Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Top Two Sparkling Wines 2011

Purpose & Framework for Postings for Reward in the Cognitive Niche

My purposes in writing, the framework and assumptions I make about what is true and right, as well as more about reward in the cognitive niche can all be found in the future posts or on my student website in progress.  Briefly, my desire is to share the infinitely renewable pleasures of seeking, finding, knowing, appreciating, imagining, and caring for.  Most posts will bear directly or indirectly on evolutionary aesthetics in the context of the California Central Coast area. Evolutionary aesthetics deals with bests: best elements linked in the best way for the best outcomes, using ecological values to judge good and best. As is traditional at the end of a year, the next few posts will be about the year's best celebratory wines, the best food to pair with those wines, and the top 10 marine animals in the Santa Barbara Channel and adjacent marine areas.

Top Two Wines

 All that is required to experience great pleasure in superb wine is to select the right wine, open the bottle, stay conscious, and taste. That said, your choice of food will alter both food and wine experience. 

What’s the right wine? The gatekeeper for me is quality, both in the usual sense of something exquisitely tasty and satisfying, but at the end of 2011,  quality is necessarily evaluated from the perspective of ecological sustainability. As the concept implies, ecological frameworks are based on whole ecosystems. This is different from grape growing and winemaking that are certified organic or biodynamic.  While certification of either of these two approaches is very demanding and indicative of frameworks consistent with ecological sustainability, neither necessarily reflects on environmental practices related to energy use, water conservation,  attention to packaging, distribution, waste and recycling, establishment of riparian corridors, or responsibility to consumers to be transparent about winemaking practices and to share with consumers environmental stewardship.

To identify which wine is likely to be at the very top of most lists of best sensory qualities of sparkling wine I rely on third parties. Ratings of 90 or above (100 point scales) by Wine SpectatorWine Enthusiast , the Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine,  or 15 to 20 by Gayot generally indicate outstanding wines.  For sustainability, certifications by third party organizations include the self-assessment program developed by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, Napa Green in northern California , and SIP  (Sustainability in Practice) here in central to southern California ,  reliable proxies for commitment  by winemakers to practicing ecological sustainability as well as for actual performance.. Expert rating systems and third party certifications are invaluable shortcuts for the conscientious consumer who accepts stewardship responsibilities but has limited time to investigate every enterprise. Of course you still need to rate the raters.

After Christmas the year is just about effervesced, so associatively, we select bubbly wines to celebrate its finale. The gold standard is champagne. Taking Gayot’s list of top sparkling wines ordered by rating , including champagne and non-champagne sparklers, the number one rated sparkling wine is  Champagne Krug, Clos D'Ambonnay 1996, rated 19/20, with a price tag of $2,250 a bottle. Even if I could afford this wine, it would not be my first choice, since all champagne comes from Champagne, France, and for Californians, necessarily embodies at least 3000 pounds of CO2 per bottle (using an average of about .5 pounds of CO2 per mile per pound).

Optimizing Pleasure through Strategic Trade-offs

We all have experienced guilty pleasures, but guilty pleasures are not optimized. Optimizing  is about weighing the costs and benefit of a particular set of values in play for a specific choice event, then making those trade-offs that will result in the greatest net pleasure. In the cognitive niche, when we weigh our options, we imagine the future, largely based on the past, and we pre-experience how we might feel if we make decision A rather than decision B. The right trade-offs lead to the greatest pleasure, with the least pain. 

An example coming to mind for New Year’s is that of  wild Beluga caviar to accompany the above Krug champagne. Almas caviar benchmarks great caviar, the unfertilized roe of  female Huso huso sturgeon (that in the past had passed 100 years in age). But today there are few sturgeon in the Caspian, and almost none older than 10. Many of those who manage to become olde, despite black market fishers, are afflicted with cancers and other diseases from Caspian pollution. Would the pleasure of the moment of tasting the caviar considered world-best outweigh the pain?  

Pleasure, though a leading motivator, and the primary motivator for this website, is insatiable: quickly replaced by a desire for even greater pleasure; while guilt, a lagging motivator, is relentlessly enduringly naggy.  Doing the right thing, on the other hand,  is rewarded with pervasive, largely enduring  feelings of pleasure in one’s own true self. Homo sapiens, the species occupying top spot in the cognitive niche, is nicely rewarded for thinking ahead, maybe generations ahead, weighing odds, proceeding strategically, and doing what seems right.  When we do right by the environment, we feel good.

What makes pleasure guilty is the knowledge of doing harm:  Beluga sturgeon are endangered; many Caspian sturgeon are harvested illegally when immature (females mature around 20); we know we do harm when one bottle of champagne increases through transportation over a long distance about 3000 new pounds of CO2 into a system at its tipping point.  To avoid guilt and optimize pleasure through understanding clear choices and consequences, we need help from experts, whom we still need to evaluate.

Back to the wine choices and trade-offs. Let’s say for purposes of this discussion that all sparkling wines made using the champenoise method rated by every one of my experts as higher than 90 are to me more or less equal choices as far as sensory quality goes: all great wines, and I am not a super taster, so probably all more or less equally desirable. Drinking a wine that puts 3000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when we are already at a CO2 tipping point for all systems—land, sea, and air—would be unconscionable. Just to make sure that that the house of  Krug Champagnes  is not supporting some fabulous biodiversity project that could offset the food miles, I go to the site: and check out the splash page for mention of sustainability. Nothing. I go to the site map to find a page on sustainability. Nothing that would help consumer  like me make an ecologically responsible choice.  Recognizing that all champagne comes to us in Santa Barbara with a heavy food miles burden, I descend Gayot’s list of top world sparklers until I hit a California sparkling wine, which becomes my prime candidates for celebratory drink.

Best Choices for Ecologically Sustainable Sparkling Wine for 2011

Best choices in 2011 for California sparkling wines are wines from two houses producing top quality in ecologically sustainable ways:  Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros. Almost any sparkling wine from these wine houses is guaranteed to be exceptional. For me, ecological responsibility necessarily includes on their website sufficient environmental information for me to make informed choices—see below.  Top wines still available as of December 29, 2011, are:

·         J Schram 2004 , or 2003, both with  ratings from 93 to 97
"    World-class bubbly in every dimension, this deep, rich, complex, layered, lively, developed yet youthful wine has achieved what only a handful have ever been able to accomplish. From the very first sniff of its creamy, yeasty, lightly toasty, brioche, pie crust, Meyer lemon, crisp apple notes to its insistently foamy, pinpointy mousse to the artful blending of rich and austere elements all the way to its long, refined, tangy, complex and flavorful finish, this brilliant bottling is about as good as good gets." 97 points - 2004 J. Schram - Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine November 2011) 

·         2005 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs, Carneros.  “the fourteenth vintage in a highly distinguished line of Blanc de Blancs, repeatedly voted Best of Class.  95 Points, Wine Enthusiast.  92 Points, Wine Spectator. The blend of the 2005 Le Rêve is 99% chardonnay selected from an array of five different estate-grown clones with 1% pinot blanc.  It has been aged in the bottle on the lees for five and a half years. The appellation is 100% Carneros, 100% from the 2005 vintage and 100% estate-grown”

“Generous aromas of honey-suckle, baked pear, pineapple and lemon cream tempt the palate.  Tastes of white fruit, crème brûlée and a note of toasted almond engage the palate.  The flavors are full and followed by a long, silky finish.”

Both Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros publish sufficient information about environmental practices along with third party certifications to enable a concerned consumer to make informed decisions about the ecological sustainability of their wines. Their top  ecological sustainability credibility ratings are based on the following:

Schramsberg: Certified NapaGreen Winery

In 2010 Schramsberg Vineyards installed a 466,806 kilowatt-hours solar array, consisting of 1,655 panels, powering total energy needs for all winery operations and  offsetting the amount of CO2 absorbed by 700 acres of trees or produced by powering 2,981 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. Schramsberg Vineyards is certified under the Napa Green Winery Program by the Napa County Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Association of Bay Area Government’s (ABAG) Green Business Program and completed all the regulatory components needed for environmental sustainability. These components included developing water and energy conservation methods, preventing pollution, and reducing solid waste. In addition to developing sustainable winery practices, this program is set to become the standard for the state of California.     
Certified Napa Green Land:  Schramsberg Vineyards is also certified under the Napa Green Certified Land Program:  Schramsberg has created and implemented a customized farm plan with measured results that addressed all aspects of its property, vineyard land as well as non-farmed land, including practicing soil conservation, water conservation, stable drainage, riparian corridor enhancement, fisheries and wildlife habitat enhancement and long-term improvement and sustainability.        

Certification - certification is granted by the Napa County Agricultural Commissioners Office of Pesticide Regulation, the Regional Water Quality Control board, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Napa Green program is supported by a wide variety of groups including the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the University of California.

The Napa Valley Vintners, along with Fish Friendly Farming, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and the Napa County Farm Bureau, developed the Napa Green program.

Domaine Carneros: Certified organic, 196 kW solar electric system provides up to 40% of the winery’s electricity – and powers production of equipment, air conditioning, refrigeration and other operations at the facility.… using no animal products: the fining agent used in the rémuage process is Clarifiant S, sodium bentonite, a clay-based product with no animal additives. Clarifiant S is a gentle, vegan-friendly product that produces clear wines that meet the exacting winemaking standards of Domaine Carneros.  Further ecological enhancements include encouraging red-tailed hawks and owls to live on the premises to keep pests in check. The winery also hires staff year-round, rather than just seasonally, which allows them to have a steady income and earn benefits, but also to have intimate knowledge of the vines. Commitment and practices easily accessed on their website