Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bouncing back from receivership, Cameron Hughes discounts Napa Valley for you

Cameron Hughes never tells me where he gets his wine from, and I don't ask him to break his non-disclosure contracts. So when I tell you I tasted a 6-pack that came from Harlan Estate or one of its offshoots, understand that I learned the provenance elsewhere*, and Hughes refused to confirm or deny it.

Looks like Harlan, right?
* Thanks to some background work from the Wine Berserkers bulletin board, confirmed by the Harlan font on the corks.

I dropped by Hughes' San Francisco office yesterday because I wanted to taste what he calls the best deal of his career -- hell of a statement, for a 6-pack of wine that costs $400 -- and to find out how he's recovering from his business being placed into receivership early this year.

There's obviously a connection. If the officer appointed by the court to oversee his business doesn't believe Cameron Hughes wine has a future, he wouldn't be able to write a check to Bill Harlan for 2000 6-packs of wines Harlan wants to unload under somebody else's name.

What do you want to hear first: How was the declassified Harlan? How's Hughes' business coming along? And what's the terrific Oakville, Napa Valley red wine for under $14! I can recommend because I asked Hughes to pour me something non-Harlany?

Let's go in that order.

The Cameron Hughes Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon collection is what you would expect from a $400 6-pack of declassified Napa cult wine in a wooden box. If you like Napa Cabs, I think you'll actually find it a tremendous value, and it would be an outstanding Christmas gift if you have somebody on your list who 1) likes Napa Cabs and 2) You don't mind spending $400 on.

The wines are the 2006 through 2011 vintages produced, according to what Hughes can officially tell us, "from hillside, estate vineyards in Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Yountville and all are produced and blended by the same winery, winemaker and consultant each year. They are single source and as 'culty' as they get." The leading theory on Berserkers is that they're declassified Bond Matriarch, but I think they're more likely from Harlan's upcoming Promontory project. One of the pleasures of spending $67 on a bottle of wine is talking about it, and in this case the provenance will make a worthwhile discussion.

Is $67 a lot for a Napa Cab second label? Unfortunately not. Hughes told me he checked the prices of every Napa Cabernet to earn a 90+ point score so far this year from Wine Spectator. There were 184 such wines -- not counting Harlan's wines, for which the price is listed as "n/a," -- and the average price is $155.

"Where are all these wines going?" Hughes asked? Dear reader, you may not think $67 is good value for a Napa Cab, but somebody does. (Have patience, there's a $14 Napa wine in this post.)

Anyway, to the wines: the alcohol percentages started high, got higher, and ducked down. They are:

2006 15.7%
2007 15.9%
2008 15.6%
2009 15.3%
2010 14.9%
2011 14.5%

Bully for Hughes for printing the actual alcohol! You don't get that accuracy from most producers, who usually leave the alcohol level the same on their labels even when it changes this dramatically. The lower levels in 2010 and '11 might have been vintage variation as much as style refinement, but on the other hand, Hughes says, "You wouldn't believe the level of precision that goes into the viticulture on these wines."

I really liked the 2010. Liked it a lot. Took the rest of the bottle home as a treat. (Am drinking it as I edit the post.) It's exactly what I want from a Napa Cab: pure dark berry fruit, yet also with some lovely cassis notes. There's also a graphite bottom note, and while you can call it rich, it's well-balanced and lithe. I can't imagine that Harlan made better wines in 2010 than this one that he let get away.

I also liked the 2011, but that's me; I suspect that for real Napa Cab fans this will be their least favorite. There's plenty of fruit, but it's not fruit-driven, and has some interesting savory and peppery flavors.

In contrast, I think real Napa Cab fans will dig the '07. It's a surprising wine: it initially tastes so big you think it's going to be overwhelming, but it's not tannic and it becomes surprisingly delicate, especially on the finish. Hughes calls it "wine candy," meaning that in a good way, and I agree: it's not my nature to drink 15.9% alcohol red wines, but I liked this one.

The others are respectable. The '06 is ready to drink now: it's quite ripe but still holds together with its well-integrated tannins, and has an elegant finish. The '08 and '09 should sit in the cellar for a little while, as they're fairly tight, but they have dense, intense fruit with a pretty cassis note. I would also sit on the '11 and suspect that will be the most interesting of them in a decade, but who waits that long?

About his financial problems, Hughes said, "The receivership has worked out really well. We had our lowest point in terms of cashflow in the summer and came through it. The crisis is over."

The court-appointed receiver's primary job is to protect the bank's assets. Secondarily, he must decide if the business is salvageable.

"The company was a going concern. We just needed to fix some excess inventory, which we did," Hughes said. "I wouldn't say it's business as usual, but it pretty much is. We're selling wine, buying wine, which is what we do. The receiver has helped bridge a communication issue with the bank."

Hughes said he got in trouble after the smaller California vintages in 2010 and 2011. He was focused on growth, and made promises to his distributors to deliver wine, but prices rose for available wine and "that killed profitability," he said. "The bank forced us to get back to our own model."

Since the receiver started oversight, Hughes has cut back on his "broad market" business -- wines sold through ordinary distributors like Southern Wine & Spirits. He has maintained his relationship with Costco and continues to sell wine online.

"From what we're told, we're the No. 1 brand of wine on the Internet," Hughes said. "And we're gearing up for a big black Friday/cyber Monday sale, with 30% off almost everything. I'm so loath to discount my Cabernets, but my wife wants to run a sale, so there's a sale."

Hearing that, I asked to taste something that ordinary people who don't want a $400 six-pack could buy. Hughes really does have a lot less inventory. The last time I visited his office he had dozens of wines from several countries that he had bought at discount, and many were terrific, but hard sells. This time, he didn't have many choices and almost all were from California.

He opened a Cameron Hughes Lot 470 Oakville Petite Sirah 2013, which is a bizarre wine when you think about it: who grows Petite Sirah in Oakville when even mediocre Cabernet grapes would sell for three times as much money? "I can't explain it," Hughes said. Moreover, whoever did grow and make it decided they couldn't sell it, which is how Hughes has it.

It's a fascinating wine: feral, dark and brooding, complex, with dark fruit but also savory and wild notes. It's 14.9% alcohol and seems like quite a bargain at $19. In the sale, it'll be closer to $13.

"That's going to be $13?" Hughes said, running his hands through his hair. "You're kidding me. That's way too cheap."

I drank it; I have to agree. When Hughes has a hit, it's a big one.

Check out the Cameron Hughes website here. Jump on that Petite Sirah before it's gone.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (February 4, 2010, Page Unknown):

    “Dark Days for Cult Cabs;
    Makers of high-end Napa Valley Cabernets are feeling the pain
    of the economy as demand for their wine plummets.”


    By Patrick Comiskey
    Special to The Times

    Is the Cult Cab dead?

    The current economy has created ominous rumblings in the market for Napa Valley wine. Demand for high-end super-premium Cabs, even so-called cult wines, has weakened considerably with the recession. Sales are stagnant, inventories are high, and direct-mail customers -- a vital piece of the high-end model -- are abandoning once-coveted positions on mailing lists, while those who have waited years for the opportunity to buy in are overwhelmed with offers.

    . . .

    Even wine critic and Cult Cab kingmaker Robert M. Parker has issued warnings: "Wines priced over $300 have encountered considerable resistance, with their mailing list customers dropping off, or taking much smaller allocations," he wrote in the December issue of his widely read newsletter, the Wine Advocate.

    "Sadly, far too many proprietors of high-end Napa wines are in denial, and have failed to recognize the dramatically changing parameters in the wine world of the consumer."

    . . .

    Not all of Napa's Cult Cabs are dead, of course. Wines still in the good graces of critics like Robert Parker and James Laube of the Wine Spectator are weathering the storm well, including Shrader, Screaming Eagle and Harlan, as well as the more recently anointed, such as Scarecrow, Maybach and Kapcsandy. But many more may be out of luck. "FOR A WINERY WITH NO TRACK RECORD, THIS IS A NIGHTMARE,” Barrett says. "If they came into the market thinking they could start in at a $200 price point, they have no chance."

    . . .

  2. Confidential to Rich: If you want to advertise on my blog, make me an offer. I sell ads. Don't try to sneak an advertisement into the comments.

  3. Thanks WBG bought a case of PS at that wonderful Friday price and added 2 other cases of mix a match. I do hate the fact it ships fed-ex for some reason they leave everything around my back gate or the hood of my truck:(

  4. Jo, I am so with you on FedEx, I actually added a "do not use FedEx" tag to my email. Theyr'e the worst for wine delivery. Hope you like the Petite Sirah.

  5. Ok, I'll do it. Got a couple of the Petite Sirah to try :) At that price, even with shipping, it's super cheap. I've got someone I know that probably will love it :)

    Although, I do wish they'd offer GSO. At least for California/Nevada/NM, GSO is the most amazing wine shipper ever.

  6. The link about Promontory says they started with 2008, but the CHW vertical starts with 2006. How does that tie in with your speculation that they are one and the same? On another note, I've been a CHW supporter from almost day 1 and have gotten to know him and his team well over the years. Great people who are easy to root for. By far the best quality for the price that I've ever seen. Truly hoping Cam comes out of this stronger than ever.