Pinot Noir Showdown: California vs. Oregon

Monday, August 2, 2010

A couple days ago I mentioned I'd be following up with my first "bulk buy" recommendation since the 2007 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel.  The wine is the 2008 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir mentioned below.  After this tasting, I found it on an short-burn E-mail deal from a retailer at a price too low to mention, but if you can find it in the neighborhood of $30 I think you'd be impressed.  The more affordable 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir is also an outstanding buy that can be had for around $20 if you shop around.  I think these wines along with the Elk Cove in this review are outstanding -and- good values in my book.

What region comes to mind when you think of top quality domestic Pinot Noir?  If you're like a lot of people I've asked, the Willamette Valley tops the list.  This may have as much to do with Oregon's nearly singular focus on the grape variety as it does on the outstanding Pinot Noir produced in the region.  But California produces some fine Pinot Noir too.  In fact the California Pinot Noir tasted in this report impressed me so much, it's a contender for my most exciting wine of the year.

The theme of a recent Pinot Noir online tasting event was to grab some Pinot Noir from your favorite regions and then tweet about it with a hashtag.  Like #wv for Willamette Valley or #slh for Santa Lucia Highlands.  It was a fun event and as you can see from the results Oregon was by far the most popular region.

Relative to other varietals, I drink a lot of Pinot Noir.  In fact, looking back at my consumption history on Cellar Tracker over the past couple years it's out in front of Cabernet Sauvignon 72 bottles to 58 with Riesling a distant 3rd.  For the event, I tasted two wines: a 2008 Elk Cove Mount Richmond Pinot Noir and a 2008 Bell Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir.

I chose each of these wines because they represent an upper end single vineyard designated label from wineries with more affordable appellation designated offerings.  Elk Cove's Willamette Valley Pinot Noir sells in the mid $20s, as does the Belle Glos Meiomi.  The wines I tasted this evening both sell in the mid-$30s with retail prices in the $40s.

In reality, this wasn't so much California vs. Oregon as an opportunity to taste high quality stuff side by side to take stock of stylistic differences.  Which state produces better Pinot Noir?  Depends on what you're looking for.  Here are my notes:

2008 Elk Cove Mount Richmond Pinot Noir
13.5% Alcohol
894 Cases Produced
94 Points Wine Spectator

I tasted a bunch of Oregon wines including several Pinot Noirs from the heralded 2008 vintage at a wine dinner at Blue Ginger a while back (my thoughts here).  Good stuff, but nothing compares to sitting down and really focusing on one or two wines over the course of an evening.

This wine is dark in color and very refined stylistically.  A little bashful aromatically but improved with air (and after being poured through a wine aerator).  Balances rich flavors with ample acidity.  Elegant stuff that may well benefit from some bottle age.

The only off note I detected, and it's a quirky I-don't-know-how-to-describe-it kind of thing but it's kind of a "twang" that I've gotten in several Oregon Pinot Noirs.  It's like a weedy/stemmy/dill flavor that pops up like a gopher every once in a while.  Strange, but it got in the way of full-throttle enjoyment for me a couple times with this one.

That aside, an opulent fine wine that I'd be proud to serve at a sit down dinner.  Shop for it on

91/100 WWP: Outstanding

2008 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir
14.8% Alcohol
1,635 Cases Produced

I talked about the 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir (Pronounced BELL GLOSS MAY-OH-ME) a while back as a value alert purchased for right around $20 (Release Price is $25).  It's a blend of grapes from Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara.  I've had 3 bottles of that wine in the past couple months and every time it's been a real winner.

The Las Alturas Vineyard is a single-vineyard wine (Release Price $44) from the Santa Lucia Highlands American Viticultural Area.  Santa Lucia Highlands is in Monterey County (here's a link to a vineyard map from so it's south of San Jose and San Francisco rather than north like Napa and Sonoma.

The wine comes in a wax-dipped enclosure which gives it nice visual appeal.  Theirs comes with a handy "string" you can use to easily remove the top portion of the wax for easy access to the cork.  Handy tip on getting through wax enclosures though: Don't bother chipping away at the wax with a knife or a foil cutter.  Just insert the corkscrew right through the wax and the cork should break right through the wax with ease.  Funniest tweet of the night regarding the enclosure here.

The Las Alturas was ready to go from the moment I opened it, revealing wonderful cherry pipe tobacco aromas, dark rich cherries, and even a little bit of earth.  Floods the palate with delicious rich fruit flavors and spice on the finish.  Never gets jammy or over the top, but it's not for the anti-flavor elite.  Finish goes on for a mile but not in a bad aftertaste kind of way- more of a "I want some more of that" kind of way.  Wow.  There's a striking similarity between this wine and the for affordable Meiomi but this wine succeeds in a big way in taking the experience to the next level.  Well done.

I've been comparing every Pinot Noir I've had since I tasted it, and unfortunately it's frequently making other wines look run of the mill.  One to seek out if you can find it for anywhere in the neighborhood of $30.  Shop for it on

94/100 WWP: Outstanding

More information about the Las Alturas Pinot Noir in this short but excellent video:

Conclusion and Recommendations:

The Belle Glos (California, Santa Lucia Highlands) was brawn to the Elk Cove's elegant yet confident finesse.  Both wines were outstanding but for me the Belle Glos Las Alturas stole the show.  Easily a candidate for my wine of the year for its rich luscious deliciousness with layered complexity.  A remarkable example of what Californian Pinot Noir can offer.

Belle Glos Las Alturas was a sample for review.  Belle Glos Meiomi was purchased at The Spirit Shoppe (WWP advertiser) and the Elk Cove was purchased at @WineCellarsMA.

Buy the 2008 Belle Glas Clark & Telephone from
Question of the Day: What are your thoughts on California Pinot Noir vs. Oregon?  What differentiates them in your experience and which are you buying more of?


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