Hughes was surprised by flaws in some, although with his wide variety of sources (including many wines the original makers wouldn't release), his two winemakers (Sam Spencer of Spencer-Roloson and Mike Rayner, formerly of Havens), his early-release program, and his low prices, you shouldn't be surprised to find some duds. The key is to stock up on the hits.
Hughes told me five years ago that he released his wines before they were through bottle shock, so his customers should expect to let them rest for a few months before opening. That's still true for most of his wines, especially the reds, but now he waits to release the whites until they're almost ready.
Two things surprised me: He charges more for his white wines from Chile than from famous regions in California, and I liked all of them more than anything from our own backyard.
"Those guys (in Chile) know what they've got and they demand a premium for it," he said. It's ironic that I'm polishing up this blog post from the Sheraton Santiago (Iron Maiden is also staying here, and their fans hang out for hours at the breakfast bar hoping to catch a glimpse.) But that's exactly why I decided to run it now -- now that I'm here and drinking some of the great stuff Chile has to offer, I understand why Hughes is proud of his acquisitions, even if those are his hardest wines to sell.
These notes are short and, in a nod to my frequent reader Colorado Wine Press, everything I tasted is here, including the wines I hated. I did not rate wines I didn't like at the time, and am not going to try to rate them now: that's another discussion. But the tasting notes and my lack of a rating should serve as Caveat Emptor.
Cameron Hughes Lot 217 Russian River Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($10): Pungent tropical flavors but a little soft in the mouthfeel. With that flavor I want more acidity. 84
Cameron Hughes Lot 225 Leyda Valley (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($12): Tart and pungent gooseberry and pineapple; medium-long tart finish. A winner. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 215 Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2009: Big-bodied and too soft for me. I wouldn't drink it.
Cameron Hughes Lot 206 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2009: The first of three wines from the same famous vineyard. I guessed it, but sorry folks, he made me swear to be off the record before he confirmed it, and I honor off-the-record so don't bother nudging in the comments. Look at the AVA and maybe you can guess it too. What makes these three interesting as a series is that the only difference is how much oak the wine saw. This one had no oak at all. It's earthy, with a soft mouthfeel. Interesting, but not compelling. 86
Cameron Hughes Lot 196 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2009: The use of 15% French oak adds structure and helps a lot; the best of his American Chardonnays. 89
Cameron Hughes Lot 186 Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2009: With 33% French oak. A flinty note adds interest to lemon/apple character. 87
Cameron Hughes Lot 226 Casablanca Valley (Chile) Chardonnay 2008 ($15): Nice toasty aroma. Green apple and lime flavors with good balance and a long finish. Fairly ripe but not overdone. Outstanding value. 92
Hughes said, "That's my favorite. It's hard to sell. People don't want to buy Chilean wines. It's a pain in the ass."
Cameron Hughes Lot 220 Sonoma County Carneros Chardonnay 2009 ($13): Chunky, has a marshmallow feel to it. Apple fruit. Decent though soft. 86
Cameron Hughes Lot 222 Los Carneros Chardonnay 2009 ($13): Fat, fat, buttery. Hughes: "That's our top seller right there. That's what people go nuts for. This is full malo Chard, a butter bomb. Cougar Juice, we call it. Personally I can't drink it." Me neither. I ask, Why don't you charge $15? He laughs. "I'm making plenty of money. We're trying to provide value." I admire the stance much more than the wine.
Cameron Hughes Lot 238 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay 2005 ($12): Tropical and oaky, finishes soft. Decent price performance. 87
Hughes says, "This comes out of a $30 program. They add new oak and sugar it up. That's a new trend: Menage a Trois and Cupcake. All these guys are taking Central Coast fruit, sugaring it up and selling the hell out of it."
Cameron Hughes Lot 255 Yorkville Highlands Mendocino County Pinot Noir 2009 ($12): Bottle shocked. Undrinkable when tasted.
Cameron Hughes Lot 227 Casablanca Valley (Chile) Pinot Noir 2009 ($15): From whole cluster-pressed fruit. A real Pinot, with cranberry and herb notes and some stemminess for structure. Decent acidity. Good value. 88
I want to throw in that I was in Casablanca Valley yesterday and tasted through the Terra Noble lineup, including their most expensive wines, but the one I kept going back to was a $13 Terra Noble Casablanca Valley Pinot Noir Reserva 2010, which I scored 91. I confess I knew little of Casablanca Valley Pinots before these two wines, but this is how fans are made.
Cameron Hughes Lot 192 Napa Valley Merlot 2007: Oxidized.
Cameron Hughes Lot 197 Napa Valley Merlot 2008: Smells like candle wax. From the same winery. Something went wrong here. I hated them so much I forgot to ask the prices. Sorry.
Cameron Hughes Lot 241 Arroyo Seco Syrah Grenache Mourvedre 2009 ($12): Peppery with black plum and dried flower notes. Earthy and tangy, and you can really taste the gamy Mourvedre on the finish. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 194 Napa Valley Syrah 2008 ($12): Dark cherry, gamy, an oaky note, black pepper. 15.4% alcohol. Admirable but not enjoyable. 85
Cameron Hughes Lot 236 Clear Lake Syrah 2007 ($12): Gamy, dark cherry. Heavy. 15.8% alcohol. 84
Cameron Hughes Lot 237 La Herradura Vineyard Napa Valley Syrah 2007 ($15): It's a rarity for Hughes to be able to name a vineyard because his wines are supposed to protect their sources. Unfortunately this doesn't turn out to be a great deal. It's soft, big and gamy. Nah.
Cameron Hughes Lot 207 Campo de Borja Garnacha 2006 ($28): Big and fruity and cheerful. A fun wine, which it better be at twice his normal price. 88
Cameron Hughes Lot 231 Campo de Borja Garnacha 2008 ($28): Fruity with a gamy note; tastes sharp and not ready. Hughes bought two vintages at once because "these guys bottled this stuff and didn't know what to do with it. For us, value's all relative. I think these Garnachas are rocking." I'd buy the '06 instead.
Cameron Hughes Lot 235 Clear Lake Zinfandel 2007: A big mouthful of fruit and tannin, but it has structure that coalesces on the finish. 15.9% alcohol; if that doesn't bother you, you'll like this. 87
Cameron Hughes Lot 219 Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel 2009 ($16): I have a funny story about Monte Rosso Vineyard I haven't been able to tell elsewhere, so I'll slide it in here. Ravenswood made a great wine from this vineyard for years, but after Gallo acquired the vineyard, they didn't want to sell some of their best Zin grapes to their rival Constellation, which owns Ravenswood. So they took them away from Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson only to be unable to sell them. Who ended up buying them at a discount? Joel's son Morgan.
OK, story over. Hughes' wine from this vineyard is a nice version, a lively, big (15.3% alcohol) wine with bright cherry fruit. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 239 Valle Central (Chile) Meritage 2009 ($8): An exception to the Chilean-wines-cost-more Hughes rule. Decent cheap wine, especially if discounted. But nothing to get excited about. 85
Cameron Hughes Lot 233 Maipo Valley (Chile) Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($13): Funky aroma; red currant and herbaceous. Not my fave.
Cameron Hughes Lot 254 Santa Ynez Valley Meritage ($12): "This was out of a $60 Cab program that had a problem. They had to filter it and do reverse osmosis." They removed all the character, but it's a decent if innocuous red. 84
Cameron Hughes Lot 208 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 50%/Syrah 50% 2008 ($15): This was Havens' "Black and Blue" wine, co-fermented; Hughes bought Havens' cellar when the winery went out of business. Syrah dominates the nose with dried beef and gaminess. On the palate, it's Syrah top notes with Cabernet backbone. Way more interesting than most Cab/Syrahs, which are usually amorphous big reds. 91
Cameron Hughes Lot 182 Atlas Peak Meritage 2005 ($15): Soft mouthfeel, well-managed tannins, cherry and graphite. Not sure why this was available cheap, because it tastes like a Parker/Laube big scorer. I hemmed and hawed on scoring it: more than 90 because it does what it sets out to, and that style is popular? Or lower because I would be bored with it quickly? Then I decided, given all the reader service I'm doing with these other scores, and that nobody is paying me for this, I'm just gonna punt. If you like Parker/Laube wines, you'll like it.
Cameron Hughes Lot 274 Atlas Peak Cabernet 2005 ($18): Strong oak flavor, but also earth, dark cherry, some forest floor. Good complexity. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 218 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($18): Lively cherry/raspberry fruit; surprising elegance for this price range. This is a wine I would buy a bunch of and cellar. 91
Cameron Hughes Lot 195 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($20): Dark cherry, like a maraschino cherry. A hint of brett, but it doesn't take over. Easy to like. 89
Cameron Hughes Lot 189 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($22): "We had to filter out a little brett, but it didn't harm this wine whatsoever." Rich cherry, mouthfilling, with a nice violet undertone. Medium-long finish. Best of the Cabs. Good job with the filter. I can't help wondering if the brett will reappear in a few years; you might want to drink now. 92
Cameron Hughes Lot 211 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($16): Dark cherry, decent acidity, good brightness. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 200 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($28): Tight, big, some dark cherry fruit. Hughes says it's declassified Oakville wine. Not showing its pedigree, and pricey to take a chance on it getting over bottle shock.
Cameron Hughes Lot 253 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($22): Dense wine, plenty of dark cherry. A fat style, but well executed, and representative of Howell Mountain. 90
Cameron Hughes Lot 263 Ribera del Duero Gran Reserva 2002 ($20): Still tight; deep flavors of dark cherry, but drying tannins. I wouldn't.
Antolino Brongo Cryomalus Quebec Ice Cider 2008 ($30 for 375 ml): Hughes is the importer for this unusual product made from four kinds of apples that freeze on the trees and are crushed, just like ice wine. Strong apple flavor, doesn't taste as sweet as you'd expect, has decent acidity. All of that said, I prefer ice wine. But it's interesting. It's the only product of its kind I've ever had, so I won't rate it. Buy it if you like dessert wine and want something different.