Cameron Hughes Wine

Interview with wine negociant Cameron Hughes

If you’ve ever bought wine at Costco, you’ve most surely come across Cameron Hughes Wine Lot Series.  Cameron has built a formidable brand out of rescuing high end “orphans” and repurposing them for the value driven consumer who appreciates high quality wine.

Cameron was recently in Scottsdale, Arizona for a wine dinner at Tommy V’s Urban Grille, with tickets being sold exclusively through select Costco’s.  I managed to sit down with Cameron for a few minutes and asked him about his business model, production levels and future plans, as well has his prognostication for what wine region may be “hot” in 2013.

Cameron Hughes Wine website

Photos from the wine dinner on the Weekly Wine Journal Facebook Page

Behind the scenes at Cameron Hughes Wine

Cameron Hughes Wine tasting room

Inside the Cameron Hughes headquarters

On Friday June 17th I spent the morning at Cameron Hughes Wine headquarters in San Francisco.  Having been a fan of many of his wines over the years I was quite excited to see behind the scenes.  Cameron and his wife/business partner Jessica were tied up on business, but they were kind enough to set me up with their on staff Sommelier for a private one-on-one tasting.

San Francisco office

Media Tasting Room

The first thing I noticed is the headquarters are very modest.  There’s a reason why Cameron Hughes is able to deliver exceptional value, and it’s not because he has lavish digs in a posh neighborhood.

I met the sommelier and she brought me into the tasting room, where there was an impressive collection of CH Wines on the wall, as well as a sizeable line up for our morning taste test.

I will post separate reviews of each wine I tasted in future posts, but for now I will give a brief overview.  First thing I noticed was the Riedel stemware.  Very nice, I am a stickler for appropriate wine glasses and I was relieved to see the very best on hand.

Quite a few of the wines had not yet been released so it was nice to get the inside “scoop” as they say in the news business.  Among the collection were some interesting whites, an Albarino from Clarksburg “Lot 240″ and a Chardonnay from Willamette Valley “Lot 215″ as well as a Rose from Napa, “Lot 256″

Cameron Hughes office San FranciscoAfter the whites we breezed through a GSM, a Pinot Noir and a couple of Syrah’s but Cameron is better known for his reds, and in particular his Cabernet Sauvignons.  Which is were the tasting started to get really interesting.

I had a chance to taste the brand new release, Lot 230 from Chalk Hill Sonoma.  This lot is the 4th release from the same vineyard allocation.  It’s drinking very big and bold right now, alcohol is in check, but the wine could use another 6 months in the bottle to calm down a bit.  That would put it ready to pop and pour approaching the Holiday season.  Next up was Lot 211, a Napa Valley Cabernet.  I was lucky to taste it as all 3,100 cases of it are sold out!  The wine won gold at the Critics Challenge and LA International Wine Competition.  More on this wine in the future.

Cameron Hughes Cabernet

2007 Hughes-Wellman Cabernet

My visit to the Cameron Hughes Wine offices culminated in a tasting of the 2007 and the unreleased 2008 Hughes-Wellman Cabernet’s from St. Helena.  These wines are not part of the Lot program.  The wines are a joint project between Cameron’s father and his friend of over 50 years ,Sandy Wellman.  These small production (less than 800 cases made) wines are made with the help of Cameron Hughes winemaker Sam Spencer.  The price tag is by far the most expensive in the CH Wine lineup at over $50 a bottle.   The 2007 was drinking wonderfully, the 2008 could use another year in the bottle.  But having said that, the $50 price tag is an exceptional deal.  Both of these wines drink every bit as good as most of the $100+ wines I enjoyed on my trip to Napa Valley.  Once I get my storage logistics sorted out I will definitely be stocking up on both of these vintages, I just hope there is some left by the time I order!

Cameron Hughes Wine

A 1 minute video of scenes behind the scenes:

Cameron Hughes Wines | A Revolutionary Wine Business Model

Wine bottlesThose of you that read my blog know that Cameron Hughes wines are nothing new to me.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Cameron Hughes label, do yourself a favor and read the recent Wall Street Journal article titled Taking advantage of the wine glut.

Cameron Hughes has undertaken an innovative business model, buying up the excess supply of high-end winery’s wine at a bargain basement price. The Cameron Hughes label is then slapped on the bottle and sold for a fraction of the price to retailers across the states. Hughes has taken advantage of the current over supply in California to build a reputation for quality, affordability, and entrepreneurial prowess.  The 2008 Cameron Hughes Lot 200 Napa Valley Cabernet really takes his business model to the next level.

Lot 200 Label

Lot 200, $200 Juice?

The fruit for this monster Napa Cab comes from three of Napa’s most prestigious sub appellations: Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville. On his website Cameron gives just a glimpse of who’s juice this maybe.  He had to sign a 3 page Non-Disclosure Agreement which left very little left to say except that the people he acquired this wine from do not sell a bottle of wine for under $200 and have multiple 100 point scores under their belts.  This wine was available for $27 on the Chwine.com website but sold out in a matter of weeks when Costco bought almost ALL of the 4,000 cases produced!

lot 182 label

Lot 182, 4 years in shiners

Another outstanding value is Lot 182 Atlas Peak Meritage.  As the story goes there was a mix up in this deal and the labels had already been printed when Cameron discovered that this Meritage was actually 90% Cabernet and could have been sold as an Atlas Peak Cab, but c’est la vie!  This wine was purchased in shiners and had been minding its own business in a cellar for 4 years before being released.  It is drinking really well right now, and I use it as my go to “pop and pour” wine.

The Cameron Hughes production model has been able to thrive in a time when California wines have suffered, becoming less fashionable during the shaky economic climate of the past couple years. California 2009 retail wine sales were down about 3%.  Have you tried any Cameron Hughes Wines or any American wine negociants?

More Reviews:

Lot 200

Lot 182

Cameron Hughes | Wine Tasting | Scottsdale Phoenix January 2011

Cameron Hughes ScottsdaleFree wine tastings can be a great way for wine companies to get exposure in the market place.  For Cameron Hughes Wine Company, however, the free wine tasting held in Scottsdale, Arizona last Thursday night,  was a way to say thanks to their customers.   The private, invite only event was a “customer appreciation” wine tasting held to say thanks to their loyal supporters and early adopters of the Cameron Hughes Wine concept. Cameron Hughes Wine Co-Founder Jessica Hughes flew out from San Francisco to personally thank the 100 or so VIP guests  who gathered at North Scottsdale’s Hodson Jewellery Gallery.  The evening featured 12 new releases from one of America’s most successful wine negociants, and even a few unreleased small lots.  Guests were also treated to the culinary creations of Hashana Baker from I Love it Gourmet.

Row of wine bottles

An impressive selection

The wine list was impressive, even by Cameron Hughes standards.  California was well represented, and in particular the sub appellations of Napa including Atlas Peak, Stag’s Leap, Oakville, Rutherford.  There were also wines from Alexander Valley, both sides of Carneros and there were also some interesting lots from Chile and Washington State. Here is a quick list of the Lots that were sampled: Lot 182, Lot 189, Lot 190, Lot 191, Lot 197, Lot 200, Lot 208, Lot 216, Lot 222, Lot 225, Lot 227

Wine labelI found Lot 182 particularly approachable, and I learned that this particular Lot is labeled as a Meritage, but is actually a blend of 90% Cabernet, 5% Cab Franc, and 5% Petite Verdot.  This wine is a 2005 vintage and has over 4 years in the bottle and it is drinking amazing right now.  With only 1,700 cases produced and selling for $15 a bottle this wine won’t be around for long. See my complete review of Lot 182 here.

wine labelI also found Lot 197, a 2008 Napa Valley Merlot to be quite interesting.  I am not normally a big Merlot drinker, but this Merlot was more like a big powerful and ripe Cabernet.  This lot has yet to be released and should sell out very quickly as only 518 cases are available.  I was talking with Jessica Hughes and I remarked that I was really enjoying Lot 197 and she said “Oh that is reeeeallly nice, it’s from…” and she just barely managed to cut herself short.  Everyone who knows the way Cameron Hughes Wines work, knows that the sources of the wines are a closely guarded and legally protected secret.  The wines are often purchased with lengthy Non Disclosure agreements to protect the brands that are selling pretty much the same juice for $100+ a bottle. See my complete review of Lot 197 here

Co Founder

Jessica Hughes

In my conversation with Jessica I also asked her about the dynamic between her and Cameron.  I asked her whether they were like two peas in a pod, or more like a Ying and a Yang.  She said the latter.  Jessica said that Cameron has an absolutely amazing palate and actually writes most of the wine descriptions himself,  Jessica on the other hand is a natural promoter.  This is evidenced by the fact that she mingled and chatted enthusiastically and non-stop with customers for close to 3 hours.

As the event wound down you could tell the guests were so enjoying themselves that they didn’t want to leave!  Most guests placed orders for multiple cases and I got thinking that this was actually an interesting way to set up a new channel of sales. Pouring chardonnay Cameron Hughes has been relying heavily on sales through Costco, but it can be quite difficult to sell when you are not allowed to taste, and don’t have time to interact on a personal level with your customers.  Cameron Hughes Wines plan to set up more of these types of private tastings across the country.   How do you get invited?  If you’ve bought a significant amount of wine from their website, you will most likely get an invite.

A short video of the event and Jessica speaking:

See more pictures from this event on my Facebook Page

Cameron Hughes Wine Homepage

Rise of an American Wine Negociant

The Oxford Companion to wine defines a Negociant as “a wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and wine makers and sells the result under its own name.”

According to the Wine Curmudgeon, this approach is a centuries old tradition that began in the French region of Burgundy.  Some well-known negociants you might have heard of: Louis Jadot, George Duboeuf?

During the recent economic recession, I picked up a part-time job selling wine nights and weekends for one such negociant.  The merchant is Cameron Hughes Wine Company.  The way the company works, is they track down orphaned mixing components from premium and ultra premium producers and retool them, and or they buy actual bottling blends.  Cameron’s family background is in the liquor and wine business, and so he knows a thing or two about over production in the wine industry.  He negotiates  deals with producers and a big part of the deal is that the producer is to remain anonymous.  The producers have expensive brand names to protect and so what Cameron does is offer something called the “Cameron Confidential”.  He gives you just enough information for you to speculate, but not enough to reveal the source.   Sometimes these deals can take months to come together, sometimes the deal never materializes and sometimes a deal just falls right in his lap.  Each deal that Cameron completes is given a “Lot’ number.  It’s the easiest way to track which deal is which.   I am reminded of the story of Lot 84.  According to “Cameron Confidential” This deal came to him through his banker!  His own banker had financed the original deal on the winery and now that the partnership was being split and the property being sold, he had a tip.  The new owner was not interested in running vineyard, or keeping the brand, he just wanted the Mount Veeder property for the view.  So within a couple of hours Cameron had his winemaker knocking on their door to buy all the remaining inventory.  The result is 2,400 cases of wine that retailed between $60-$80 through their tasting room and mailing list only, being sold by Cameron for $19! The 2 prior vintages received 92 and 93 point ratings. I had a chance to pick up a half dozen bottles of this wine, and now that they are all gone, I am wishing I had bought more.

With the recent recession, there has been a lot more wine for Cameron to choose from.  The recession came on so fast that most wineries had little time to adjust their production, and rather than lower their price to move product, they are willing to part with some of their juice.  In fact, some places have parted with half or entire vintages.  Nowadays Cameron is  not only buying the remaining mixing components,  he is  also picking up finished bottling blends, the exact same stuff that these producers are selling for $95+.

Have you ever heard of a 90 point Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon for $20?  see Lot 100. How about a 90 point Chalk Hill Sonoma Cabernet for $16? see Lot 140 How about a 92 point Diamond Mountain Cab for $22?? See Lot 146 You get the point: Extreme value.

Cameron Hughes Wine was rated by Inc magazine as the 18th fastest growing company of 2008, ranked #2 out of the top 100 San Fransisco-Oakland-Freemont area businesses and ranked #3 in the top food and wine businesses overall!

Visit Cameron Hughes Wines website here

$1000 of wine for $250!

Yes, it’s another plug for Cameron Hughes! And no I am not getting paid to do this.

I ordered myself a case of wine for Christmas…here’s what I ordered:

2 bottles of Lot 100, 2006 Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon  $21 each

2 bottles of Lot 116, 2007 Napa Valley (Mt. Veeder, Oakville, Rutherford, Spring Mountain) Cabernet  $22 each

3 bottles of Lot 121, 2006 Spring Mountain Cabernet $20 each

one bottle of Lot 143 2007 Napa Valley (Howell Mountain) cabernet   $22

one bottle of Lot 149 2007 Napa Valley (Mount George) Cabernet $22

3 bottles of Lot 164 2007, Napa valley Rutherford Cabernet

Almost every one of these Lots were taken from $85 + programs, and some of them are actual bottling blends, not 2nd and 3rd run.  The shipping was free.

I am going to drink these over the holidays and post reviews in the new year.  In the meantime entertain yourself by clicking on the links below for more info on these wines…like how many cases were produced, what the Wine Enthusiast rated them ect ect.

Lot 100

Lot 116

Lot 121

Lot 143

Lot 149

Lot 164

Thank you to Cameron Hughes Wine

Near the end of May 2008, I responded to a Craigslist post seeking part-time wine sales people.  The down turn in the economy was having a serious impact on my finances and I needed a secondary source of income to try to make up the difference.  I was hired one Sunday at the end of May, and the rest is history.   Well here’s the history.

When I first started we were selling Lot 35, Yountville District, Cabernet.  Cameron Hughes wine, as of December 2009, is now selling Lot 164!   In the span of 19 months, working just 2 days a week, I have sold over 1,100 cases of wine to tens of thousands of customers.  I have learned an incredible amount during this time.  I have developed the confidence necessary to talk with hundreds of people a day.  I have learned first hand what sells.  I have read a lot of books over the years about how to be a salesman.  All of them have been utterly useless compared to actually going out and doing it. And instead of writing a book full of fluff while holding off on telling you the “secrets” to sales until the very end I am just going to sum it up like this:  Enthusiasm sells.  And you can’t be truly enthusiastic about something if you don’t truly believe in it.  It’s that simple.  I truly believe that there are almost no wines  that can compete with Cameron Hughes Wine at the same price point.  His wines drink like wines that sell for two, three four even five times the price!

I have also learned an incredible amount about wine.  The thing that I really like about Cameron Hughes is that I don’t have to wait until next years vintage to try out one of his new wines.  He is a wine negociant and therefore can release wine anytime he acquires its, which is usually every 6-8 weeks.  So every 2 months I have been enjoying about 4-5 completely new styles of wine that I would have had little exposure to otherwise.

So why am I thanking Cameron Hughes and everyone that I have met there?  Because I am stepping back from wine sales.  I have been working 2 jobs, 7 days a week for almost 20 months now.  I am burned out.   I am going to take some much needed time off, and spend time with family and friends.  I would like to travel to Napa!  Yes it’s true, I have never been there, weird?  And yes, I am going to continue with this blog!

I want to thank Jessica for helping me out with a whole bunch of paper work!  I want to thank Rob for helping me to be less verbose!

I especially want to thank Terri Reed.  Without her guidance and patient mentoring in the art of “hand selling”  I never would have lasted this long.

VISIT THE CAMERON HUGHES WEBSITE HERE!

Cameron Hughes, Lot 140. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chalk Hill, Sonoma, 2007

Currently this wine is only available at select Costco Wholesale Stores.

From the company literature: “…aromas of raspberry, Bing cherries, and roasted herbs, accompanied by delicate undertones of anise and hints of mint…vibrant mouth-feel and substantial tannins, the palate enjoys cocoa and cherry, with a distinct coffee finish.  Nicely balanced, with good acidity and well integrated oak…mid-palate is fruit-driven and lush, leading toward a more structured, textural finish…”

I decanted for an hour before my first sip.   I was in love with the aroma of this wine right away.  I really picked up on the raspberry and anise.  On the mouth a definite cocoa and cherry, ripe Bing cherry.  A little later on, the mint started to make a subtle appearance.  The oak is really well balanced, (there is no “Oak Monster” lurking in the bottle as Gary Vaynerchuk would say)  This wine is a lot more to my liking than the William Hill Estate Cabernet that I reviewed last week.  Lot 140 blends the pretty aromas of Chimney Rock Cabernet with the big fruit-driven tannins of Spring Mountain.  It’s everything I like about wine, all in one bottle!  Even more amazing is the alcohol content… 14.9%!  I had no idea it was that high, there is absolutely no heat present.  And here’s the kicker… it retails for $13.99 at Costco!  How can it be so good and so cheap??!  You can find Cameron Hughes Wine Lot 140 at select Costco’s in California and Arizona.

P.S.  (Dec 16th–just found out–total production on this wine is 8,000 cases)

Has anyone else tried Lot 140?  What do you think?  Go ahead and leave a comment!