Updated: May 16, 2022
(AND $40 WINE FOR $12, AND SO ON)
“Ready for a secret? Wine does not cost a lot to make, it costs a lot to sell. Since the end of Prohibition, layer-upon-layer of government-mandated middlemen and cumbersome state-by-state distribution policies have created the world’s most inefficient wine market. Only in the USA does a wine that costs $10 to produce end up costing you $50.”
(Cameron Hughes, Wine Genius)
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As an economics major with a concentration in consumer behavior and its underlying psychology, I can confirm the existence of a fundamental assumption among consumers— that the products we purchase are priced somewhat fairly. This belief is the bedrock upon which our retail economy is based and the secure wrapping that holds it together. Without our implicit faith that spending more gets us more, said retail economy would implode and chaos would ensue.
In an open and free competitive marketplace, this assumption about price and value is generally true. HOWEVER– I can also confirm that just about every market has a semi-secret back door… an unadvertised place where people in the know can buy the same stuff the rest of us do, but for less… or else somehow get more for their money… or where they have access to some really good things that are just plain unavailable to everyone else.
The dark alley with all those back doors is where I thrive and why I’m here, folks. Like I tell my medical caregivers, I don’t pay full price for ANYTHING except doctor’s visits– and insurance covers most of THAT. All in all, I’d rather be clever enough to buy $60 wine for $20 than make so much money that I don’t mind getting hosed for the $40 difference. And second only to the hunter’s thrill I enjoy in finding such deals is the pleasure I take in sharing such information with you. So, please join me on a safari to the lesser-known side of the wine market… the place where this guy finds great wine deals as naturally as the rest of us breathe–
Ladies and gentlemen around The Table, say hello to Cameron Hughes.
Having spent a good portion of my life in one corner or another of the wine trade— as a restaurateur, retailer, wholesaler, importer, writer, and shipper— I am in prime position to appreciate what this man brings to the wine market. And who, exactly, is Cameron Hughes? You can read recent articles about him HERE and HERE, and you can sign up to purchase wine from him HERE.
Hughes’s company– de Négoce– is pronounced (approximately) “da-nay’-go-shay’.” He couldn’t call it “Cameron Hughes Wine” because that is the name of a company that he previously founded and then sold. (They appear to have removed the cute video of Cam from their website but they still offer some great wine buying opportunities.) There is also a completely unaffiliated and interactive website HERE dedicated to tracking de Négoce’s offerings, rating them, offering tasting notes, and even guessing their actual origins.
In a nutshell, here’s how buying wine from de Négoce works—
At its most romantic, wine is a magical elixir that naturally arises from sun, soil, and water… a generous gift from the heavens to gladden our hearts and souls. In reality, a winery is a capitalist enterprise that essentially manufactures products requiring anywhere from one to three years of profitless patience before going to market. While they wait, wineries are subject to vagaries of climate that might foster a bumper crop one year and a hail-devastated vintage the next. They are similarly vulnerable to market shifts far more rapid than their ability to react to them. For these and other reasons, wineries frequently find themselves with surpluses of wine and shortages of operating revenue. That’s when the uptight guy with the green eyeshade ventures out from his cubicle to the warehouse, where he gazes in slack-jawed horror upon the pallets of unsold inventory, the roomful of ridiculously pricey French oak barrels, and the giant stainless vats sneering in shiny expensiveness. “Sell some wine NOW!” he commands, over protestations that it needs at least another year in the barrel or bottle, maybe two. And then, as if in response to some sort of secret signal–
–-in swoops Cameron Hughes with a 7-page non-disclosure agreement and his 22,000+ email subscribers… and, notably, none of his own hard currency. Armed with an unsurpassed knowledge of the industry and the market, Cam strikes a win-win deal for the extra wine, swears on his ancestors’ souls to keep the source a secret, and then offers it to me and the rest of his followers at an unbelievably great price in an email blast.
A typical de Négoce email offering from Cam might read like this—
“Folks, if you LOVE Carneros Pinot Noir, you’ll wanna MARRY this one! (not yet legal in Cali, but give it a week.) A low-yield, single-vineyard gem from a legendary Carneros pioneer, priced at $60/bottle in the tasting room, yours for just $240/ case! (That’s only $20/bottle for a consistent 94-pointer that could raise the birth rate… in a convent!!) Upon first swirl, suggestions of raspberry eau-de-vie explore one’s sinuses, followed by notes of sub-alpine goat leather and freshly-ground Nicaraguan French Roast infused with extinct heirloom cherry, all haloed with uplifted northwestern forest floor during morel season. A cacophony of sun-sweetened stone fruits firmly bitch-slapped by taut, vibrant acidity seemingly surfs across the palate atop an unctuous swell of glycerin before gliding to a finish longer than the last note on SGT. PEPPER. Only 400 cases available, and this one is sure to go fast. Dijon clones, 50% new French oak. 16.2% alcohol (Yet perfectly balanced.) Drink or hold. Ships when I’m feelin’ it… maybe six months from now.”
I exaggerate a tad or more, but Cam’s tasting notes are indeed delightfully effusive AND accurate. Anyway, let’s break this down– we pay up front for wine we won’t see for six months… and when we do get it, we won’t know who made it. All we know is that Cameron Hughes has said it is good… $60 good. He takes our money, pays the winery, and keeps the change. In exchange for the anonymity and tying up our money, we get $60 wine for $20 six months from now.
All of which naturally raises a huge question— how do we know the wine is truly worth $60? The answer has multiple components. (Keep in mind that before you finish reading this paragraph, the above-mentioned wine will, in all likelihood, completely sell out.)
The actual value of a particular wine is both objective and subjective. If the wine in fact sells for $60 at the winery on a regular basis, then its objective value has been pretty much established by the free market. That being said, if I were driving a winery tour bus through Carneros, I would caution my passengers as follows— If you can’t tell the difference, then maybe you shouldn’t pay for the difference… because if you are paying for something fairly priced that you cannot fully appreciate, then by definition you are wasting your money… kind of like buying a sports car that goes three times faster than any speed limit you’ll ever see. But of course humans aren’t completely rational, and you might enjoy the somewhat irrational prestige of parking a new Porsche in your driveway for all to see even if you’ll never drive it particularly fast. Similarly, you might enjoy serving your important guests a $60 Pinot Noir even if you personally can’t distinguish it from Chilean box wine. All that being said, the subjective part of wine value is, at its essence, how good it tastes to you. (More on that below, because even that can be complicated.)
Another big question about that $60 wine practically suggests itself– how can we be certain that it is really the wine that Cam says it is, or that he is presenting it honestly? We can’t, but I do know two important things about Cam– ONE, he has spent his entire adulthood steeped to his hairline in the West Coast wine trade, and he knows every row of vines from Temecula to Walla Walla; and TWO, the unbroken trust of us consumers is absolutely essential to his business model, and he can’t afford to EVER abuse or lose it. I have purchased dozens of different wines from him, and he has never let me down. And if Cameron Hughes says a wine is worth $60, I am confident— I know from my own experience— that it is.
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So, I’m convinced that the wine is indeed a $60 wine for $20… does that automatically mean that I’ll buy it? Returning to my undergraduate work in consumer economics for a moment, there is the significant issue of “comfort level” when buying wine or anything else. We wine consumers all have a comfort level where we make most of our wine purchases, a price range that is a function of our disposable income, our love of wine relative to all other goods, and the law of diminishing returns. My personal comfort level is $15-25 retail. (I NEVER buy wine in restaurants because I know better. I once casually shared insider intel with a purchaser for a Manhattan restaurant chain who buys Pinot Grigio for $4/bottle wholesale and then sells it for $13/glass. Nice work if you can get it, but no thanks.)
In my $15-25 retail comfort zone I can buy well-made and perfectly delicious California sparkling wine, all the whites I’ll ever need, and sturdy and complex reds up to and including very good Pinot Noir. Beyond $25 I know that, while my palate is capable of appreciating the higher quality, I’d rather spend the money on other stuff like grass-fed prime steak and dry-pack diver scallops, or maybe roquefort and gruyère. And so, given my personal comfort level, Cameron Hughes and his de Négoce wines are perfect for me because I have access to wines much better and more expensive than I would ever buy at market value. (Just how expensive can wine get? There are some ultra-rare, super-premium wines out there that cost as much as new Porsches… and I would have to be a terminally ill multi-billionaire to justify ever buying them.)
In short, I drink much better wine for the money I’m accustomed to spending. For $20– right smack in the middle of my comfort zone– I’m getting a wine that I’m perfectly capable of fully appreciating, and yet it’s a wine I would never purchase at full market price. Pinch me!
Given the foregoing, there is one more big question worth addressing— why would any lover of wine NOT avail themselves of this program? I can think of two major reasons… both of which seem a little silly to me.
SOME PEOPLE DRINK LABELS RATHER THAN WINE.
Since wine appreciation is at least partially subjective AND simultaneously associated with social sophistication (think of James Bond’s sherry scene in GOLDFINGER) some people are afraid of looking utterly foolish to the very people whose esteem they crave. For such folks, their easiest path to instant credibility is serving a famous wine that’s been awarded a high score from a big-time magazine or respected wine critic… preferably a wine in high demand that is unavailable to the general public. Several years ago I defined a term that applies to such people and postulated an equation for it–
If your “Cachet Value” is significantly greater than zero, then the great deals offered by de Négoce might not be for you.
SOME PEOPLE ARE INHERENTLY DISTRUSTFUL.
These people are completely invested in the notion that A) You always get EXACTLY what you pay for– no more, no less; and B) If something seems too good to be true, it must be. The suggestion that there is a smarter and better way to buy wine (or anything else)-- the notion that someone can buy something better AND cheaper than what they are getting-- disrupts their notions of cosmic justice and economic equilibrium.
And folks, perhaps that’s what I like best about Cameron Hughes– like me, he is a disrupter. If that means that not everyone will “get” him, then so be it… that just means that there will be more great wine at unbelievable prices for the rest of us.
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As if his efforts to source great wine at ridiculously low prices weren’t enough, Cameron Hughes recently founded a parallel business– HOLY GRAIL STEAK COMPANY– dedicated to bringing world-class great beef to our doorsteps. Cam offers both Japanese and American Wagyu along with other selections including my go-to steak, grass-fed prime ribeye.