Cameron Hughes and I go back a ways.
Not personally, Never met the guy, wouldn’t know him if I hit him with a shopping cart. Doesn’t matter, really. There is certainly NO shortage of opportunities to see Cameron Hughes and hear his (hoo, boy) “message“. Go to this website and you can watch him march through a fairly bombastic video, snatching bottles out the air and out of the hands of unsuspecting couples, in their own home, and flinging around phrases like “THIS is what liberty smells like…this is what democracy tastes like!” and leading bands of obviously delighted, young, pretty wineaux through the streets on what looks very much like a Holy Mission, until he jumps in the back of a Cameron Hughes wine semi and drives off, notably not leaving more than two or three of the masses with any more than a single glass of something to drink.
Bombast…it is neither a sin nor punishable by law. It’s not even immoral or necessarily in bad taste. But, going back to the very roots of Cam’s career as one of the nation’s busiest négociants (a French term for a wine merchant or wholesaler; specifically, one who buys grapes, grape juice, or partially fermented or finished wine from others and sells the wine produced under his or her own name.), I’ve tasted a small boatload, at least a large-ish canoe-load, of his wines, most carefully shrouded in mystery as to their actual winemakers and their vineyard sources.
Many wine weenies think the négociant biz should be categorized under a very technical oenological term: “cheating“. I have a good friend who is a Washington-based négociant and whose company was at least partially my idea. I helped him get this project off the ground, even designing his logo and early labels. The “cheating” baloney is the sole province of the indolent wine dorks who have largely driven me away from ever entering a winery tasting if there are more than one or two other people in the room, especially if they are between the ages, roughly, of 30 to 50, the greasy tenderloin of the Ubiquitous Wine Dilettante culture. Does this sound…judgmental? Intolerant? Cranky?
Stipulated. So sue me. These people get right smack on my tits and I’m far too old and, yes, cranky to pretend they don’t. And, happily, as I said, Cameron Hughes is, to these geese, a Cheater. So I’ve tasted Cameron Hughes wines in blessed, relative solitude and had ample opportunity to appreciate them thoughtfully.
And, in the beginning, they fell mostly under that wonderful, one-size-fits-all adjective that was uttered by NFL HoF cornerback, Deion Sanders, about the Seattle Seahawks receiver corps, just before Super Bowl 48, and was seized upon by the ring leader of those receivers, Doug Baldwin, who stood on the field after the Seahawks came back with claws out on the Green Bay Packers, in the NFC Championship game, and flung it back in Sanders’ face:
Cameron Hughes (L) wines used to be, for me, just ah-ight. He won’t like hearing that, of course, but that was my take, fo’ sho’. They were ah-ight. Certainly drinkable but, with certain notable exceptions, not stuff that would make you swoon, grab the countertop and say, “Oh, WAAOOW!”
So…I just received a box of two Washington wines from Cameron Hughes’ PR folks.
My take: “Oh, WAAOOW!”
Yep. The exact problem I had with many of those early CH bottles was that they bore the appellation of origin on the labels but rarely tasted like that region’s hallmark wines. I had some scant and grassy California Cabernets, vegetal Merlots, notably slight Malbec, etc. Not that ANY of these were bad. ALL of ’em were drinkable and Hughes’ stated dedication to value pricing made them quite doable as choices. On a dartboard they would have been either in the 1 or 5 stripe, even leaning against the 20 line. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Missed it by THAT much.”
Close but no stogie.
Not so with these, the Cameron Hughes Lot 660 Red Mountain Cabernet and Cameron Hughes Lot 638 Yakima Valley Petit Verdot. Because I live in WA state and because I’m functionally addicted to both these grapes, I’ve relentlessly tasted every example of either that I’ve been able to lay hands on, the 400 or so Washington Cabernets and the maybe 50 bottles of varietal Petit Verdot.
Let’s take the Petit Verdot first: This grape has waxed and waned in popularity, in the US, and may be just starting to have its greatest resurgence yet. The descriptor most used for it is “grapey”, which sounds obvious but means something altogether different from just “tastes like grapes“. It’s grapes with texture and body and a muted, underlying sweetness; more akin to grape jam than fresh fruit. This one is young and vibrant and is medium-to-full bodied and is crammed with Black Stuff: blackberry liqueur, black plums, black currants, a dash of licorice and that elusive, uber-appealing aroma and flavor of very slight lanolin, an attribute of many of the best Washington wines, especially from Yakima. It shows moderate acidity, making it a fine pairing for foods that will stand up to all that Blackness, like maybe baron of beef, a simple grilled steak, fire-roasted pork tenderloin, and grilled portobellos. By itself, its remarkably complete; assertive and satisfying and even better as it breathes for a half hour or more. The texture is satiny and mouth-coating and that viscosity makes for a looooong finish that decays prettily into soft spices and red currants.
Of the other Petit Verdots I’ve tasted from Washington, several stand out:
B. Leighton Yakima Valley, several vintages $55 – $65
Sparkman “Underworld” Petit Verdot 2012 $48
Rasa “Living in the Limelight” Dionysus Vineyard Petit Verdot 2012 $55
Seven Hills McClellan Estate Petit Verdot Walla Walla Valley 2014 $32
Glorious wines, all of ’em.
The Cameron Hughes Lot 638 Yakima Valley Petit Verdot 2016?
Let me repeat that: FIFTEEN FUGGEN DOLLARS. $15. Quince dólares. Really.
I have no idea what those wines were rated or by whom but those are the ONLY ones that, for me, were even in the same league with this wine and not one of them was clearly superior.
My rating: 96 Points
The Cameron Hughes Lot 660 Red Mountain Cabernet 2016 is the first one of these out-of-state négociant Cabs that actually tastes like a better-quality Washington Cabernet. It shows the classic breadth and complexity of our appellation Cabs and the restrained richness – not as deep-pile as Napa, not as full medium as Sonoma or the Columbia Valley, not as black and unsweet as Walla Walla – that’s such a hallmark of Red Mountain, possibly the most distinctive terroir in the United States. Like many Washington Cabernets, it gives an initial impression of lightness that segues quickly into the awareness that your tongue has been virtually painted black and taken in a firm grasp. It’s texture is glycerine and it doles out the fruit sweetness with a very reserved hand, finishing dry and inky and with warm plums and cherries. On the mid-palate, it delivers a panorama of blackberry compote, figs, coffee, leather, mild peppercorns, and sweet minerality, along with a firm dose of those legendary “dusty tannins” (don’t worry, nobody really knows what they mean by that) that defy description but are There and Unmistakable and occur only rarely outside Red Mountain but all the damned time within. And it absolutely has that Thang about it; that aura of Magic that shows up in wines from that other-worldly little speed-bump of the Cascade foothills, with its long hillsides and 180 degree sunshine and the wind blown loess, the sand, silt, and loam glacial sediments deposited during the Missoula floods. Whatever the actual magic is that blankets Red Mountain, it is unmistakably There and this wine has it in spades. 95 Points
And the price: $25.
You read that right. Twenty-five dollars. For a wine that, given current Washington wine prices, could easily run $65 to $100.
I was knocked sideways by these wines. I am, in fact, working on getting more of both as I write this. I really have no idea whether these wines are actually so much of a Bold Leap Forward from Hughes’ earlier versions or whether my tastes have changed that radically or, as I suspect, our rather, uh, reserved Washingtonian vineyard owner types have finally decided that they like Cam Hughes enough to let him in on The Good Stuff. Maybe all three. Whatever the reasons, these are jaw-dropping wines at prices that will drop your jaw even further, right through the freakin’ floor.
Cameron Hughes just might be achieving that bombastic “wineocracy” he preaches. At very least, that video, when I went back and watched it after tasting these, didn’t seem quite so ridiculous.
“Cheating”, my ass…