Best of 2017: Cameron Hughes Lot 606 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Sure, it’s only October, but I’ve found the best budget wine of the year, hands down. It is still available, and if you’re smart, you’ll go buy some now. It sells for $29/bottle, but I have to tell you, this is a easily a $75 wine. I received two bottle via my usual wine club shipment several months ago. But as per my habit, I put it down in the cellar to let it rest and recover from bottle shock and shipping… and promptly forgot about it.

Until two nights ago. It was a pleasant, “indian summer” evening and I decided to eat out on the deck and watch the sun go down. I was eating leftovers from a big dinner with guests… just warmed up some roasted veggies and what was left of a giant pan-seared steak with an amazing reduction sauce I made from a bottle of Cabernet Franc. So the food was leftovers, but I decided to open a fresh bottle of wine. Somehow I knew I had to savor some of that “Rutherford Dust” so I went down to the cellar to search out this specific wine.

Wow. Just wow.

This wine is GOOD.

No, actually this wine is GREAT.

No question, the best wine I have drank this year under $100. Even better it is $71 less than $100.

After I drank it I went online and ordered a few bottles more. You should too.

Finally, an actual, damn good Pinot Noir, for under $20.

Pinot Noir by Joe

I’ve often said “Pinots are like Porsches. Good ones are expensive, and bad ones are also expensive.” A truly great Pinot Noir is a treasure, but they are elusive, and usually expensive. In my experience “cheap” Pinot Noirs are often terrible. As the years roll by, I’ve pretty much given up on trying to buy Pinots. I’m supplied with a regular amount of passable Pinots from my Cameron Hughes wine club, which satisfies the cravings of “Testa Rossa” my red-headed Pinot-loving dining companion, and nothing goes better with a grilled/planked salmon that a light Pinot on a summer’s evening.

Beyond those offerings from Mr. Hughes, I have snagged a dozen or so great Oregon Pinot Noirs from some winery tours we have had the pleasure of doing on some long weekends in the Willamette Valley. Testa Rossa is from that part of the world and both of us have kids that have gone all hipster and live in Portland. Visiting the grown-up kids makes for a nice grown-up excuse to tour some wineries. Oregon has some amazing Pinot producers, all within a very short drive of Portland. None of their products fall within the scope of this blog however. The bottles I’ve bought on these tours range in price from $40, to well over $100. Are they great? Certaily. But not cheap. It is damn near impossible to find a great value Pinot Noir from Oregon.

Until now.

I didn’t buy this bottle, but some poking around online pegs the price well below twenty bucks (Vivino app says avg price is $15.99). It was a gift to us from a guest. I opened it a few nights ago. I honestly expected something dismal, and girded my loins in preparation. Nose into the glass… “ah” Take the first sip… “oooh” “Not bad!”

I would never call this a “great Pinot” but it certainly isn’t a bad one. In fact I’m giving it the grade of “damn good”

So if you’re looking to find a damn good cheap Pinot, go to Joe.

Damn good wine for under $9!

2012 Espelt Garnacha Old Vines


I grabbed this wine a little less than a year ago from Wine Exchange. The price was $8.98, which is an incredible bargain for what this bottle represents. It isn’t available there anymore, but I highly recommend their mailing list, as it can be a bargain hunter’s dream. 

Testa Rossa and I are avoiding culinary ruts by buying those internet delivery meal things. In this case Sun Basket. I was that kid who ate the same thing everyday growing up… for me it was PB&J. You see I’m perfectly happy to eat the same thing over and over, provided it is something I like. As an adult, it isn’t peanut butter and jelly sandwiches anymore, but something like chicken breast and sautéed green veggies is certainly something I could sit down to every night of the week, so long as I swapped in a steak now and then. Sure, I love gourmet food, but don’t really feel like making it often. As a bachelor, I lived like this for years.  


Tonight’s Sun Basket meal is grilled chicken breasts and sautéed veggies. Seriously. But it is a bunch of veggies I would have never picked myself. As I was looking at the recipe I pondered something to pair with it and ventured down to the cellar thinking of a Sangiovese, or a similar Italian. Instead I found this Garnacha and thought “why not?”

When I pulled the cork and tasted it, the overwhelming sensation was “puckery” like a northern Italian Nebbiolo. Super-tight. After decanting for a bit it softened and really opened up quite well. Paired wonderfully with the chicken. Testa Rossa describes it as “tangy”. 

Very oaky nose. Peppery mouth feel and a long finish. 

Here’s a wine for under nine bucks that drinks as good or better than many forty dollar bottles. 

Ain’t Life Grand? Cameron Hughes Lot 602, 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

I think the first contemporary vintages of Napa Valley cabernets I ever tasted were from the late 70s, likely 1978/79. I was just a wee barbarian, drinking at the table of my father, whose wine exploits and palette I aspire to experience. California was really starting to get on-track with the development of their own style of winemaking. The Prohibition era has devastated a vital industry and destroyed its history and legacy… and it wasn’t until the early seventies that they began to recover, and get going again. I often say that it has taken our society a century to recover from Prohibition… the greatest folly of our country. It is really just now that we have fully recovered, in terms of the beverage industry – wines, beer, and distilling. But it was the wine business that started this recovery, and the epicenter of that recovery was Napa Valley.

I can recall tasting the output of such foundation Napa Cab producers such as Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu Vineyards, and Heitz. The industry has changed so much, with hudreds of producers, and prices to match… yet the product has become iconic. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

What it means to me is big, powerful, yet supple and ready-to-drink… TONIGHT. Unlike the Crand Cru Bordeaux it tried to mimic back then, which must age for years, perhaps decades before it becomes drinkable, today’s Napa Cab delivers that supple experience of an aged Bordeaux upon release. They still benefit from aging well, but generally they are also good to go, right when you buy them.

This example, the 2014 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 602 from Cameron Hughes is exactly that. You can buy this RIGHT NOW (click that link!) for $32/bottle and enjoy an amazing Napa Cab. THIRTY TWO BUCKS. Sure, it isn’t ultra-cheap, but I tell you, if this wasn’t being sold by a Negociant, it would likely be well over $100/bottle. It is THAT good – NOW. Grab some of these, throw some steaks on the grill, and pull the cork.

You can thank me later.

A Reliable Go-To: Walla Walla Vintners Cabernet Franc

Walla Walla Vintners Cab Franc

I first tasted this wine at a local seafood & steakhouse. It is a great place and over the years I’ve become a “regular”. The staff knows my name, and know what I like. I used to bring visiting business guests there about every month. Now I just visit every once in a while, but they never fail to deliver the goods.

Their wine selection is excellent, and as usual on my very first visit I went off-script and veered away from the Pinots and CabSauvs, and dove into the “Other Varietals” section of the list to poke around for something interesting. This is where I found this excellent wine. It turns out that I was the first person to ever order that wine at that restaurant. It was so good, that I just kept ordering it every time I went. The servers just said “your usual?” and I agreed. Over the years the vintages changed, but the wine remained excellent.

Eventually I slapped my forehead and realized I should buy some for home. I joined their wine club, and ordered up a case of the newest vintage, which turns out to have been this 2013. Now I have a rather large stash of them, along with some of their oddballs and “wine club exclusives”… they are all great. Wonderful and well-rounded Walla Walla wines. The Cab Franc remains my favorite.

Walla Walla Vintners are probably the best across-the-board bargain from that region. If you’ve had some of the top-flight stuff from Walla Walla, you know it usually commands a hefty price. To my palette, WWV’s output is just as good, or even better, at a third or less of the price. Over the last seven or so years I’ve drank probably fifty bottles of their wines, with half being their Cabernet Francs, and every one of them has been fantastic.

Dusted Valley 2014 Cabernet Franc: Le Garçon Grand!

Big Boy Cabernet Franc

Life had me traveling abroad for a few weeks, so I indulged myself of local wines along the way. I didn’t bother to blog about them as they were universally outside of the low-price scope of this site. Suffice to say I was drinking Pinots, GSM’s and Nebbiolos almost exclusively for two straight weeks. I was unprepared for the shock of this wine… the first I chose to open upon my return home.

Clearly, there is a huge difference between Old World and New World wine styles.

After two weeks of savoring old world reds, most lovingly aged prior to even being sold (I seemed to be drinking mostly 2008-2011 vintages while there) my palette was becoming attuned to soft, earthy flavors.

Then I drank this big boy. Sure, the varietal is of Bordeaux origin, but this Columbia Valley Cabernet Franc is big, BIGGER, BIGGEST. It hit my mouth like a haymaker punch. Not in a bad way mind you… just a BIG one.

This Cabernet Franc is not cheap, weighing in around $40/bottle. But if you’re seeking a big wine for a big meal, this one will do the trick. I’ve got three more bottles (of 2013 & 2014 vintages) in the cellar and likely will let them rest a bit longer to see how they evolve.

Best Value Red of 2016/17: CH Lot 575, 2014 Red Blend, Red Mountain, Washington State

Only in America will you find a winemaker who will mix a Rhone varietal into a classic Bordeaux blend. America, Fuck Yeah!

This wine appeared in my autumn shipment mixed case from Cameron Hughes, and it was a revelation. After I tried it, I immediately ordered a full case of this wine. Big, tasty, and a usual home run from the Red Mountain AVA. As a winemaker once said on The Tasting Room, “if you see a wine from Red Mountain, just buy it. I promise it will be good.”

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a few bottles so far, and plan to keep trying them every six or so months. I imagine they’ll only get better.

Best of all? You can buy them for $16 a bottle. I’ve also seen them on sale as low as $13.

Get some. I promise it will be good.

Speaking of Rioja: 2004 Viña Tondonia

I paid $36.98 for this 2004 Rioja about three weeks ago. Given that “a good Rioja” should be cellared a decade or so, it is nice to find one that is ready to drink after have been bottle-aged before purchase. After a some rest in the wine cooler I opened this one up to accompany dinner.

The nose was very “woody” with strong evidence of time in oak. On the palate the fruit came alive. A delightful wine certainly! Very different from my usual domestic stuff. One note however: I failed to finish the bottle and re-corked it and placed it in a cool place overnight. By the next night it was unrecognizable from the night before. Almost undrinkable. This is also very different than the younger domestics I usually drink, as they always seem to stretch a few nights pretty well.

“What’s the best/most expensive wine you have ever had?”

Unico

I used to like beer. I used to drink it a lot. But then the whole IPA thing started happening about a decade ago and quite frankly, got completely out of hand. Every craft brewer was trying to out-hop the next guy. I get it, I like spicyness quite a bit. In fact I often take the top off of the pepper shaker to pour the right amount of black pepper onto my salads without having to shake, shake, shake it like Michael J Fox at an onanism competition. But I also don’t eat black pepper with a spoon either. The IPA’s of the past few years have basically tasted like you’re eating a handful of dry hops. No thanks.

When you tell people, especially “craft beer snobs” (which seem to populate every corner of the country nowadays) that you don’t really drink much beer anymore, and really prefer wine, they scoff at you for a while, but eventually start poking and prodding around your liquid proclivities. Wine it seems is a mystery to a lot of people. They perceive it as haughty, elitist, or requiring of some special and deep knowledge. In reality the opposite is true. Just like beer, you just have to drink a lot of it to figure out what you like and what you don’t like.

I think it is the restaurant wine list that scares people away from wine. It is opaque, filled with code words, and oftentimes triple-digit prices. So they flee to the simple and inexpensive comforts of wheat, hops and barley.

From that comfort zone though, they have questions. The title of this article is one of the ones I hear most often. I love to relate the tale of these two wines:

At the high end we find Vega-Sicilia “Unico” from the 1962 vintage. A bit of searching around online reveals that a bottle from this vintage can still be purchased, but it will cost you:

Ouch!

I prefer not to relate the circumstances of my tasting of this wine, beyond the fact that it was an important family event. It was delicious. I am not possessed of a Master Sommelier certificate, but there are a few wines I can taste and tell you what they are with absolute accuracy. If I were ever to be given this wine in a blind tasting, I know I would recognize it again. It was both delicious AND unique.

I have tasted some likely similarly expensive wines, especially older Burgundies and Bordeauxs, but to my knowledge this Ribera del Duero is the most expensive bottle of wine I have personally tasted.

More interesting, and certainly more inline to the focus of this website I have tasted a wine that is within a hair’s breadth of the 1962 Unico in terms of overall flavor and quality, and it cost me less than $25. Yes, under twenty-five dollars for a wine that could stand right next to the most expensive wine I have ever tasted. That story is far more interesting to me…

2001 Vina Olabarri Reserva Rioja

I heard about this wine back in 2009 or so and bought two bottles for about $21.99 each. I cellared, and then quite frankly forgot all about them. Fast forward to late 2012. On New Years Eve I was home alone and had made a really nice roast beef. Looking for something special from the cellar to pair up with the meal, I pulled out the Olabarri and was blown away when I popped the cork. The aroma from the bottle was intoxicatingly complex. Hard for me to nail down the exact aromas, but it was akin to that unique sense from an old European sports car… well worn leather and wood. Truly one of the finest noses on a wine I have ever experienced. I often times don’t finish a wine with dinner, and have collected a few high-tech stoppers to preserve my wines over a few nights… but not that New Years Eve! I drank the entire bottle that night, savoring every sniff and sip of that amazing Rioja!

The next day I went back to the website where I had originally bought the wine from three and a half years before. They were sold out. Some googling unearthed a wine shop about a three hour’s drive away that had some available. I called them up and ordered a case. It was priced a few bucks more than what I paid back in 2009, but still under $25. They held that case for me for close to a month before I was able to drive over and collect it. As I was walking out to my car with it, the guy told me “I think the word is out on that wine. Since you bought it I’ve had several more calls about it and my supply is going fast. Let me know if you want more.”

I drove home and after a couple of weeks I opened another bottle and thought to myself “What am I doing?…” and called that merchant again to ask how much he had left. “Six bottles” was the answer, and I bought them all on the spot.

Since then I have served this wine to several friends, and it receives universal acclaim. I have acquired several bottles of other vintages, but have yet to give them a try, as I still have a stockpile of the 2001s remaining.

Under $25, and tasting almost exactly the same as a $1300 wine from the early 1960s. Ponder that for a while.

Lowball Bordeaux Grand Cru: 2004 Chateau Lusseau Saint-Emilion

Like most folks, my buying habits have changed over the past decade. I can’t recall the last time I bought a bottle of wine in a store. I do most of my buying online these days. Most of my household goods are bought from Amazon. Tools, car parts, etc are sourced from online shops. All bought from my keyboard. My wine buying is 100% online these days. Partly because of the limited selection found in my local stores, but mostly because I can find better wine online at a better price. The only place I buy wines in person these days is at fine dining establishments. This is where I try new things and find wines I didn’t know about before. But the bulk of my wine collection has been purchased online via wine clubs and online retailers. One of these retailers I use a lot is “Wine Exchange.” I was introduced to them via a wine-focused podcast “The Tasting Room.” They appeared as a guest on the podcast likely a decade ago, when they were called “Best Wines Online”, and they showcased several wines that were all under $30 and all of them amazing. (One of which I ended up buying two and a half cases of, and frankly is one of the best wines I have ever tasted… I should write that one up for you!) I have bought a lot of wine from Wine Exchnage and am on their mailing list, which sends me bargains in email so often that I have to practice a lot of restraint not to buy everything they offer!

I love me some Bordeaux. Most of it is crazy expensive, but once in a while you stumble upon a bargain, and in this case it was a real win. In an email from Winex back in April of last year offering this Bordeaux for under twenty bucks a bottle. I grabbed two bottles. Two bottles is a pretty standard order for me (usually in a mixed half or full dozen) and I’ll drink one after a few weeks’ rest. If it is good, I’ll make a note to enjoy the second bottle at some future date. If it is REAL good, I’ll order more. In this case I ordered six more bottles.

Now I’m kicking myself for not buying several cases!

70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon makes up this garagiste estate blend. Don’t bother looking for it, as Winex bought the entire remaining output of the winery’s 2004 vintage, and sold it to their customers, myself included. Keep an eye on this source though. In fact Winex is selling futures of their 2015 vintage for $17.98. Not sure how it will compare to the 2004, especially after a decade of aging already behind the 2004, but might be worth having a go.

As for the 2004 specifically. Wow. Very old world flavor. Rich. Luscious, and earthy. Classic Saint-Emilion Bordeaux. I have tasted some astounding and expensive Saint-Emilions in my day and this one compares quite well at a tiny fraction of the price.