The other day I ventured out to do some shopping for the first time in six months. I’m not ashamed to admit that I just needed that dopamine hit of buying something other than groceries. Without looking at the price. It’s not an urge I often get but I got it, and I indulged it. It was a beautiful day to make the drive with a girlfriend. Windows open, music on. We laughed at how excited we were to be in Troy, NY. Not even in Troy. Just driving past it.
My hit list was small: Lip stain. Throw pillows. Candles. A plant stand. Yeah, this was not a trip for wine. Because my dopamine shot from wine shopping is different: I get it by knowing how to find great wine at a great price.
The Trick to Finding the Best Cheap Wine
Calm down. When I say “best cheap” it’s not an oxymoron. There’s actually a whole part of the wine industry dedicated to this concept. In fact, you probably see the ads regularly and have even partaken in it without knowing. It all comes down to knowing to look for wine brought to you by a négociant (rhymes with egg-oh-see-aunt said not like the little critter but the other way, Aaaaaaaaaahnt.).
Négociants buy everything from grapes to finished, unlabeled bottles and sell them under their own name. They usually work with smaller, family-run growers and producers in major regions. This lowers the price for the consumer by allowing these wines to get wider distribution without additional costs to the producer.
Rather than get a Bordeaux with a fancy chateau on the label (that you or your guests have likely never heard of) for $65, you can easily end up with wine from a smaller, neighboring plot that’s just as good, for under $30.
You read that right. And it’s not just that scale. I recently drank some of the best “cheap” red wine I’ve ever tasted and none of the bottles were more than $20. My friends at Stuntman PR sent them on behalf of Cameron Hughes. “…Cameron Hughes doesn’t own vineyards or a winery— his focus is on purely sourcing the best wines and negotiating the best price. Once acquired, the wines are bottled under the Cameron Hughes label and then offered at a fraction of the original price.”
I value region, grape and terroir more than names so the négoiant model is great for me. If you want wine that will knock your guests’ socks off, switch to supporting this model to support innovation, small producers and drink better wine at a lower price.
Fall into Fall with Cameron Hughes
Recently, for National Red Wine Day, I was asked to present a tasting on a morning radio show. I used this opportunity to feature three Cameron Hughes wines that allowed me to share something of high value with listeners: how to get better wine at a lower price. It also allowed me to drink three fantastic reds at 9 a.m. Here are the wines and my recommendations for serving and pairing for the chilly temps that are here to stay!
$16. Cabernet Sauvignon is the biggest of boys and perfect for sweater weather and beyond. While we can’t know or certain where it’s from, the wine includes this in its listing:
“Sourced from a beautiful estate that’s been a critically acclaimed darling for over a decade, this is top shelf wine that’s priced for less than half the winery price. An excellent example of mid-to-full bodied Santa Barbara fruit.”
Santa Barbara, and the South Central Coast where it’s located, is a phenomal area for wine thanks to a combination of long-time growers and producers and newer, hipper ones. You’ll find innovation and tradition plus a youthful energy that is contagious when visiting tiny tasting rooms.
The climate is cooler than one might expect for the southern coast of california but mountain ranges, fog settling and channels that bring in cold air make for an exceptional microclimate that influences the primary aromas.
Expect primary aromas of black cherry, raspberry and blackcurrant with notes of figs, black pepper and anise. I got hints of dried oregano which was an absolute delight. The oak presents as nutmeg and cedar. This wine could easily age 20 years. Allowing it to sit a few should bring out delightful tertiary aromas like molasses.
Serving and Pairing This Cheap Red Wine
Decant an hour (or use an aerating pourer) and serve around 65°. Skip the traditional steak or burger and instead consider making cranberry-glazed turkey meatballs. Serve them over pureed butternut squash or carrots with just a little allspice mixed in. Top with kale chips.
$13. I love a Zin and this one? Yowza. Zinfandel gets a ton of flack and Lodi does also, but it’s a wonderful place full of less-popular grapes and old vines. Old vines are amazing because despite being pruned they mature into disciplined producers of reliable, concentrated grapes with smaller fruit.
Add to that old-vine fruit some French oak and you’ve got a killer bottle for THIRTEEN DOLLARS.
The climate is hot hot hot, so the fruit ripens fully and means the wines are aromatic. Lodi Zinfandel balances ripe fruit with interesting smoke notes making this a perfect chilly-night wine.
Super ripe—almost jammy—raspberry and strawberry brighten up a brooding blackberry bramble note while woodsmoke and spice remind you that this is old-vine Zinfandel. It’s so MOODY! There are hints of asian cuisine with plum sauce and hoisin not unlikely and balanced with raisin. Leather and meat develop from oak and age brings about a flavor of tea.
Serving and Pairing Recommendations
Decant 30 minutes (or use an aerating pourer) and serve around 65°. Pull the Asian spice flavors out by serving beef kebabs with Korean BBQ sauce. This is a flavor combo that’s perfect any night of the week.
$16. The Russian River Valley sees a great deal of fog that burns off and yet, somehow, picky Pinot Noir thrives here when made by talented winemakers. Don’t let the price fool you, this is some of the best cheap wine I’ve ever had.
Notes of strawberries and cherries are at the forefront but believe me, you want to let this wine age. Why? Hints of clove and cinnamon now along with a delightful green herbal note make me convinced this is going to age into something absolutely brilliant that would likely cost $50 if you bought it with the original label. But you don’t have to. You can buy several bottles of this baby to enjoy now and cellar some for later!
Serving and Pairing
This one is light-bodied so chill it and serve at 55°. You likely don’t need to decant it, but decanting won’t hurt it so if you do, keep it to 30 minutes. Then enjoy the red fruit and spice notes alongside salmon with berry salsa. Red wine with fish? YES! Salmon, especially when prepared oily, is perfect with pinot noir and the red berries in this dish will truly make it pop. Not a fan of fish? A mushroom risotto will also work!
Try The Négociant Way
Cameron Hughes has a wine club: the perfect way to explore the world of fine wines. Or, as we say around my house: the perfect way to find the best cheap wine (without sacrificing quality!). Seriously, just try it for a month and see what you think. My guess is you’ll stay for many more.
“…/She’s got a wad of bills 6 inches thick”