The Rise of the American Negociant: Cameron Hughes Lot 190

ch“Negociant” isn’t an American word. At least, it didn’t used to be. Wine negociants were guys like Georges Dubouef and Jorge Ordonez — men with European accents who I imagined wearing berets and pencil-thin mustaches. Back in the day it was accepted in the American wine market that fellows like Georges and Jorge (Wow! That’s the same name in two different languages!), would scour the French/Spanish countryside, finding wonderful lots of wine from small, independent producers and labeling them under their own name. These negociants chose their wine well and developed a reputation for quality — for always putting good value in their bottles. American wine drinkers became loyal followers.

But we didn’t have the same kind of creature Stateside until the Great Recession made the bottom fall out of the wine market, leaving a huge bubble — maybe even an ocean! — of surplus wine. And I don’t mean Central Valley, hot-climate, destined-for-a-5-liter-box wine. There was a big giant surplus in the premium to ultra-premium category. Napa and Sonoma wineries that had sold their Cabs in the $50 and up range saw finished cases stacking up in their warehouses, from not just one but two or more unsold (or under-sold) vintages. And let’s not even talk about all that juice in barrels that had nowhere to go…

Most high-end wineries were reluctant to start discounting their wine, because they didn’t want to devalue a brand whose prestige they’d worked many years to develop. But they needed some cash-flow, damn it! So what’s a winery to do?

That’s when the new breed of American negociants, people like Cameron Hughes and the boys behind the Treasure Hunter wines, offered wineries an alternative. Wineries could sell off some of their back-stock to be bottled anonymously and sold for a fraction of its original price. This is certainly a great deal for wine drinkers, who get to drink much better wine than they can usually afford, and it’s a deal for the negociants because it gives them great product to sell. And in the end it’s smart business for the winery, because some cash-flow is better than none.

Let’s be clear that this practice isn’t anything new in California: 10 years ago a producer told me that close to 60% of domestic wine comes from the bulk market. But it’s new to have labels that proudly declare their origins as “surplus wine,” and visible personalities such as Cameron Hughes to promote it.

As a wine retailer (who’s been selling through the Downs and Ups of the Great Recession), I’m always on the look-out for great value. I had read several glowing reviews of Cameron Hughes wines, so when they made it to my (Heartland) state I grabbed some. The Lot 136 2007 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon grabbed me right off the bat. It had big, muscular fruit and well-integrated tannins, and for $15 it was a steal. I mean it was literally criminal! But I got in on the tail end of that lot, and it sold out soon after. (Cameron Hughes does “Lots”, or one-time bottlings of appellation wines. That means that once they’re gone, they’re gone, and there won’t be a “next vintage.”)

Then the Lot 190 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon came my way. I jumped on it right out of the gate, and ran home to try it with that night’s dinner. I wasn’t disappop9inted. The first pour showed the concentration of color, deep ruby red to burgundy. The nose followed suit, with big berry fruit, mocha, and a hint of cedar spice. Then the fruit exploded on my palate, with rich, concentrated blackberry and black currant flavors, a hint of smoke, more mocha and vanilla. The tannins still had enough grip to show this wine’s age-worthiness, but that’s not a bad thing: all that fruit needed some grip to balance it.

I could smell and sip this wine all night. Even though I was eating something wildly inappropriate, (Thai Chicken, I think), it didn’t matter. I would happily drink this wine with anything. And did I mention that this thing costs less than $15? It’s criminal…

I guess you can tell I’m giving Lot 190 a “Buy” recommendation, and I wouldn’t be shy about trying anything else in the Cameron Hughes portfolio. There ain’t a lot of “Good” about these bad economic times, but this is surely one of them. Cheers!

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