Some Lunchtime Drinking: Cameron Hughes Lot 527 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

I’ve had a lot of life changes over the past few years. Many of them were the cause of my lack of wine-blogging, some of them were the cause of me wine-blogging again. A move from one state to another. My kids growing up, and leaving home. A serious illness. The most significant change of all however was the end of my relationship with the person you have all gotten to know as “Mrs. Barbarian.” It was a rough time… for both of us. After a few years of being apart I started dating again, and have been seeing a real fiery testa rossa, who shares my love of tasting good things.

One of those things was this bottle of Pinot Noir from Cameron Hughes. A steal at $13! I’m not usually a fan of Pinot Noir. Pinots are like Porsches, they can be awesome, or they can be awful, but they are almost always expensive. A good, cheap Pinot is about as common as a good, cheap Porsche. But this one is quite good, and indeed cheap, thanks to our negociant friend Cameron Hughes.

We enjoyed it over an evening and better yet, lunchtime the following day where we noshed on fruit, some nice cheeses, and cured meats.The wine is a classic California Pinot, with a light color and a refreshing flavor. Really quite good and Testa Rossa herself said it was a favorite. She loves Pinot Noir, so stay tuned for more reviews provided she doesn’t dump me.

My only issue with this wine was the cork, which dove into the bottle as soon as I pressed the Screwpull into it.

Cellar Treasure: Walter Clore Private Reserve Columbia Crest 2003 Red

This bottle has been laying about my family’s cellars for well over a decade. First in my father’s basement, and eventually mine, as my folks sold the family home earlier this year and the goods were distributed among the kids as they downsized. My sisters laid claim to the furniture, I grabbed the wine. As I unpacked the wine into my cellar, I noted some amazing bottles ranging in vintage from the 1960s through the 2000s, as well as some more “pedestrian” wares. I may choose to highlight the amazing under some new category here soon, but meanwhile here is one from the middle ground. It is a red blend from Columbia Crest, which is one of the older Washington state wineries. A Bordeaux style blend, it was aged in French oak for two years before bottling, which means my father had it for at least ten years in his cellar before it came to me. I’ve poked around online and this wine seems to sell around thirty dollars when new, so perhaps my father paid mid-twenties back in the day? So not a big budget wine really. So how did it fare in 2016? REALLY well actually.

I’m no sommelier but I imagine if I kidnapped one, tied them up in my basement, blindfolded them and let them taste this wine they’d say it was from France. That typical “barnyard” nose that you find with a Bordeaux beauty, along with the complex flavors. I drink a lot of Washington wines. A lot. I’m in a bunch of wine clubs from Washington wineries and they keep me supplied with a stead stream of stuff from Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley. This wine is nothing like them… at all.

Those clever Washingtonians.

Smart Bombs and Cellar Treasures: Cameron Hughes Lots 444 & 469

Smart Bombs of the Wine World

Twenty-some years ago we all watched astounded on CNN as a war halfway around the world displayed some shocking technology: The Smart Bomb. Our grandfathers dropped dumb bombs on each other, and it resulted in entire cities being destroyed when the actual target was a bridge, or a factory. The classic “kill a fly with a bazooka” scenario. Over time, physicists and engineers developed munitions that became smarter and smarter; heat-seeking, video-guided, laser-guided, etc. So that by 1990 we were watching bombs fall from tens of thousands of feet and go down chimneys.

Like many scientific discoveries, some of the best happen by accident. I think I may have stumbled upon the smart bomb of wines. I talk about Cameron Hughes‘s wines a lot. Mostly because they are by far, the best values in the wine buying world. Mr. Hughes is a negociant, not a wine maker per se, but a seller of other producers wines, excess inventory, distressed inventory, etc. He offers all sorts of wines that are generally excellent, but at frankly amazing prices. On average I’d say the typical CHWine offering is a $50 to $150 bottle (if it were in its original guise) being sold for $15 to $40. Cameron himself seems to have a sweet spot of expertise, and that is Napa Valley Bordeaux-style wines. Mostly Cabernet Sauvignons, but also into the Merlots, and Bordeaux style blends (what has come to be called Meritage). Cameron Hughes has a particular nose for both great deals, and great Napa valley wines. (He sells wines from all over the world, and I have had great results with all of them. I’m just saying his particular expertise and specialty is Napa Valley.)

So here is my sure-fire, four step, smart-bomb recipe for buying a great Napa Valley wine at a very low price:

    1. Find Cameron Hughes Wines. Either buy them direct from their website, at a retailer like Costco, or better yet, do like I do and join their wine club, which gets you additional discounts.
    2. Buy anything that they offer from Napa Valley made from Bordeaux grapes. In descending order: Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot (I haven’t seen any Napa Malbecs, Carmeneres, etc yet.)
    3. Cellar them well from two to five years. Mind you, I haven’t been able to amass a deep enough cellar stock to stretch them beyond that five year mark yet. So maybe even longer if you can.
    4. Drink!

I have yet to be disappointed, but so far I have found the accuracy of this trajectory to be well over 96%. These latest two, Lot 444 2013 Napa Valley Meritage, and the Lot 469 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were amazingly good. Lot 444 is sold out, but they still have 469 available at around $32. My normal pattern is to taste my way through the club case shipments that come to me a few times a year, and then if there are any standouts buy a few more bottles to lay down for a few years, ideally in a spot not within easy grabbing range. These Napa Valley wines that Mr. Hughes selects ALL seem to benefit from some cellar aging. They develop to be some of the best I drink out of that region, and once you reflect back on what you paid? It makes you feel like a genius.

Even if it is accidental.

Remembrances of Reckless Youth

Silver Oak Cabernet

I found this bottle in my recycling yesterday. I was making my quarterly trip to the dump to leave behind my collected bottles. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution required my presence at the County Courthouse, and I figured I’d swing by the recycling center at the county dump, as it is on the way. So I was filling one of those giant Costco vegetable boxes in the trunk of my car with bottles from the garage… and picked up this 2012 Silver Oak Cabernet. At an average price of $73.16 (according to an app on my phone) it does not fall within the realm of what this blog usually covers. Not even close. I did pick it up for a pretty good price (around $50 if I recall correctly) but that’s still out of scope. It was at a forgettable dinner at one of those restaurants whose view is far better than its fare. This particular evening even the view was obscured by clouds, so the sole highlight was seeing Silver Oak on the wine list at a hefty discount.

But it did trigger a long-dormant memory which I shared with my dining companions, and I’ll share with you dear reader…

Back in 1983/4 which was my Junior year in college, I was attending a large state University, which was over 500 miles from my parent’s home, so I didn’t see them all that often. By the time I had been in school for over two years, I’d developed a set of friends and activities that took me in directions away from my family for most breaks. I can’t recall if it was Thanksgiving, or Christmas break that year, but it was the final time that I actually made the drive there and back for the holiday. My appreciation of wine came to me honestly, via my father who has been a serious collector and drinker of fine wines for longer than I have been alive. My parents, bless them, have never had any hangups or overly strict rules about drinking for their kids. I can remember being offered wine with my dinners from a pretty young age. Mind you I didn’t like it, as kids palates are rarely up for the reality or sophistication of adult food and drink, so I usually passed. But as I grew to the adulthood I came to it with no taboos about booze. Contrast that to my fellow students in my Freshman year, where likely half of them came completely unhinged once out of their parental sphere of influence and control. The first semester of University was a non-stop party of sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, and of course cheap beer & booze. Ironically the town where my University is located was a “Dry” town back then. Yes, a vestige of post-prohibition religious control of local laws. A huge state University in a dry town… what could possibly go wrong? It is amusing to think back to those days, and the illusion (or perhaps delusion) that law and rule could somehow keep hormones and new-found freedom in check. The dormitories were segregated by gender (can’t say “by sex” because there was plenty of that going on!), alcohol was forbidden in these dorms, and you and to drive miles out of town to buy alcohol. (The edge of the “dry” part was clearly visible by the string of huge warehouse-sized, DRIVE-THROUGH liquor stores. You literally drove in, opened your trunk, told them what you wanted to buy, and they’d forklift it into your vehicle for you.) The dorms were basically sleeping/studying/drinking locations. My dorm room was on the ground floor, right by the back door. I saw all the contraband going in (booze, beer, girls), and out (girls mostly, very early in the morning and looking a lot less beautiful than they did going in.) I think by mid-terms of Freshman year a third of the students were beyond redemption with their GPAs and sent packing by Christmas… right back into their parental sphere of influence and control.


On my last post-holiday drive back to school, my wonderful parents gave me a parting gift: A case of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon.

Well, not a FULL case, but ten or eleven bottles. They told me that they’d had it for a few years, part of a multi case batch they acquired, and the bottles they had recently pulled from it were “off”… Not bad, but clearly declining from their peak. Having no recollection of the exact vintage; likely from the late 70s, all I do recall is exactly how thrilled I was to have this windfall of good stuff! I usually drank swill as a college student. Busch beer ($4 a case!) or Earnest & Julio’s “Hearty Burgundy” out of a jug. Landing most of a case of Silver Oak was like having that busty brunette be assigned as your lab partner.

I made the long drive back to school, with that case of Silver Oak bottles gently clinking away in the back of my VW Rabbit, me smugly smiling at the wheel… slowly proceeding at the strictly-enforced 55MPH speed limit. Having that back-door adjascent room made smuggling my contraband into the dorm a breeze. My memory of those wines is that all of them were amazing. Not a single one was “off” in any way. Only a couple of my dorm buddies were wine drinkers, but those guys descended on my room like locusts on Mormon settlers. No gulls came to save me. I hid a couple of bottles from the onslaught, but I doubt even those lasted until the end of the semester.

Je suis gormand.

A big, peppery kiss on the mouth: 2011 Result Of A Crush

Result Of A Crush

My most recent gig had me traveling a lot over the past year. So much so that I’m one flight away from “gold status” on my airline of choice, and only half my flights were with them this year. I became quite familiar with many wine bars in various airports all around North America. A few are quite good, but mind you none of them offer bargains. Airports are made up of the ultimate captive audience; corporate wage slaves criss-crossing the country on expense accounts. Expect to pay 2x to 5x what anything is worth once you’re beyond the TSA sexual harassment stations. For example, very early one morning at SFO I grabbed a Coke Zero at a kiosk in the International Terminal as I needed some caffeine to jump start me (I don’t drink coffee… yeah, I know that is hard to grasp but I’ve never developed a taste for the stuff) and when the guy said “$4.50” I replied “$4.50 FOR A 16OZ COKE?” then just turned and walked away, leaving the cola on the counter. Yes, I’m cheap. Loud Rammstein in my earbuds had to suffice for the jumpstart… DU HAST!!

Last spring I had a multi-hour layover at Sea-Tac airport and ended up spending most of it in a wine bar between the B and C concourses. They offered tasting flights and since I was in Washington state, I tried a Washington state red wine flight. I recall that one was a Cabernet Sauvignon, the other was a Sangiovese, and the last of the three was this oddball Syrah. The first thing I remember about it was the nose. Hit me with huge peppery notes. In fact until that moment I had always heard people talk about “peppery notes” but really had not experienced it myself.

This wine delivers pepper like a Daisy Cutter dropped on Tora Bora in 2002.


Want some more? Take a sip.


Speaking as a guy who puts pepper on his bacon, his french fries, he steaks, his broccoli… everything… I was in my wine happy place with this Result of a Crush.

The wine bar at Sea-Tac offers bottles for sale, so I inquired about this wine. Their price? $45. Ten times the cost of sixteen ounces of Coca-Cola at SFO down the coast. The wine bar also offers free wifi, so a quick search on my phone revealed a wine shop online offering the same wine for $19 a bottle. A couple of clicks later, I have three coming to me. I enjoy two more glasses of the wine over the next few hours, and then proceed along to my gate and another forgettable business trip.

Many months later I receive a notice from UPS about an adult signature required package coming my way and I’m confused. I don’t have any wine coming to my knowledge. The UPS lady shows up a day later and sure enough it is the Result of a Crush I ordered back in June. They wine shop had held it for cooler weather, and I had completely forgotten about this purchase. It’s like Christmas in October! I open one bottle after letting it rest in the cellar for a while and it is just as I recall. Big. Peppery. Awesome.

Dumas Station 2012 Walla Walla Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 

Dumas Station is one of my personal treasures in the wine world. I stumbled upon them at a local eatery in my small town. By habit I tend to scroll right past the standard reds right to the “interesting reds” category on any wine list and it was there I found a Cabernet Franc from Dumas Station that sent me scrambling for more. I signed up for their wine club and have been buying direct ever since. 

Tonight I opened this 2012 Cabernet Not Franc and was pleasantly surprised. It has been in my cellar for a few years and on opening the fragrance from the bottle and cork were fantastic… I knew this was going to be some good stuff. 

Very dark. Earthy. Moody. A bit stanky to be honest. Almost old world. 

I imagine it wouldbe tough to find one of these in a wine shop, or even online now four years after vintage, but if you can I suggest buying a few. They will continue to age well, so drink one now and lay the others down, then revisit from time to time. 

Likely to live, or likely to die? Cameron Hughes Lot 513 “Triage” Red Blend

Triage Red Blend

An anonymous red blend from a negociant, with zero data on the label of what may lie within… what could possibly go wrong? Looking at the bottle you slip into your own form of triage… Buy? Discard? Run away?

Buy my friend. Buy.

This is a damn good wine at very reasonable $15 price.

Super smooth, and very tasty. Very dark in the glass, but soft and velvety on the palate. It is not a vintage wine, it seems to have been sourced from 2013, 2014, and 2012 grapes from three separate AVA’s in northern California: Lake County, Sonoma, and Calistoga. Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Hybrid vigor indeed. This is one of the most lovable mutts you’ll ever meet.

This is a great “everyday drinker” and at that price you can’t go wrong. Let it live.

Roads less traveled… Cameron Hughes Lot 524, 2013 Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

Where the hell is Paicines?

I like to drive. A lot.

Unless I have a tight schedule to keep, I actually drive for most of my trips, both business and pleasure. It’s not that I’m afraid to fly… far from it. I grew up the son of an airline employee and have likely spent more time in jets than some pilots (except I slept through most of that time. I’m one of those plane sleepers. Even turbulence that has other passengers screaming for their lives has me waking from my slumber to slowly raise an eyelid, shift in my seat, and go back to sleep again, annoyed at those bellowing crybabies.) I just like to take roads less traveled. In fact, I eschew Waze, SatNav systems, and GPS in general when I drive. I have an old-school Rand-McNally Road Atlas. Spital bound, and highlighter pen marked routes I have driven before… in 49 of the 50 US states, and most of the provinces of Canada. Take a guess of which state I have yet to visit – hint: you can’t drive to it.

I was born with an innate sense of direction hitched to a wanderlust gene. I follow my nose and it never fails to get me where I’m going, or take me the same way twice.

So I was drinking this damn good wine tonight and thinking “where the hell is Paicines, CA?” So I pulled out my phone and opened a map app (hey, I’m sitting on my deck, I don’t have the Rand-McNally handy!) and sure enough I have driven through Paicines before!

California has five major north-south routes: CA1, 101, I-5, 99, and east of the Sierra, US395. I’ve driven all of them. I-5 is of course the worst. A line of cars nose-to-tail from Redding all the way to LA and beyond, clogging every lane and getting nowhere fast. Zero lane discipline. Endless Prii and SUVs slowly loafing in the left lane. A few years ago I had to get to SoCal and had already driven every way there… until I looked at my Road Atlas and spotted CA25. yes! A little ribbon of asphalt somehow woven through the oaken hills between US101 and I-5. So i drove it. Wow, what a fun road. While folks where gridlocked just east of me on I-5, I was blasting down a twisty backroad to the tune of “Red Barchetta” by Rush. I saw ONE other car. ONE. A SINGLE OTHER VEHICLE in a few hundred miles of wonderful fun behind the wheel.

So as I savored this Cabernet on the deck tonight at sunset, I recalled fondly that day’s drive through the middle of nowhere in central California. The wine is quite good. VERY different from your usual California Cab. More subtle. Softer.

I’ve made a mental note to drive that road again.

You win some, you lose some…

Hint: Stick to Malbec

Sometimes I’m a sucker. I fall for things that seem too good to be true. The used car that blows a head gasket 300 miles after I buy it. The promises some asshole boss makes. Or in this case, a Cabernet Franc, from Argentina.

I use an app to track the wines in my cellar. OK, “basement” is a more correct term, but I digress. This app I’m using now also makes me offers based on my “tasting profile”… and I do drink a lot of Cabernet Franc. I don’t post them all here, mostly because they fall outside of the price scope I have set for myself in these ramblings. But this one popped up for a bit over ten bucks. I think I was inebriated when it did pop up because I saw it and said to myself:

“Self! A Cab Franc for $10?? What could possibly go wrong?!”

In addition to that silly thought, the wine carried a bug on the label that proclaimed how Decanter Magazine had bestowed upon it a “best in show” award. Mind you, I have never actually read Decanter Magazine before, but what the hell? They sound like they know what they’re doing, right?

Apparently not.

All I can figure is that the rest of the wines available at this particular show must have been awful.

This wine isn’t really that bad. But it also isn’t really that good. At least not yet.Maybe it is too young. maybe it is suffering a bit of bottle shock? Who knows. I’ll find out when I open the next bottle (I bought more than one) in a few months. Check back and see.

The bottle doesn’t photograph well, so for the time being, we’ll leave it like this and wrap it in a slight air of mystery. At least until I pop the cork on the next one.

Cheap wine, cheap hotels, what could possibly go wrong?  Ghost Signs 2011 Central Coast Petite Sirah

Several of you may have noticed, your humble author changed jobs and moved a few years back. That job impacted my ability to write for this blog on a regular basis. In many ways it kept me so busy that a lot of my previous life was seriously impacted as well. Too many changes to summarize now, but I’ll do my best to sprinkle that tale around as time goes on. I have a new, new job now, that has me on the road a lot. I’m growing to like it. However this past week threw me a curve that I wasn’t able to dodge and that errant pitch hit me square in the face. Right at the beginning of a business trip I caught some sort of viral illness that laid me out like a feverish near-dead thing for four straight days. 

In a hotel, right next to an major international airport. 

It wasn’t the absolute worst week of my life, but it was damn close. It is bad enough being sick at home, but trapped inside a soulless corporate hotel, unable to really care for myself… ugh. Of course, being my cheap self, I am a regular at this hotel because it is no-frills, but doles out loyalty points for every option you choose to make it even cheaper. I had opted to forgo housekeeping for the entire week, as usually I’m only in the room to sleep. I have a million social connections in this metro area because I’ve worked and had professional connections around it since the early 90s. So my weeks there consist of work during the day, socializing at night, and easy access to/from this hotel via public transport as there is several train, shuttles, and car service type options that converge within walking distance of this hotel. 

Not this week though. This week I spend close to 80 straight hours in that room, feeling close to death. Never measured my fever but I can deduct from the humidity levels of my bedsheets that it peaked around 4:52am Thursday. Later that morning I relented and call down to request housekeeping and new sheets. The small victory was still collecting the 250 loyalty points (to be used to cash in on some luxury night non-work related someday) for that day’s “save the environment” option. 

By Saturday morning, I am largely recovered but not a good candidate to sit in an aluminum tube for three hours exposing fellow passengers to what may linger in my occasionally rattling respiratory tract. I check a few options on some travel websites, rebook my return flight from another airport a distance away, and head off for a little weekend wine getaway!

Convertibles were on sale for the price of a Kia, so I grab the drop-top Mustang and head south to Paso. Arriving at an ultra-famous mountaintop winery an hour before closing time, a squeaky clean kid with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie stops me at the gate: “Do you have a reservation sir?” “Nope!” I answer cheerfully. “Well, we usually … um… well… nobody is answering me up there… (looks the car over) Just go on up and if there is a parking space take it. If not come back down here. Ok?” 

Made the right choice with the Mustang. 

$45 of sipping my way through ultra-high end Bordeaux style blends (with one odd, but good Bordeaux/Rhône mix that would only ever happen in Paso Robles!) among stunning Mission-style architecture, fountains, and views of mountains. Not a bad way to earn an hour of my  life back after my hell of a week. I successfully avoid spending any more high altitude money here, as the bottles start at $85 and only go higher. 

To entertain myself I coast the ‘Stang in neutral as far as I can down the mountain, until I notice that I’m slowing up some local in a pickup, at which point I punch it and beeline for Paso Proper for a Pizza. Rustic Fire is a nice local strip-mall family pizza place I discovered last time I was in Paso Robles and I recalled how they sold small local wines at good prices. After all that high-falootin’ stuff I needed a basic Paso Petite Sirah and a pizza to ground me again. 

They have two Petites to pick with my pizza, “Chronic” or “Ghost Signs” I chose the latter. A 2011 vintage the Ghost Signs Central Coast Petite Sirah is VERY intense. Almost too intense, if by intense the intention is tannic. The cork is darkly stained to the point that the Rustic Fire staffer (hard to use the term “waiter” here!) even noticed how dark it was when he pulled it. Given that I always adorn my pizzas with peppers and other things that burn, it is a steep road a wine has to climb to keep up, but this Petit Sirah is heavy heavy fuel… it could coast downhill easily  against any big food, like that pickup truck behind me on the road, relentlessly progressing with big presence. This is a BIG, petit wine. I had two small glasses in nice stemware (the Petite left stains I noted) along with half of my small, spicy pie before it was time to hit the road and find a hotel. 

Now on my own without benefit of corporate sponsored/subsidized choices I consulted the mobile travel app and noted every hotel in wine country was far beyond my cheapness-throttled personal subsidy thresholds, so extending the search area over the hills eastward revealed economic bounties of super-cheap domiciles. Booking one, I dropped the top of the Mustang and drove past the last of the vineyards, over the dusty hills and into the Central Valley’s Petroleum Patch for a cheap motel. There I made use of the plastic wrapped stemware you see above to finish off the last two pie slices and fully contemplate the Ghost Signs Durif. 

I imagine the winemaker, like me, really likes the “bigness” of Petite Sirah and sought that target. A bullseye was achieved, but with such precision that all of the other things we love so much about Petite Sirah were missed. The round fruit and long, lingering finish most of all. Intensity is there, but not much else. 

After letting this wine “decant” or perhaps the better term is “recline” overnight to breathe and open it has lost a bit of intensity and gained a bit of betterness. If you buy some of this (which retails for between $12 and $14) it might be worth it to open it up and taste it over time. Odd for a cheap wine, but as I’ve found time can improve even the cheap. Look at me, I’m getting better!