Wine Review: Cameron Hughes Lot 179 (2007)

13 08 2011

I very much regret not writing this review last year (you know, before this blog even existed) so that people could have actually gone out and found this wine.  In the last 12 months I’ve probably bought upwards of 20 bottles of it both for myself and as gifts for others, due partly to its awesomeness and partly to its criminally cheap pricing; after cracking tonight’s bottle, I (tragically) only have 3 left.  It’s the closest my place has had to a house wine in 2010-2011…I’m definitely going to miss it when it’s gone.  Before I jump into the story of how it came to be, a huge shout out is owed to Tim from Highlander Wine & Spirits, who clued me into it on the very first night I met him — let’s just say he set the bar very high for himself right off the bat.

If this was Back to the Future, I would have told you to buy this already.

Cameron Hughes is based out of San Francisco, but he’s not your typical Californian wine producer.  Instead of owning a tract of land in Napa, growing grapes there and making them into wine, he’s a négociant, which means that he buys grapes, juice or even finished/partly-finished wine from other growers/producers and completes, packages and sells it under his own label.  Négociants are much more well known in European wine regions like Burgundy, France (Jadot and Leroy are big-name examples) than in the US, but Hughes is showing that the business model works just as well on this side of the Atlantic.  In many cases, Hughes buys excess grapes/juice from high-end Napa producers; they get quick cash in a capital-intensive industry and get rid of overflow product in a way that doesn’t devalue their own brand (Hughes is generally not permitted to reveal his sources), while Hughes gets high-quality raw materials for pennies on the dollar.  However, with Lot 179, the story is different:  what is in the bottle is actually the finished product of another winery that went out of business before its 2007 vintage was able to hit the market.

Havens Wine Cellars was a boutique Napa producer that focused on small-production artisanal reds under the guidance of its founder, Michael Havens.  In 2006, Havens was sold to a massive international distributor, Billington Imports, who subsequently went out of business less than three years later, prompting a full liquidation of the winery’s assets.  Those assets included all of the wine that had been previously vinified for the 2007 and 2008 vintages but was still aging at the winery and had not been released to market; this included Havens’ proprietary Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah blend “Black and Blue”, which retailed for close to $50 US a bottle.  Cameron Hughes got involved in the liquidation and scooped up the 2007 and 2008 production of Black and Blue at clearance prices, and he has released them under his own label each of the last two years.  Since the nature of CH’s business means that he doesn’t often have a lot of repeat vintages of the same wine, each different wine release is given a unique Lot number as an identifier.  The 2007 Havens Black and Blue became Cameron Hughes Lot 179; the 2008 Black and Blue became Cameron Hughes Lot 208.  The best part:  when I bought the Lot 179, it was around $25 CDN a bottle…all it took was a label swap and a liquidation to slash the price in half.

Cork Rating: 7.5/10 (Bonus points for subterfuge and a back story that belies its label.)

All it takes to prove the above story true is a pop of the cork:  though the bottle says “Lot 179”, the cork says “Black and Blue” (see the pic at left), because the 2007 Havens Black and Blues were already aging in blank bottles (called shiners, if you’re curious) when CH bought them.  The wine is a deep, rich, vivid purple in the glass, with just a touch of ruby on the edges.  It is a thick slice of delicious on the nose:  coffee, chocolate cake (not just chocolate — full on Deep & Delicious) and undertones of smoked meat, pepper and earth frame bold plum and black currant fruit in that integrated way that announces a well put-together wine.  It’s full and lush on the palate, made easy to drink with soft, smooth California tannins but given some structure with surprisingly lively acid on the back end — hedonistic but controlled.  Intense layers of black fruit (black cherry, cassis), mocha, leather, tobacco and all spice lead to a long, soft finish.  This is the kind of wine that cries out for a hunk of meat to be consumed with it; I’ve had it with flank steak and hamburgers to equally good effect.

This is an absolutely phenomenal wine for the price.  Wine geeks and other people who like to make their points in acronyms will talk about “QPR”, Quality/Price Ratio, which is basically what a wine delivers in exchange for what you pay for it.  Lot 179 is a QPR dynamo.  Any quality red from Napa Valley, especially one featuring Cabernet, is normally going to come at the premium associated with the fame of the region; the fact that circumstances have conspired to allow this good a bottle from this kind of producer from this renowned a region to fall into consumers’ laps for $25 is unbelievable.  I will put myself out there and say that you will find NO better bottle of Napa Cab/Cab blend out there for that price, period.

This is where I have to sadly remind you that since Lot 179 was released with LAST year’s vintages, it’s probably sold out and no longer available anywhere.  If you’re lucky, you’ll find some Lot 208 (’08 Black and Blue) hanging around somewhere, but I haven’t seen it in Calgary…if you have, let me know.  Cameron Hughes’ other wines aren’t quite as memorable, but they are almost always solid for what you pay for them; 179 is just in a class by itself.  Thanks again, Tim!

91+ points

$20 to $25 CDN

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