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Weekend wines: For taste and value, look beyond the label

Cameron Hughes doesn’t make any of the wines that bear his name. Not the pinot noir or the pinot grigio from California; not the malbec from Argentina or the Minervois from France — none of the dozens of wines the company offers under five brands.Hughes calls himself an American “négociant,” borrowing the word the French use for a wine merchant who buys up wine (or grapes) from individual
What's in a name? Cameron Hughes gets his wine from sources around the world and sells them on the cheap.
What's in a name? Cameron Hughes gets his wine from sources around the world and sells them on the cheap.Cameron Hughes

Cameron Hughes doesn’t make any of the wines that bear his name. Not the pinot noir or the pinot grigio from California; not the malbec from Argentina or the Minervois from France — none of the dozens of wines the company offers under five brands.

Hughes calls himself an American “négociant,” borrowing the word the French use for a wine merchant who buys up wine (or grapes) from individual producers and sells them under his own name. A number of American companies have tried this business model on a smaller scale in recent years, but none more successfully than Hughes.

Where do the wines come from? The producers are not disclosed, but clearly they have wine to spare; Hughes has taken advantage of a worldwide glut of wine in recent years and is able to pass on the deals he gets to consumers.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve tasted half a dozen wines from the biggest of the Hughes brands, the "Lot Series," and some of them really stand out for their quality and value. Of the four wines I’m going to mention here, three are $15 or under on the Cameron Hughes website. In each case, I thought they could have sold for considerably more.

Lot 264, a 2009 Pinot Grigio from Santa Barbara County, is opulent yet balanced with tropical fruit, pear and apricot notes and an impressive minerality. At $12, it rises well above most California whites at this price. From the same region in California, Lot 341, a 2010 Syrah from the Santa Maria Valley, has wonderful fruit, including raspberry, pomegranate and blueberry accented by cinnamon and cocoa notes. It’s an elegant red wine with good tannic structure and a steal at $15.

Lot 272 is from Spain, a 2009 Rioja with structure and complexity almost unheard of at $12. Blackberry, earth, smoke, licorice and black pepper notes are framed by a good deal of oak in this still-young red that will be even better with a year or two more of bottle age. Another red standout: Lot 297, a 2009 Crozes-Hermitage from the northern Rhône Valley of France. There’s a lot of elegance in this $18 wine with plum, raspberry, blackberry and licorice notes and ample acidity.

If the Cameron Hughes labeling suggests a generic quality, what’s inside the bottles proves otherwise. Their origins may be anonymous, but the wines are distinctive.

Edward Deitch is a James Beard Award-winning wine critic. Find many more of his wine reviews and commentary on his blog, Vint-ed.com, and follow him on Twitter

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