by Robert Farmer
Sometimes it's about the craft and sometimes it's about craftiness. For Cameron Hughes, making and selling wines has been about ample doses of both. Most people who peruse the wine aisles at Costco know the company. And it is his relationship with the big-box bulk retailer that really put Cameron Hughes and his eponymous wine company on the map.
Cameron Hughes Wine produces and markets wine under the Lot Series label. It's an ingenious innovation for getting high-quality wine to buyers at a reasonable price. It's a basic, straightforward idea that was born--like most good ideas--out of necessity. He started out early working for his father in the wine business, and later polished his marketing chops working with a French importing group. But he quickly saw that he'd be better off on his own and started a company creating and selling, as he describes them, "funky blends for the bulk market."
The company became anemic, struggling to find an audience and it was at its nadir when Cameron alighted on the Lot Series idea. "I had been working in the bulk market and seen the way larger (wine quantities) were getting back blended into cuvees and it just wasn't very good," says Hughes. "So I came up with the Lot idea as a way to deal the treasure hunt of finding the good stuff among the bulk. I had seen the way high end wine moves through the bulk market and I knew I could pull the good stuff, bottle it and market it affordably, and it would find an audience."
Using a simple sequential numbering system the Lot Series was established. He gives each bottling a number; each bottling is different--ranging from cabernet, to syrah to chardonnay, and ranging in quantities from 500 cases to 5,000 cases. Each bottling is also centered on Hughes' basic premise of the wine that goes in the bottle is the best stuff he can find. The idea caught on quickly, but it really grew wings when Hughes presented the idea to Costco. The mega-retailer can't keep the stuff on their floors and Costco shoppers have become rabid Lot Series followers. "We do email alerts for Costco shoppers, giving them a heads up when a shipment is coming in. We'll blow out two pallets at the Novato Costco in a day," he says.
Hughes runs his wine company together his partner, Jessica Kogan, from their Bay Area headquarters. The company also operates the smaller-endeavor labels Hughes-Wellman, RockRidge, and Evergreen. The focus with each of the labels is on buying wine the high-end--super premium wines that have not been bottled--then doing some creative blending and marketing it a value price. The trick to keeping costs down for the consumer is in keeping operations streamlined.
"We do not own a barrel or a tank," says Hughes. "We don't operate any vineyards. We buy opportunistically and we grab whatever we can when it's good. Wine is not really cheap to make in the first place, but we keep costs down whenever we can by not doing a lot of marketing or advertising. We sell direct to retailers and even use our own palates. The real trick is to be lean and mean."
For more info, visit www.chwine.com