Wine can be a pleasant drink (at least) or a work of liquid art (at best), but it’s often a platform for bragging rights. How else can we explain someone in their right mind spending thousands of dollars on a bottle of Screaming Eagle or Château Lafite-Rothschild, and being grateful for the opportunity to do so?
While winemakers may wax poetic about terroir, branding frequently determines a wine’s selling price. The unpopular truth is that wine is only “worth” what someone is willing to pay. Twenty years ago, Jancis Robinson MW calculated that it cost less than $10 to make a bottle of Classified Growth Bordeaux (excluding the cost of land, which in most cases has been owned by the same families or companies for centuries). The fact that those wines frequently sell for 10-100 times that amount is a reflection of market trends.
Cameron Hughes agrees with the proposition that wine costs more to promote and market than to make. For the past two decades, Hughes has been functioning as a négociant in the European tradition—buying surplus wine from producers and selling it to consumers at a steep discount. His timing has been impeccable, given that many high-end estates on both sides of the Atlantic have had a glut of fine wine on their hands in recent years. The original Cameron Hughes Wines were aimed at retail stores, but increasingly he has been focusing on selling directly to wine lovers via the internet.
His latest venture is de Négocé, which Hughes modestly advertises as “the future of wine.” By cutting out the layers of middleman profit, he’s able to offer exceptional bottles at 60-80% lower than the MSRP. Consumers who purchase wines as futures (after Hughes has sealed the deal but before the wine has been bottled or is ready to ship) can save even more. Is there a catch? Not really, but sort of. You have to know about him and trust him, for one thing; for another, you lose those bragging rights.
After following Hughes at a distance for a number of years, I finally had the opportunity to sample a trio of his current releases. Lot 207 is a 2019 Willamette Valley Chardonnay from the Yamhill-Carlton district, which Hughes describes as a “baby Montrachet.” Light, crisp and lyrical, it begins with a nose redolent of French oak, lemon and vanilla. The mouth feel is understated at first, but the wine expands in the mid palate to reveal notes of pear, citrus and cooked apple. This $45 bottle is available from de Négocé at $16, or $9 as a future.
Lot 176, a 2019 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from Sonoma, has an appealing nose with aromas of spiced red berries and Darjeeling tea. In the mouth, the wine is medium-bodied and perfectly balanced, with good acidity and all the spice promised on the nose; feather-light flavors of strawberry and red raspberry linger on a memorable finish. According to Hughes, this wine won medals at competitions and scored between 92-94 points from critics, at a retail price of $60; his price is $25, or $15 as a future.
Lot 250, a 2019 Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon from a Rutherford producer “with a long and storied history,” has an opaque, inky-black color and aromas of new oak, blackberries and pepper on the nose. Full-bodied and elegant in the mouth, it boasts opulent old vine fruit and rich flavors of chocolate, dark berries, anise and herbs, culminating in a graceful finish. A single-vineyard Cabernet normally selling for $150, Hughes is selling it for $49 ($30 as a future).
Each of these wines was a textbook example of its type, and all three were delightful. If you’re accustomed to popping into the neighborhood wine shop at the last moment to buy something to drink with dinner, the online ordering process obviously isn’t for you; if not, you can snag some serious values.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?