2006 Hughes-Wellman Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena

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.

In 2005, a guy named Cameron Hughes met winemaker Sam Spencer. Sam, who has his own label called Spencer Roloson, had just been offered some choice Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, but wasn’t interested in adding a Cabernet to his lineup. On a whim he offered to make the wine for Cameron, to bottle under his own label.

Now you need to know something about Cameron to understand why the idea of making his own wine was something of a radical concept for him in 2005.

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.

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 them 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.

To say that Cameron has been successful is a bit of an understatement. The concept of “Ten Buck Chuck” caught on like wildfire and he’s barely been able to keep up with demand. But until 2005, his entire model was based on buying wine someone else had made and putting it in his own bottle.

The idea of paying someone to make a wine specifically for him didn’t quite fit in the plan. So while other winery owners might have leaped at the chance that Sam offered him, Cameron hesitated.

But the fruit was too good to ignore. And it turns out that the timing was right. 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 Sam as the winemaker for their project.

They made 199 cases of the wine without having a clear strategy, other than the fact that it wouldn’t be part of the Cameron Hughes “extreme value” lineup. They weren’t sure if they would ever make another vintage. Heck, they weren’t sure if they’d even sell the first one.

But the wine was good, and so they decided to keep making it. This 2006 is the second vintage, and it is even better than the first. It is rounder and more refined than the 2005, which had some angular herbal notes that weren’t objectionable, but weren’t as pleasurable as the seamlessness of this wine.

The fruit comes from what was up until recently called the La Herradura vineyard on the east side of St. Helena at the base of Howell Mountain. Hand harvested in the early morning, the fruit is destemmed and then fermented in separate vineyard 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.

Largely based on the success of their collaboration, Sam Spencer has now become the head winemaker for Cameron Hughes Wines, which means he’s responsible for helping to source and blend all the wines.

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

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of rich cherry and tobacco aromas. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly smooth and balanced, with velvety tannins and rich black cherry fruit, buoyed up by good acidity. A hint of woodsmoke enters towards the finish and lingers like a haze over sweet chocolate and black cherry fruit with a hint of earthiness. Nicely balanced and effortless to drink, this is an example of why people love Napa Cabernet so much.

Food Pairing:
This is a classic red meat wine. I’d love to drink it with Texas barbecue.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $50

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