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

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