I don’t know if Cameron Hughes invented his California business model, which is to buy wine from other wineries who, for one reason or another, need to get rid of it for immediate income. Then Cameron slaps his own label on it, gives it a Lot number, does some publicity, and sells it, at a fraction of the original purported price. (Wineries, including some very famous, expensive ones, get rid of unwanted inventory more frequently than the public is aware of; this is perhaps the industry’s, or at least Napa Valley’s, most closely-guarded secret.) But if Cameron didn’t invent this model, he perfected it and gave it a face; and I have to assume it, and he, are doing well.
shortly after he launched, Cameron invited me for lunch here in Oakland (at
Oliveto), where, over several glasses of wine, he explained his business model.
I was impressed. He never reveals which wineries the wines are from, but he
hints at top vineyards and famous wineries. Although I never had any reason to
doubt this, as a journalist, it bothered me: the real source of the wines was
unsubstantiated, so we’re left to take Cameron’s word for it. That left the
wines to speak for themselves—and I must say they often spoke eloquently. As I
was to find out over the years, Cameron Hughes’ wines could be amazing values.
recently sent me some new releases for review, which I’m happy to share with
2017 Lot 683 Zinfandel (Sierra Foothills): $10. The Sierra Foothills, a vast
swath of eastern California running down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada
Mountains, is one of the great growing regions for Zinfandel. With very hot
summer days, the grapes get ripe, but cool nights, from downdrafts off the
snow-clad peaks, preserve vital acidity. You’re always going to get fairly high
alcohol in a Foothills Zin; this one’s 15%, which not only results in an
enormously fruity wine but also gives it some heat. Raspberries, cherries,
roasted coffee, raisins, vanilla and a fabulous range of spices—what a
delicious Zin. Yet it’s not at all heavy; you can almost read through the ruby
translucence. And the tannins are soft and silky. Lots of charm here, and lots
of Zinny character. I think of all sorts of foods: barbecue, baked ham, roast
lamb, pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, pizza, broiled chicken—the
possibilities are endless. This is easily the best of the new Cameron Hughes
releases. (Note: The winery paperwork said the price is $10, but on the website
it’s $12. Either way, an amazing value!) Score: 93 points.
2018 Lot 673 2018 Russian
River Valley ($15).
the right notes for a Russian River Pinot Noir: brilliant, translucent ruby
color, bright aromas of strawberries and mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and a
dry, spicy finish. Although the flavors could be more concentrated—the wine is
a little on the light side—they’re pleasant enough. It’s not a blockbuster, but
elegant and clean. I’d drink this wine with lamb above all other meats,
especially if you can sneak some bacon in there. Score: 90 points.
2017 Lot 689 Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley); $13. This Chard plays it right down
the middle, appealing to the American palate with tropical fruit and oak
flavors, wrapped in a creamy texture. It’s simple, but satisfying in a California
Chard way. Will drink nicely with almost anything; if it were up to me, it
would be cracked crab and sourdough, with a great EVOO. Score: 88 points.
Hughes 2016 Lot 686 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $15. This is
textbook Alexander Valley Cab, based on everything I’ve studied and known for
40 years. The tannins are soft and sweetly mellow, making for easy drinking
now. The acidity is just fine, providing a pleasant lift to the fruit. And the
flavors! Oodles of ripe, sweet summer cherries and blackberries, mouth-tingling
spices, a touch of herbaceousness, and a kiss of smoky oak. You don’t want to
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