Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fancy Dinner for 6? The $44 Cameron Hughes Wine Solution

June is all about big celebrations: graduation, Father's Day, weddings. What this means for many of us is that we are hosting, and attending, more than our usual share of fancy dinners. This month, lots of us are trying to figure out how to stretch our food and wine budgets to accommodate special meals with grandparents, visiting relatives, dads, grads, brides, grooms, and in-laws. (photo by Ian Britton of

What you need is a little help from Cameron Hughes and your local Costco. With them on your side, you can serve each guest 3 glasses of wine (one sparkling, one white, and one red) for $44--total. Yes, these will be normal size glasses, not a huge beaker full of wine like the picture to the right. If you want to serve your guests more generous pours, buy two bottles of each. At $88 dollars for 6 bottles, it's a steal. I received these bottles as samples from the winery, but I would (and did ) happily pay retail for them after I went through the samples. This was my first Cameron Hughes experience. Trust me, it won't be my last.

People can get a bit sniffy about Cameron Hughes wine, and make comparisons between them and Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck." I've had both. There is no comparison. These are wines with much more complexity and finesse. The reason? Like a European negociant, Hughes buys his grapes in lots from top-notch growers who have a surplus, and then in most cases he bottles wines made just from that lot to preserve their unique characteristics and distinctive flavors. Sometimes the production totals are relatively small--a few hundred cases--so you have to move quickly to get your stash before they're sold out. To bring them to you at the best possible price, Hughes makes his wines available directly from the winery or from Costco, cutting out the markups that typically go to distributors. And, Cameron Hughes is the first US winery to be carbon neutral, so his wine is good and good for the environment, too.

Here's how to have your own fancy sit-down dinner and serve three excellent QPR wines that taste like they set you back $100 but will cost only $44.

Before dinner, serve your guests the NV Cameron Hughes Lot 25 ($21). Packaged in a classy bottle with platinum wrappings, it's labeled NV for technical reasons having to do with dosage, even though the vast majority of this wine came from grapes picked in 1998. The wine's age gives it wonderful richness of color and and a biscuity taste, as well as a refined texture from its tiny bubbles. Flavors of apple and a round nuttiness made this a hair shy of brut, in my opinion, but this was perfect for me since I like a sparkling wine that has some soft edges to it. Made from equal parts of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes picked in the Carneros AVA, this is a nice step up if you're used to drinking the standard non-vintage $20 sparklers. And it's good with cheese, guacamole, shrimp cocktail--a very versatile food wine.

Try serving a first course of asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, or a leafy green salad with sherry vinaigrette and warm goat cheese rounds. The 2006 Cameron Hughes Lot 26 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($11; $8.99 at my local Costco) would be a perfect partner for either of these dishes. I like sauvignon blancs fermented in stainless steel like this one, and I really love the relatively low 12.8% alc./vol. It was a textbook example of a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, with a pale, translucent color and tangy aromas of cut grass and citrus rind. The flavors are predominantly white grapefruit with a bit of lemon, but the grass notes are reintroduced in the juicy finish. This makes it a perfect summer sipper and for about $9 a bottle, it is no wonder that every time I go to the local Costco there are fewer and fewer cases to be had.

For the main event, many of us will head straight for the beef. Steaks, roasts, and London Broils are favorites at fancy dinners. Of course, this kind of main course demands a rich and complex wine, like the 2005 Cameron Hughes Lot 29 Lake County Meritage ($11; $8.99 at my local Costco). Poured into a decanter and tasted blind, most drinkers would think it was a young cru bourgeois from Bordeaux. Made in a restrained Old World style, the blend contains cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. This wine had abundant tannins, but it drank very well after 30 minutes in the decanter, and even better later. It was dark plum in color, with aromas of pencil lead, herbs, blackberry, and currant. As the wine bloomed, there were flavors of eucalyptus, more herbs, plum, and blackberry. I suspect this will age into a beauty. Sadly, Lot 29 is already sold out at the winery, but it may be available to you locally--there are still a few cases at my Costco in the LA area, and I ran out yesterday and bought 3 more bottles to stick in the cellar. If you can't find it, you might want to snap up one of their other new releases, like the 2005 Cameron Hughes Lot 34 Rutherford Cabernet ($14; $11.99 at my local Costco and now also cooling its heels in my cellar).

All three wines represented excellent QPR, with their textbook varietal characteristics, yummy flavor profiles, and low cost. These wines tasted special, and sitting back and sipping a distinctive 9-year-old sparkling wine with my guests that retails for around $20 makes me happy. And if you're reading this blog, it will probably make you happy, too. We are the people for whom Cameron Hughes makes wines: consumers who know enough to know they don't want oak chip tea bags in their chardonnay, but don't necessarily want to pay $30 or more for a bottle to drink with dinner.

If you missed your chance to get Lot 29, be sure that you don't miss any future releases by signing up for their email newsletters. I seem never to be in my Costco when the Cameron Hughes Wines arrive--and they do go quickly--but the newsletters tell you specifically which Costcos are receiving which wines, and they let you know those that are available on the website for you non-Costco types. I've got a few more bottles to share with you over the next few weeks (including a Chardonnay and a Syrah-Mourvedre blend), so stay tuned for more Cameron Hughes reviews.


Anonymous said...

Hi Deb,

Not to be a nit-picker, but there really is no "winery" for Cameron Hughes. And while it's good they're purchasing carbon offsets, there are a few real wineries that are doing the same (or more) in the name of carbon neutrality.

But, yes, CHW is generally good value wine even if I prefer some of his other lots. Lucky for you that you can get it at your Costco...


Dr. Debs said...

Hi, Tyler. Nit-pick away. I should have said direct to consumers, but the fingers got away from the brain for a few minutes. And I couldn't find any other information on carbon neutral wineries--I searched for it--so I'd be glad to know who else is paying attention to these matters. This was my first CH experience, of course, so I have nothing to compare it with but I've had Marlborough SBs, Carneros sparklers, and young Bordeaux for twice and even three times the price that weren't this good. Thanks for the correction, and the comment!

Anonymous said...

I concur on the Cameron Lot 34: a salesperson recommended it at my local Costco and I picked up a bottle to try. Believe me, I was back for a half case to lay down. The QPR should be compared to any Rutherford Napa 2005 of good quality and these usually retail for $25 to $30 (see Mondavi for example).

The lot 34 has a medium / medium+ body, dark cherry flavor with some refreshing acidity and fine grain tannins (French Oak?)

Dr. Debs said...

Welcome, Anonymous. I find this more and more with CH wines. I buy one, skeptical, and then find myself running back to get what I can. I also agree with your assessment of Lot 34, though there is some bottle shock on it and it does need a year or so to really start performing at its best. CH Wines gets the wine out quickly, and this means you really should wait a few months to assess (although, like you, I can't usually wait). I just picked up their rose, and will have a review later this week. It's a grenache rose from Spain, and I'm hoping its suffering less from bottle shock than the monster reds. Hope to see you back here in the future.


I sell Cameron Hughes wine in Costcos 3 to 4 days a week. I've heard "TWO BUCK CHUCK" mentioned 100 times. That's probably 1/100 the amount I've heard, "are you giving away free samples?" (as the food samples fall out of their mouths)

Cameron Hughes is the first American wine negociant company to be 100 percent carbon neutral.

If you get a premium wine like these, and they're as young as these, you should always decant it. I like to decant mine for at least an hour.

Some states don't require a membership card to buy alcohol
at clubs such as Costco.