It’s early for New Year’s resolutions, so I’ll just call this a resolution. I shall drink more Zinfandel in the future. It isn’t that I don’t care for the grape, it’s just that I have never had proper opportunities to experience it. Most of my wine teeth were cut in Europe. And it was in Europe that I met the Mondavis and Cakebreads and other Napa producers whose invitations took me to their territory where I constantly worked at comparing how New World varietals compared with Old World varietals. Not only that, during my re-entry to America, White Zinfandel was all the rage, and I distinctly did not care for it. I ignored “America’s grape.”
Last night’s bottle of 2013 Zinfandel from Napa’s Oakville Winery brought the above into focus. I had even ignored the Oakville Winery, mostly because I spent time with their neighbors, mentioned above. The friend who had left this bottle in our home was a Zin aficianado and had tried for several years to convert me. Though he made progress, I still always went to my old faithful Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Rhones, Nebbiolos, and Grenaches.
I recalled a “wine-tasting” dinner in Bloomington in the late 1990s where the host repeated his favorite mantra: “Zinfandel is a red wine; Zinfandel is a red wine.” He told us how varied it can be depending on where it’s produced and the quality of harvest conditions. Though he and his wines pleased me and I did buy a few bottles from time to time, I tended to pass right by the Zin shelves when shopping for wine. Same with my biannual excursions to Napa and Paso Robles — here and there a sip of Zinfandel but a lot of focus on my long-standing favorites.
In the quiet of our dinner last night — no guests, no family running in and out — we savored the pleasantly sweet impact on the tongue, the lingering fruity impact on the palate, and the soothing length of the finish. If I had been guessing, I would have said “Italian.” After all, the grape has its birthright in the Italian Primitivo, but this was not the Primitivo I had met in Italy’s boot country. Nor was it what I had become used to in the more traditional French varietals. I realized I had been missing something that needed to be dealt with, an exciting discovery for an aged wine lover who had begun to feel he had tasted it all.
Zinfandel will probably not really replace my regular doses of Cabernet, but it will certainly be a more frequent presence at my dinner table.
Meet Cameron Hughes, wine négociant. To answer your question, négociant is the French word for merchant. According to winefrog.com, a négociant may buy grapes, bulk juice, or unlabeled bottled wines from other vineyards. Négociants used to be heavily involved in the wine trade until mega-buck investors began increasing vineyard sizes and purchasing processing equipment and bottling machinery to grow, produce, and sell their own wines. Trying to find a small family-owned vineyard these days is difficult and when you do, they often have to selloff their grapes or juice to larger wine-making vineyards because their total yield prohibits the equipment investment.
Back to Cameron Hughes. Cameron is a wine bulk merchant that buys grapes and makes his own wines. He also buys wine, lots of it and from different vineyards from all over the world, so his winemakers have unlimited possibilities to blend and age with extraordinary results. And he buys unlabeled bottled wines where “all we need to do is slap on a label and it’s good to go.”
Why would a vineyard sell off their grapes, juice or unlabelled bottles, and why would anyone buy these wines? As mentioned, smaller vineyards without processing equipment have no choice. And not all large vineyards produce their own wine. In the other examples, a wine-product vineyard may have over-produced due to an excellent growing season and does not have the capacity to process above what they consider their maximum yield. Economically, there is supply and demand that drives prices as well. If it is a prestigious winery with a high yield, it makes sense to sell off the surplus to keep the prices high. Hence, the unlabeled bottles. A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with the négociant keeps their brand label off the bottle. One particular case involved the sale of a famous family winery where the deal excluded the bottled inventory. Hughes purchased the inventory and re-labeled the bottles.
And why would anyone buy these wines? If they’re from Cameron Hughes, it’s because he only purchases grapes, juice, and bottles from super to ultra-premium global vineyards. While the brand will not be identified, the new label contains the origin (country/area) and grape varietal.
Look for Cameron Hughes wines under his brands Cameron Hughes Lot Series, CAM Collection, Hughes Wellman, Zin Your Face, and Greenlip. Find them at Costco, Kroger’s, Malibu Grill and C3.
Almost in jest last week, I asked a Total Wine manager if he ever stocked a red Burgundy for under $25. With a surprised look on his face, he led me to a shelf awash in the Burgundies I have known and loved for years but no longer afford. Proudly he pointed to a bin containing Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, priced at $12.99 a bottle. (I didn’t tell him I had just returned from Burgundy where I never saw a red for less than 30 euros — then about $36, but I suspect he knew the going rates.)
What he didn’t know was what the word Ordinaire did to my psyche. Instantly I was transported to the early Cold War days when I first began touring in France, drinking vin ordinaire. Back then, I didn’t really know what it was other than it was a selection by the restaurant management of local wines, bought in large quantities, often in barrel, and served in carafes or glasses. Today I am sure some of those wines were augmented by juice from Algeria, but as a newcomer to wine, I welcomed them — and was proud to pronounce the words vin ordinaire when ordering a meal.
I admit to being nostalgic about some of those wine experiences. I seldom see local wines in carafes anymore, even in France. Prosperity and modern tastes bring us wines in bottles with labels we can read and discuss. Better wine, more prestigious wine, to be sure. But in my aging memory, those little carafes on my naive tongue brought a joy I have never lost.
Back, however, to Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire. It was made by Louis Chavy, who lives in Puligny-Montrachet, which, along with its neighbor Chassagne-Montrachet, is home to the most widely heralded white wines in the world — and the reds aren’t bad either. The Chavy’s have been producing wine for more than 200 years in and around these high-rent vineyards, but in all my travels, I had never seen their estate or any of their properties.
In my mind I traced my many trips by car and on foot through these two villages — seeing in my mind’s eye the places belonging to the world class Burgundy families: Boillot; Bouchard;Colin; Jadot; Leflaive; even the Chateau de Puligne-Montrachet. I cannot recall seeing Louis Chavy, which added to the mystique of drinking a wine Ordinaire.
The 2014 vintage in my glass was obviously Burgundy, obviously Pinot Noir. A liitle more dry than many Burgundies but not at all without fruit or a very pleasing finish. Bourgogne Grand Orinaire will be a regular on our table for a while.
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