wine negociant

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 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

Wine Review: 90 Plus Cellars Lot 17, 2007, Merlot, Napa Valley

90 Plus Cellars is a relative new comer to the negociant business.  Their niche is centered on buying up the excess finished wines which have scored 90 points or more, and reselling them at a discount under their own label.  Which brings us to…

90+ Cellars Merlot (Lot 17)

Blend: 81% Merlot 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc

Aging: 12 months in 1/3 New French Oak

The wine retails for $13.99.  It was made from 100% Napa fruit.  That is a good start in my books.  I popped the cork, and let it breathe in the decanter for an hour.

On the nose I detected black currants and subtle oak.

The palate revealed black cherries and at first it was a pretty straight forward wine.  Nothing special, nothing off putting, just okay.  I let it breathe more.  It was worth the wait.  After about 3 hours the richness  opened up revealing plummy tannins.  It reminded me a little of the Bordeaux style, especially later on.  The Rich chewy and young tannins were nice but not overpowering.  At first I thought this was more of a pasta Merlot, but later on  it could have paired well with meats aswell.

The verdict:  A good value at $14.  The wine benefits from a little patience and decanting

This wine was received as a sample

Check out my interview with 90 Plus Cellars here

Visit 90 Plus Cellars website here

Interview with Kevin Mehra, 90+ Cellars, Latitude Beverage Company

This is an interview I conducted through email with Kevin Mehra of 90+ cellars.

WWJ: How long has 90+ cellars been in business? Where is the company based?

Kevin Mehra: The company Latitude Beverage has been in business since 2007 but we launched Ninety+ Cellars August of 2009 and it has quickly gained customer acceptance, we have already shipped just over 19,000 cases. The company is based in Boston MA.

WWJ: How does 90+ cellars ensure that the wine they originally sampled is the wine that they receive?  I have heard of other Negociants having to “send the wine right back to China, where it came from” so to speak.

Kevin: A few things:

1.       We deal with wineries that have a reputation already and can be trusted.

2.       We also send every wine into a lab for a chemical analysis on the wine to check for any impurities.

3.       When we taste a wine and decide to buy it we keep a sample of the wine as the standard, when the final Ninety+ bottle arrives we sample it against the standard to confirm it is the same wine. If the wine passes we pay the remaining balance due to the winery.

WWJ: How many releases has 90+ cellars released, how many current releases are there?  What would you say are some of the best values?

Kevin: We are excited to be bottling lot 20 Reserve Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast this week and just approved an Oregon Pinot Gris which would be lot 21. The best values would be the wines that sold out the quickest which would be lot 15 Pinot Noir from Carneros, it was a phenomenal wine from a producer that would retail it for around $35, our partner retailers sold that same wine for $15, and we sold out of 2,400 cases in 2 weeks. Other wines that have become very popular that we have partnered with the wineries to make extended lots and buy the next vintages on the wines are lot 2 Sauv Blanc and lot 7 malbec, which are $10 a bottle retail and are consistently our top selling wines.

WWJ: Do you reveal where the wines originally came from or did you have to sign NDA’s?

Kevin: No we do not reveal where the wines are coming from and do sign NDA’s if required.

WWJ: There is a lot of talk about “the coming carnage in the California wine Industry” as Alder Yarrow at Vinography puts it.  Basically there is a wine glut, and now there are hundreds of California wineries facing foreclosure.  This provides opportunities for Negociants such as yourself, but how are you going to sort through the hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of cases of unsold vintages some dating back to 2004?  how do you see this cataclysmic re-organization playing out?

Kevin: I believe that things will settle down this year with consumer’s slowly moving back up to the luxury wines and wineries with luxury and trustworthy brands will be back on track. For us I am confident with our relationships with wineries in California and around the world there will always be an opportunity to buy excess wine from each vintage. We represent a very profitable part of their business, they get paid within 30 days and they don’t have to budget any commission or marketing dollars on selling the wine. Many wineries may have over-reacted to the down turn and have laid off half or all of their sales staff which I think is a mistake, in hard times you need to work harder to service your customers. The biggest problem for wineries is the technology in vineyards has improved so much that yields are much higher, I think it’s the increased yields that in the future will be the cause of the wine glut.

WWJ: The wines you purchase, are they back blended?  Do you only buy finished bottling blends, or do you also buy mixing components and rework them yourselves, as some negociants do?
Kevin: No we don’t do any back blending we currently only buy finished wines or clean skins.

90+ cellars website

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