Cameron Hughes, co-founder of American négociant wine business Cameron Hughes wines, sold his business to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017. Since that time, he has started two new direct to consumer ventures, Holy Grail Steak Company and de Négoce Wine. At a time that many other companies are unsure whether they will be able to keep their doors open, Hughes says, “Both businesses are exploding.”
Hughes has modeled de Négoce (day-NA-go-SHAY)on the Bordelaise en primeur system. The name is a nod to those who buy and then re-sell wine, known in the wine trade as négociants. The system of futures is one in which consumers are able to buy wine after it has been tasted from barrel but before it has been bottled and released, offering the opportunity to buy wine at lower pre-release prices. From its inception in June of this year, the company is on track to bottle and sell 100 different wines by December 31.
“The wine world is transforming itself into something new,” stated Hughes via a press release. “I’ve had the idea of doing a wine futures project for a long time and I believe now is the time. People will be looking for great value items, produced in small quantities, that they can buy one case at a time before the wine sells out.”
Established by Hughes and his partner Jessica Kogan in 2001, Cameron Hughes Wines was at the forefront of online wine sales and is considered one of the USA’s top e-commerce wine brands. Since the company was acquired by Vintage Wine Estates in 2017, Hughes carries on as the face of the brand, while Kogan is Chief Digital Marketing Officer at Vintage Wine Estates. Utilizing the winemaker and grower connections he has made over the years, Hughes is moving in a slightly different direction with de Négoce.
Hughes launched Holy Grail Steak in 2018, but business has really taken off this year as restaurants closed and consumers found themselves homebound. He founded Holy Grail with the goal of providing home cooks with the best steaks that money could buy. Although Holy Grail is the exclusive online source for authentic Kobe beef in North America, it is also possible to buy two seasoned hamburgers made from 50 percent Tajima American Wagyu Beef and 50 percent Heritage Kurobuta Pork for just $18. Other offerings include dry aged strip steak and grass-fed prime ribeye.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, Holy Grail has been working with the restaurant supply chain to re-direct inventories that were bound for the dry-aging rooms of high-end steakhouses to home kitchens and grills. Hughes is the majority owner of Holy Grail; seven additional investors hold a total of 10 percent of the company, which is on track to sell $10 million worth of steak this year.
World Wine Guys: Why did you decide to launch a direct to consumer steak company?
Cameron Hughes: There is a natural affinity between steak and wine. After spending much of my wine career eating in the best steakhouses around the country, I noticed a distinct difference between the meat sold at retail and that sold through restaurants. I travelled to Japan and attended their meat academy to secure the rights to be the first online purveyor of genuine Kobe Beef from Japan. Through my restaurant contacts, I was able to connect with the best protein producers on the plant — from Kobe Beef and Japanese Wagyu to single farm, USDA Prime Angus and Kurobota pork — and secure the rights to take their product to market. We now have what is arguably the best steak portfolio on the planet.
WWG: What similarities do you see between the wine business and the meat business?
CH: The beef business has over 700,000 farms that produce beef, but only four processors control over 80 percent of the market. This is similar to the wine business where you have over 10,000 wineries but four major wholesalers that control 70 percent of the market. However, the beef business is highly commodified, with little incentive for innovation and only three quality designations: Select, Choice, and Prime. The wine business has tremendous diversity of producers and a broad swath of unique and differentiated products. The consumer has indicated, however, that they desire protein products that are unique and differentiated and they are willing to pay for these quality and care attributes. Basically, the beef business is where the wine business was in 1985 when the shelves were dominated by large format jug and box wines that are barely visibly today. Holy Grail Steak Co. was designed not only to connect consumers to restaurant-quality proteins, but also to lead the decommodification of the category and provide a path to market for innovative producers that care about high-quality, well-husbanded proteins.
WWG: For those not familiar with the term, could you briefly explain what you mean when you call yourself a négociant?
CH: At its core, négociantsimply means “trader.” Négociants essentially bridge the gap between production and retail. In Bordeaux, they provide cash flow back to the chateau by “pre-selling” the wines in a campaign called en primeurabout six months after harvest before largely controlling the sales and distribution of those wines once they are bottled. In Burgundy, négociants purchase grapes and turn them into wine for their labels. In the Rhone and other regions of France, they create brands to take the production of co-ops to market. Here in the US, a négociant has typically come to mean someone who buys or contracts wine in bulk – but don’t let the “bulk” moniker fool you. Bulk wine can mean anything from 100,000 gallons of Central Valley Chardonnay to 1000 gallons of high-end Napa Cabernet. I work only with the higher-end producers and help them market their excess inventories.
WWG: How can consumers access de Négoce?
CH: The only way to access de Négoce is to sign up for the mailing list at [our web site].Once on the list, you will begin to receive offers. Right now, we are selling wines by the case only and at incredible discounts. For example, we recently offered a Napa Cabernet for $10 a bottle that was sold under its original label for $60 a bottle.
WWG: Has Covid-19 affected your businesses?
CH: Both businesses have exploded. As the restaurant businesses have constricted, the high-end producers and distributors that service that sector have had to pivot very high-quality inventories into alternative channels, and both businesses have benefitted from these new partnerships. For instance, we cleared out the dry-aging rooms of some of the best restaurants in the country and are now working with these partners to continue to make product for Holy Grail Steak Co. In the wine world, de Négoce has purchased over 75 wines from small high-end producers looking to trim their inventories and provided valuable cash flow to their operations.