by Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
Cameron Hughes doesn’t give up easily. A negociant since 2001, he discreetly gathered unwanted wines from top California producers and sold them for a fraction of the cost under his own label with the understanding he wouldn’t reveal the name of the producer. However, despite what appeared to be a lucrative business, the popular brand fell into bankruptcy and was bought by Vintage Wine Estates in 2017. Once a top seller for Costco, Cameron Hughes wines went from being wildly popular in stores to being available only online.
But Hughes came up with another idea to take advantage of a growing glut of premium bulk wine: sell the wines under a new label as futures.
Modeled after Bordeaux’s en premeur program, de Négoce wines are sold in advance of their release. Hughes continues to buy bulk wine in bottle and barrels just as he did with his own label. But once he has a commitment from his anonymous producers, he alerts his loyal following who can then order de Négoce wines before they are released. The buyer, who must order at least a case, is told the appellation, but otherwise he doesn’t know much more than the grape varieties. For placing his trust in Hughes, he is rewarded with phenomenal savings.
Hughes seems to have learned a business lesson in cash flow. Selling them by the case and exclusively online makes for a nimble business that benefits from a quick turnaround from the time the wine is procured and the time it is purchased.
“I’ve learned a lot. You don’t get over your skis,” he said.
He has more than 10,000 subscribers to his email alerts. After we signed up, we got emails announcing a syrah ($144/case) and a viogner ($96/case) from a Maycamas Mountain producer. Both quickly sold out. In some cases, the wine is released so quickly after bottling that they have bottle shock. Hughes recommends customers let them rest for several weeks.
In a recent virtual tasting with Hughes, we tasted $10-15 de Négoce cabernet sauvignons that Hughes said sold for $80-100 by their original producers. Normally, we would be skeptical of such claims, but the proof is in the bottle. There are good deals to be had here for those who don’t care about knowing the pedigree of a wine or having a label to prove it. If you don’t want to gamble on a case, find someone to split it with you.
Hughes said he has release 34 wines so far, and most of them have sold out. There are 77 wines in his pipeline yet to be announced.
To sign up for his email alerts, go to denegoce.com.
Although Sullivan Rutherford Estate Online has been making wine since 1972, its lofty prices have kept them under the radar for many consumers. But it is a winery that deserves attention for particular wine consumers looking for a big Napa Valley wine experience.
Sullivan’s 22-acre estate vineyard once was on the edge of a dividing line between Rancho Caymus and Rancho Carne Humana – the two regions of Napa Valley identified by Mexico when they won control of California from Spain in 1821. James O’Neil Sullivan acquired the property in 1978 and planted cabernet sauvignon on the advice of friend and legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.
Alas, his legacy fell apart after Sullivan’s death and when a nasty divorce of one of the children triggered a bankruptcy in 2017. But Juan Pablo Torres Padilla led a group of investors who purchases Sullivan after looking extensively here and abroad for a winery. They are building on Sullivan's successful portfolio of red wines.
The new owners brought in a fresh team of executives but kept Jeff Cole (right), the winemaker who since 2013 has been focused on making world-class wines here. We caught up with Cole in a virtual wine tasting of his recent releases.
These wines aren’t for cost-conscious consumers. The cabernet sauvignons and red blends range in cost between $110 and $235 a bottle. Its rosé and chardonnay are much less.
Cole said the magic of the estate is its gravelly soil and a slight elevation that creates good drainage on the valley floor. The Bordeaux grape varieties planted here struggle to produce small, concentrated berries that give Cole the tannin, structure and extraction he wants.
He said, “I can push these grapes and build the wines to have a wow and young factor, but also acidity and an ability to age.”
And, boy, do they have the potential to age. The heady 2016 James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon ($235) we tasted was epic. With only 500 cases produced, it uses only the best estate grapes to craft a concentrated wine with layers of fresh dark berry flavors, velvety tannins and bright acidity. The 2017 version – Cole’s favorite – has intense blueberry flavors. Both of these wines will last decades.
Cole said, “Every year I walk the line between low and high extraction.”
The 2017 Sullivan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2016 Sullivan Coeur de Vigne, a blend of all five noble Bordeaux grape varieties, are more approachable. Cole manages to retain the fresh fruit quality while piling on tannins and acidity to give them backbone. These are wines to share with beef.
Sullivan also makes a great merlot from purchased grapes grown not far from the estate. Cole said Sullivan has replanted some of the merlot once grown on the property and he hopes to make an estate merlot soon. Although merlot has taken a hit in recent years, it can produce astounding wines in the right hands. The 2013 Sullivan James O’Neil Merlot ($140) is an enormous wine with lots of decadent cherry and raspberry flavors, complexity and a luscious mouthfeel. It gave us renewed hope for this maligned grape variety.
El Coto de Rioja “Coto de Imaz” Reserva Rioja 2016 ($21). El Coto makes several delicious tempranillos for less money than this one. But we liked the reserva, aged a minimum of 18 months in American oak and matured in bottle for another 18 months. It is chock full of ripe black cherry flavors. Hint of licorice and cocoa.
El Coto Estate-grown Blanco ($12). This is a delightful blend of viura, sauvignon blanc and verdejo grapes. Good acidity for summer drinking and lively citrus flavors.
Paringa Shiraz 2017 ($12). This value-priced wine has lush black cherry and plum flavors with a hint of coffee, leather and spice.