Cameron Hughes Wine, Costco’s Best Bargain?

Tasting at Charles CommunicationsI had a chance to sit down with couple Bay Area Wine Bloggers last week, Alder of Vinography and John from Corkdork, and taste through some new releases from Cameron Hughes Wines. Cameron lead the tasting that was put on by Kimberly Charles of Charles Communications in San Francisco, and I must say, I was impressed. But before we talk about the wines, let me give you a little background information on this unique operation.

Cameron is what you would refer to as a Negociant Winemaker, that is, he doesn’t grow his own grapes, or have his owner winery. Instead, Cameron sources finished wine from a winery, puts it in bottle, puts his label on it, and takes it straight to Costco. This brilliant method slashes most distribution costs, since the standard “three tier” distribution method is cut out, and Costco doesn’t really mark up the wine. As Cameron puts it, wine doesn’t cost a lot to make, it costs a lot to market. So, the savings are passed on to the consumer, and the wines retail for around $10. But don’t let the price fool you, these are serious wines. The first wine that really stunned the market was the 2002 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 7, which Costco had a hard time keeping in stock after word spread between friends, family, and on wine forums.

So how does he get his hands on this stellar wine? Many times a winery will have a few lots that don’t fit their needs, so that finished wine is sold to large producers as a “silver bullet” to be blended with mediocre wine to help kick quality up a notch. Instead of blending this wine away, Cameron has struck a deal to purchase this finished juice and sell it under his label. How does the wine remain consistent if it’s being made by different winemakers? He trusts his palate, and uses only lots consistent with his taste buds and vision. This has enabled Cameron Hughes to offer wines from all over California, with new offerings due out soon from all over the world. (The boat from Stellenbosch is already en route.)

Cameron Hughes

The following are my notes from the portfolio tasting I attended on July 28, 2006. Some of these wines have not yet been released, or are already sold out.

Cameron Hughes 2003 Petite Sirah Lot 11 Paso Robles $10
This blend of 95% Petite Sirah, 5% Zinfandel has a beautiful aroma of cedar, plum, and fig with a medium bodied mouthfeel full of blackberry and spice, accentuated by a nice round finish. A very nice wine. 3,000 Cases produced (Sold Out). 88pts JAT

Cameron Hughes 2003 Syrah Lot 12 Sonoma Mountain $10
Update: Tasted last night. This is an amazing Syrah, and definitely shows the consistency of Cameron’s palate. This Ruby Red wine screams blackberries and vanilla with a touch of oak on the nose. The round, juicy mouthfeel complements the velvety tannins that fill your mouth but don’t overwhelm. This wine carries a long, complete finish and definitely gets the big “V” stamp for Value. 92 pts JAT

Cameron Hughes 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 13 Dry Creek / Napa Valley $10
This bottle of 80% Dry Creek Cabernet receives some softening with the addition of merlot (20%) from Napa. This wine has a fleshy berry and light oak taste with chewy tannins that will definitely develop in bottle. If you are going to open this one soon, let it decant for at least an hour. 2,400 Cases produced (Sold Out) 88pts JAT

Cameron Hughes 2003 Merlot Lot 14 Napa Valley $10
If unpopularity has kept you from buying Merlot, that’s great, more of this wine for me. This is a great effort with 66% of the fruit coming from Rutherford, the other 24% from Pope Valley. This bottle gets a hint of Cabernet Franc (5%) to firm it up a little, but it is still very succulent and sexy. A simple aroma that doesn’t overwhelm, this wine carries hints of Cherries, Blackberries, and Cocoa on the palate and offers a balanced finish with soft tannins. This wine is drinking great now, but I recommend decanting it for an hour or so. 3,700 Cases produced. (Just Released!) 90 pts JAT

Cameron Hughes 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 15 Rutherford $13
This amazing blend of 66% Rutherford fruit, 18% Pope Valley, 16% Oakville screams of Cherries, Raspberries and Chocolate on the nose. In the mouth, a light mineralty and toasty oak appear, interwoven with hints of Cassis and Blackberries. The wine is fleshy and ripe, with a great mouthfeel and finish. 2200 Cases Made. 92pts JAT (Get this one before it sells out, just released!)

Cameron Hughes 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 16 Stags Leap District $14
A great wine from Stags Leap for Under $15? You betcha! Put down that bottle of Sleeping Dove, this is the alter eagle! Although this wine is very young, and still developing in bottle, the aroma throws pepper and stone fruit hints at you, with lots of Blackberry/ Cherry character caressing your tongue. Amazingly, this wine offers a silky finish without a tannin in sight. Obviously, this wine is meant to be enjoyed young, but could easily benefit from 2-5 years in bottle. 5,000 cases produced. (Just Released!) 90pts JAT

Cameron Hughes 2004 Barbera Lot 17 Sierra Foothills $9
This Sierra Foothills site is doing a nice job with Barbera, somewhat of a lesser appreciated varietal in California. This dark wine offers notes of crushed rock (thanks for that descriptor Parker…), a nice mineral and dark fruit flavor on the palate, and comes together with a medium bodied mouthfeel and finish. This wine comes across as very food friendly, but has enough finesse to be enjoyed on it’s own. My notes might be off, but I believe production is only around 600 cases, so give your local Costco a call to see if they have this one. (Just Released!) 88pts JAT

A big thanks to Kimberly, Lauren, Cameron, and Alder for putting this thing together, as you can see, the wines were to my liking. I tasted additional wines that day from Epiphany Cellars, Fess Parker Winery, Fortress Vineyards, and Havens Wine Cellars, with notes on those to come, so stay tuned.
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