Daily Chronicle

Uncorked: Cameron Hughes markets fine wine at outstanding value

Cameron Hughes is still selling.

This time it’s under his de Négoce wine label, as the savvy businessman scours the wine market to offer declassified wines at a bargain price. With de Négoce, Hughes purchases wine already made that a winery will not use.

Because he doesn’t name the winemaker or vineyard site, he’s able to further offer wine at bargain prices to consumers as he cuts out the markup of a distributor and sells direct to consumers.

As part of a presale, Hughes offered the Lot 207: de Négoce Yamhill/Eola Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2019 at $9 per bottle. After the initial offering, the price went to $11, and as it “sat in the barn,” it met an eventual price tag of $16. Hughes estimated 70% of the wine volume is sold in the first wave, or, as he called it, a “tranche.”

“I love the concept of pre-selling the wines,” Hughes said. “I knew I had a reputation, but not a lot of money. There are thousands of wines available. What we do is get to buy the wine before it goes in the bottle at an exceptional price.”

That reputation came from the label he started, Cameron Hughes Wines, growing to 360,000 cases and eventually sold to Vintage Wine Estates. When de Négoce launched in April 2020, Hughes was back in his element.

“I’m opportunistic, I’m omnivorous, I find a great wine and eat them up,” Hughes said. “I don’t care what it is or where it came from. It’s all about the job, the thrill of the discovery. I love the hunt and the happy customers that come from it. That enables us to get more people in the system.”

Information on the de Négoce website details what the wine was aged in: oak, stainless steel or concrete vats. Regional information is OK, too. It’s more than just Napa Valley or the Willamette Valley.

Consumers are given a further glimpse of what’s in the bottle because they know it’s a Rutherford Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2019 or a Yamhill/Eola Willamette Valley Chardonnay.

But, what isn’t listed is the winemaker or the specific vineyard from which the fruit was sourced. That’s top secret information, and because it wasn’t revealed, it has allowed Hughes to keep prices extraordinarily low. It also might lead to low inventory, as he said many of the deals he makes are “one-off lots.”

There’s a “get it while it’s hot” vibe with de Négoce, and at lower prices than similar wines at retail, it’s a small gamble to purchase three or four bottles in an initial purchase. If someone waits too long to follow up, the lot could be gone.

“Wineries sell their wines for a lot higher price under their label,” Hughes said. “Everything in the bottle is first-run wine. There’s no chunk of leftover wine. I am out there looking for a needle in the haystack. I want to preserve what comes in and send it right into the bottle.”

Because the label reads de Négoce, there’s a sacrifice that takes place. Over time, consumers can develop relationships with a specific vineyard, producer or winemaker. At de Négoce, there’s a constant state of free agency for wine drinkers.

There’s no way to tell who the winemaker is or which vineyard is featured in a specific lot. There is, however, a chance to explore a wide variety of wines at a bargain price.

“Wine is an exploratory journey rather than a constant relationship with a vineyard over time,” Hughes said. “We’ve found the more adventurous consumer really takes to us. You get some clues as to who the producer is and can guess; on de Négoce’s web page, there’s an active tracking, [where] people guess where the wine actually came from. We can’t confirm or deny, but we let people have some fun with it.”

With de Négoce, Hughes has found a void in the marketplace. Wineries need space for the next vintage in their cellar, they need an influx of cash for new equipment or replanting in the vineyard. If they have any wine left after their bottling run, Hughes is there to provide both.

Back in 2008, Hughes said David Ramey, owner of of his own eponymous winery, referred to him as a vulture. Traditionally, that’s not an animal tossed into a compliment, but Hughes took it that way.

The turn-around time at de Négoce is one week after they bottle. When he first started, it would take two months, but he’s finely tuned the system for quick entrance to the market. A purchased case of wine can ship out the same day to a consumer.

“I don’t take any umbrage with a winery trying to get as much money as they can from their wines,” Hughes said. “This is an intensely capitalistic business. Small wineries need to make as much money as they can. We have no overhead, we are lean and mean here. Wineries love us, there’s no one that is unhappy to sell wine to us.”

There was one situation where vineyards were sold. The brand remained in existence, however, which opened a door for de Négoce to help everyone exit their various deals. What was a wine that would retail for $150 per bottle, Hughes was able to offer up at $30 at an initial offering. It’s still on the de Négoce website for only $49.

Quality wine at bargain prices has led to customers making multiple purchases by the case. Hughes even developed a plan for them with a warehouse storage program.

“Maybe your spouse would kill you if you buy another case,” Hughes jokes. “We will hold it for you at a quarterly fee.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.