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08.02.2008

2005 Hughes-Wellman Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa Valley

btl_hughes-wellman.pngGood wine is rarely made by accident. So much can go wrong in the winemaking process that to get something that isn't complete dreck is a triumph, and those who are capable of creating fantastic wines are, despite their modesty and common protestations of "just letting nature take her course," truly talented artisans.

While wines, and great wines in particular, are made with incredible forethought and planning, sometimes wine labels can spring up overnight as the result of an opportune conversation or new friendship.

Such is the case with this wine, which may be the first and only vintage under its label, though after tasting it, and knowing the folks behind it, I'd be surprised if this one didn't take on a life of its own.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

One of the more interesting and enterprising folks in the wine industry that I've met in the last few years is a guy named Cameron Hughes. In just a short period of time, Cameron has made his own name synonymous with a category of wines that he, and his rabidly enthusiastic customers, calls "extreme value" wines.

Cameron has a long background in wine sales, and has lots of connections to wineries as a result. Over the years he's 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 after making their final blends. At a certain point the message sank in -- there was lots of wine out there, and some of it was really good wine, sometimes made by top winemakers, and it was available dirt cheap, as long as someone was willing to promise never to reveal just exactly where, or more importantly, who, the wine came from.

So what was an enterprising guy to do? Cameron decided to become what you might call a modern California negociant (a French term for a type of wine producer who buys grapes or finished wine on the market and bottles it under his own label). He started buying wine from very reputable producers, blending it with other batches, and bottling it for sale under his own name.

Cameron Hughes wine has consisted of small lots of wine, each of which is marketed under simply a lot number and the appellation of the specific wine, and most often for prices between $10 and $20 a bottle. The wines have been sold almost completely through his mailing list and web site, as well as in Costco stores around the country. Due to the cult following he has developed, he has gotten access to more and more interesting lots of wine, which are increasingly not only from California but from elsewhere around the world.

But this is not one of those wines. In fact, it isn't a Cameron Hughes wine at all. It's his dad's wine.

The story goes like this. Cameron's friend Sam Spencer, winemaker and proprietor of Spencer Roloson winery where he makes excellent Syrah (among other things), was given a chance to buy some Cabernet fruit from one of the vineyards where he was already sourcing Syrah. A Cabernet Sauvignon didn't fit into the Spencer Roloson portfolio so he offered to make one for Cameron. But Cameron Hughes wines are all about bargain basement finished wine that can be blended and then sold immediately, not brand new wines made with pricey fruit that require expensive barrels and three years of aging before they get sold.

Coincidentally, Cameron's dad was retiring that year from his job of 33 years, and apparently had an interest in having his own wine. A few phone calls later and a new wine label was born. With the help his best friend, Sandy Wellman, the elder Hughes pulled together the capital to buy the fruit and hire Roloson as the winemaker for their project.

I'm constantly surprised at how quickly, with the right relationships, a wine label can be forged. Gone are the days when in order to make wine you needed to own some land and make huge investments in equipment and more.

The one thing that hasn't changed, however, is the need to have good winegrowing and winemaking talent behind the scenes, which means that it's no surprise this wine is excellent. Sam Spencer's label debuted a number of years ago with great wines, and they've only been getting better with time. His La Herradura Syrah is now one of my favorites of all time, so it's great to see what he does with Cabernet Sauvignon.

In this case, what he does is get excellent mountain fruit from Nell-MacVeagh Vineyard, which sits on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain just to the east of the town of St. Helena. This vineyard, tended to Spencer's specifications, yields few, but very lush bunches of fruit, which are destemmed and fermented in blocks after four days of cold soaking. After fermentation the wine is transferred to 70% new French oak barrels where it ages for 22 months before bottling. Only 199 cases of the wine were made.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Inky garnet in color, this wine has what I might call a "classic" Cabernet nose of bright cherry fruit with aromas of green wood, green bell pepper, and wet dirt. In the mouth it offers smooth, very pretty texture with excellent balance and acidity that allow a complex melange of rich cherry, green wood, and earth flavors to swirl and spike their way along the palate to a nice finish. This wine has a lot going on with it and a nice taut quality thanks to the slightly vegetal qualities that hover well below the threshold of objectionable and add a bit of "old world" character to the mix.

Food Pairing:
This is a classic red meat wine, and I'd love to drink it with a perfectly cooked prime rib.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $50

This wine is only available for sale through the Cameron Hughes web site.

Comments (2)

John Canning wrote:
08.04.08 at 8:59 AM

Read your review with interest as I purchased 2 bottles of this wine when it was first announced. I purchased these sight unseen because of their connection with Cameron Hughes and his organization. I've been very satisfied with CH wines in general and belong to his "Lots of Reds" club which auto ships 3 bottles of all red wines that CH releases. This lets me try one bottle close to release and then the others at six months or longer intervals. This way, if I'm particularly impressed with one lot on initial taste I can order more before they disappear. A number of the lots, I've found, are a bit young and disjointed on release but really come around with time. Which leads me back to the point of this email: When do you think that the Hughes-Wellman cabernet will enter its optimal drinking window? I'm not planning on opening mine for quite a while but I was curious what others might think.

Alder wrote:
08.04.08 at 9:10 AM

John,

I think this wine will be lovely in about 3 to 5 years and will probably improve for at least 10.

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