The Winos’ Tasting Series: revisiting the nascent négociant

By Jesse on September 30, 2008

The Winos remain rabid devotees to the pursuit and discovery of quality bottles at approachable price-points. That’s why we were pleased as punch to recently receive another case of wines from the good people at Cameron Hughes. On a recent Friday, several Winos wound their way up the precipitous slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains to indulge in the lineup at Erik’s legendary hideout in the hills.

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As we learned when we tasted a few of the eponymous producer’s offerings back in April, Cameron Hughes is helping to redefine the notion of a négociant (a French term referring to a wine broker/blender) for a new generation of savvy drinkers. Instead of concentrating on achieving quantity within one region, though, his company sources small lots of high-quality juice from top-tier producers around the globe and bottles them in anonymous packaging, save for a “lot number.” The other edge of the Cameron Hughes sword, however, is that when a certain “lot” of wine is gone, it’s gone — naturally, then, the Winos approached this particular evening’s drinking with a heightened sense of urgency.

First up was the 2007 Cameron Hughes “Lot 68” Chardonnay (Margaret River, Western Australia). The nose was a real ice-breaker: Noah picked up some pear, Brían got granite, and Jessica identified a “river rock” minerality she usually associates with New Zealand Sauv Blanc. I sniffed out some creaminess, with just a hint of butter, along with some passion fruit notes. Noah even picked up some hazelnut action.

We moved on to the palate. Jessica initially blurted out “tastes like chicken” — thankfully, that didn’t linger, and she discovered some grassy notes instead. The wine was fairly tight, featuring a light-skewing mash-up of flavors: I got lime, and Noah offered straw/hay notes. A few other people identified green apple (and even crabapple) in the mouth. The finish was long, and Brían called it “a pucker that lingers.” Several of us said they’d definitely drop the $13 to revisit this lithe Chard, while a few others would not: Andrew, for his part, opined that “I appreciate what it is, but it’s not my thing.”

Next up was the 2007 Cameron Hughes “Lot 91” Chardonnay (Russian River Valley), offering up some nice fruit notes on the big California nose. Jessica got peach, while Brían was a bit embarrassed to cite “supermarket grapes,” even apologizing for his lack of any further specificity. Andrew called it “creamy,” and I got some decent toasted oak.

The palate actually checked in a lot less oaky than the nose might’ve led us to believe, and instead offered up an interesting lemon theme. This wasn’t sour lemon, though; it was crisp and satisfying, and pretty well-integrated. I felt like the lemon notes were huge on the front palate, but eventually gave way to some smooth oak and vanilla on the back end. “It’s a fine Chardonnay,” said Jessica. “It’s not creamy… the acidity is saving it for me.” At $14, this wine elicited a call to re-purchase from more than half of the Winos assembled, which is no small feat.

Moving on to the reds, we popped open the 2005 Cameron Hughes “Lot 79” Merlot (Napa Valley), which needed a little time to shake its funk off before it began to express itself. Jessica initially got deviled egg, citing chive and mustard notes, while Andrew picked up green pepper and spinach. Instead of the vegetable aisle, though, I got hints of dried herbs and spices — allspice, claimed Erik — and Noah thought these gave way to some nice cigar notes. Finally, blackcurrant and brambles beckoned us into the glass.

The mouthfeel was light-bodied and limber — definitely not the most plush Merlot we’ve ever had. The baking spices were all over the tongue, along with some balsamic notes that Noah picked out, and even what Brían and I thought tasted like pulled pork. Andrew pointed out that the wine was evolving in the glass, and it grew on everyone as it went; eventually, Noah and I got some beguiling pinecone flavors, followed by charcoal and wet campfire. At $14, this was another great deal, albeit a varied and unpredictable little number.

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Andrew’s up for anything; still can’t believe that Jessica got chicken; no worries, there’s plenty of wine left

Along with their selection of lot-numbered stalwarts, Cameron Hughes had also included in our package a bottle of ultra-premium Cab from a new label jointly owned by Hughes’ father. The 2005 Hughes-Wellman Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) is unique in that the source isn’t kept a total secret: the grapes hail from the Bell-MacVeagh Vineyard in Howell Mountain. It’s also the only wine you’ll find on the Cameron Hughes website that retails outside of that general $10 to $20 range.

We tried to give this big boy some time to breathe, but the nose still seemed bottled up when we first approached it: musty, with some forest floor notes, but no fruit. Finally, after much diligent swirling, the real bouquet began to waft out of the glass — blackberry and blueberry, chocolate and smoke. Brían got some meaty notes, along with a hint of lavender, and Noah got charcoal. Jessica got “the darkest chocolate you can possibly buy… 100% cacao.” Andrew even dug out some green pepper, and I got black licorice. “This smells like the type of wine that, when I drink it, I’m gonna want to unbutton the top button of my pants,” offered Andrew. We all appreciated the image.

The palate was immensely concentrated and tight, but even early on showed hints of huge blueberry flavors. Brían got oiled leather and blackcurrant, and several others picked up rhubarb. This wine was hugely inky and dark, with mouth-coating dark chocolate notes, and a finish that lasted forever. To several of us, it tasted a bit unripe, and I felt like it would’ve benefitted from much more time opening up — or even a few extra years in the bottle. Noah applauded the well-integrated tannins, and I loved the monster black licorice, but no one felt their tasting experience would’ve justified a return visit for the $50 price tag. That said, we don’t know how this wine would’ve drank with some extra air or extra time. I, for one, would really like to find out.

It was a tough act to follow, but the big boy wasn’t the only Cab we’d taste that night. Next up was the 2004 Cameron Hughes “Lot 71” Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley), which treated us to a hugely expressive nose straight out of the bottle. Jessica got raspberry, Brían tagged cloves, and Andrew cited cinnamon. Given all of these various ingredients, I thought my observation of “fruit cake” was pretty deft. Jessica agreed, and further claimed that the nose was opening up into compost and black cherry. I then got some milk chocolate notes, and Eva got carob. “This nose is like that Willy Wonka gum that changes in your mouth,” observed Brían. We decided to drink it before we all turned into giant blueberries and got rolled away by the diminutive migrant workers who run Erik’s house.

Andrew immediately pegged the pal as “dark cherry chocolate with a lot of spice, and some good tannins.” Emily got nutmeg, Jessica got blackberry (and a touch of green pepper), and a chorus of Winos all got milk chocolate. Brían even identified the essence of marshmallow melting in hot chocolate, and said he thought the palate tasted like the nose had smelled. I got some burning ember character, which I thought added some nice roasted texture to the chocolate and fruit. “This is fucking good,” offered an uninhibited Andrew, and the Winos were very impressed by the $15 price tag; Erik wanted to buy a case. “It’s not that complex,” he mused, “but it’s great.”

We rounded up the tasting with one final Cab, the 2006 Cameron Hughes “Lot 73” Cabernet Sauvignon (Chalk Hill). The nose made me think campfire, and Noah took that note a classy step further: campfire smoke lingering in a wool sweater (one of these days we’re going to send him back to Martha’s Vineyard, I swear).  A few herbaceous notes danced around in the glass — Jessica got rosemary, and Brían got peppermint. “Andes mints” was tossed about, as was “blackberry patch,” while Emily and Eva claimed they smelled pear skin — this nose was nothing if not a conversation piece.

The palate came in surprisingly light-bodied. I found a good amount of plum on the front palate, and Noah thought it was leathery with cigar flavors. “It’s a little bit one-note” claimed Andrew, but Eva thought it hit the right note: fruit forward, not foreboding, and a worthy companion, she thought, for “potato au gratin and squash” (ooh la la). Interestingly, this was the only bottle about which the Winos disagreed strongly with the producer’s tasting notes, which promised “dark chocolate and big ripe blackberries,” pairing well with “a juicy rib eye or your favorite porterhouse.” Instead, the Winos had discovered not a monster Cab, but a playful and engaging wine, one several of us would likely drink on its own. For $16, it was another worthy buy — although favor seemed to fall on the side of the Lot 71 in the race for the night’s best buy.

This tasting re-affirmed the conclusion we drew last time we tasted Cameron Hughes: the wines are typically very solid values, some of which we find we like more or less than others. As in the case of the Lot 71 Cab, though, the label sometimes manages to exceed all of our expectations in terms of delivering outstanding wine at a very impressive price. We definitely look forward to the next lineup.

The tasting over, several Winos donned bathing suits and took a midnight dip in the pool. That proving a bit chillier of an experience than might be considered pleasant, Erik’s grotto-like bathtub beckoned to a small few of us who didn’t mind the tight quarters and quasi-homoerotic undertones. Photos were taken of that portion of the evening, but these will not be appearing on this website, nor hopefully any other.

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Listening attentively to Noah; listening begrudgingly to me; good QPR makes Winos happy

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Noah’s a little bit bourgeois next to his fire; Erik is a decadent host; what a cool place!

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005

2 Comments »

  1. That “Hughes-Wellman” Cabernet aaaaallllllmost knocked it out of the park. It was really close to being terrific, but just had a bit too much green on it still. It got significantly better from bottle opening to 45 minutes later, but it’s a shame it never quite got there. Most of the rest was very good though.

    Comment by Andrew Lang — October 8, 2008 @ 12:15 am

  2. Omg, I feel like Yogi Berra when he said “I didn’t really say everything I said.” 🙂

    Comment by Brían — October 9, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

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