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What is an “honest” wine?



We know what “honest” means when applied to people: They’re telling the truth. And you can tell when they’re telling the truth by giving them a polygraph test. If they pass, they’re honest.

But you can’t give wine a polygraph test, and yet there is this persistent belief out there, especially among the gatekeepers, that some wines are “honest” and some by implication aren’t. The latest example is in the November 2015 issue of The Tasting Panel, in Randy Caparoso’s column, “In Search of Honest Wines at Our Somm Camps.” Beyond the headline, Randy quotes a local blogger as saying that Lodi Zinfandels are “among the most honest made in California.”

Okay, kiddies, pull up a chair and let’s talk. Now, I have nothing either for or against Lodi Zinfandel, but why would somebody say it’s more “honest” than, say, any of the following wineries that make Zinfandel, all of which I gave 95 points or higher during my stint at Wine Enthusiast: Seven Lions (Sonoma County), Hartford (Russian River Valley), Williams Selyem (Russian River Valley), Dry Creek Vineyard (Dry Creek Valley), Seghesio (Dry Creek Valley), De Loach (Russian River Valley), Deerfield (Dry Creek Valley), Zichichi (Dry Creek Valley), Ravenswood (Sonoma Valley), Gary Farrell (Dry Creek Valley). Then, at 94 points, we have Storybook Mountain (Napa Valley), Bella (Sonoma County), Bluenose (Dry Creek Valley), Joseph Swan (Russian River Valley), Beauregard (Ben Lomond Mountain), Rubicon (Rutherford), Seghesio (Alexander Valley), Schultz (Mount Veeder)—I mean, the list goes on and on.

What makes “Lodi” more honest than those?

I sometimes think that some modern gatekeepers trip all over themselves trying to discover the odd, the out-of-the-way, the underdog, the obscure, the heretofore despised, the outliers, the blue collar, the poor and struggling, in order to heap praise on them, thereby demonstrating their independence, vision, fair-mindedness, liberality and hipness. They seem to hate on the better-known appellations, varieties and wineries. What does Randy himself, a fine fellow whom I always enjoy running into, and a good writer, say about “honest” wines? Well, here’s his definition: They are “Wines that express places, not so much arbitrary conceptions of varietal character.”

Fair enough; let’s try to understand. First, I should think that critics would like it when a wine expresses “varietal character.” How many times have you seen critics panning something because it lacks “typicity”? But Randy’s use of the phrase “varietal character” is contained within a more complex phrasing: it should also express “place,” and the varietal character shouldn’t be an “arbitrary conception…”

With all due respect, all of the Zinfandels I mentioned above express “place,” in my opinion. As for “arbitrary conceptions of varietal character,” what the heck does that mean? I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you? What makes one expression of varietal character “honest” while another is “arbitrary”? For example, I have a certain notion of what a good Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel should taste like, and in my mind it does have “varietal character” that is modified by that special Dry Creek briary, brambly taste. Does that mean a good Dry Creek Valley Zin isn’t “honest”? I could ask the same thing about Anderson Valley Pinot Noir or Fort Ross-Seaview Chardonnay or Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon or Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc or Edna Valley Pinot Gris. The best of those wines has “varietal character” as well as regional character i.e., “place.” This isn’t something that makes them “dishonest.” It’s something the grape grower and the winemaker worked very hard to achieve. Surely we can all agree on that!

Back to Lodi, which I admit has had a perception problem even Randy alludes to when he quotes a few somms who didn’t think much of Lodi until they tasted wines from there at one of Randy’s Somm Camps. It’s wonderful when someone who had a preconceived notion of something experiences an epiphany—we should all be so lucky. But what does that have to do with “honest” wines? The funny thing is that Randy, himself, writes, “Lodi does not grow the best wines in the world.” Ouch. He then goes on to praise it: “What it does produce are wines that are true to their Mediterranean climate [and] sandy soils…”. Well, I’ll drink to that—but does that make them more “honest” than a rich, heady Napa Cab?

Look, this is a fairly minor point, but you have to take it within the context of this entire conversation we’ve been having in California—largely somm-driven—about the meaning of words like “honest” and “balanced” and so forth. These are eye-of-the-beholder terms; there are so many conceptual and intellectual problems connected with them that it might be better if we just scrapped those kinds of subjective words as descriptors and moved onto adjectives that are objectively real, understandable and, yes, “honest.”

  1. Um . . . not so fast:

    “We know what “honest” means when applied to people: They’re telling the truth. And you can tell when they’re telling the truth by giving them a polygraph test. If they pass, they’re honest.”

    One of the biggest canards of modern day society is mischaracterizing a polygraph test as a “lie detector” test.

    Ain’t so.

    “The Straight Dope: How accurate are lie-detector tests?”


  2. Excerpt from Wikipedia entry on polygraphs:


    National Academy of Sciences

    The accuracy of the polygraph has been contested almost since the introduction of the device. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report entitled “The Polygraph and Lie Detection”. The NAS found that the majority of polygraph research was “unreliable, unscientific and biased”, concluding that 57 of the approximately 80 research studies that the American Polygraph Association relies on to come to their conclusions were significantly flawed. These studies did show that specific-incident polygraph testing, in a person untrained in counter-measures, could discern the truth at “a level greater than chance, yet short of perfection”. However, due to several flaws, the levels of accuracy shown in these studies “are almost certainly higher than actual polygraph accuracy of specific-incident testing in the field”.[15]

    When polygraphs are used as a screening tool (in national security matters and for law enforcement agencies for example) the level of accuracy drops to such a level that “Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies.” In fact, the NAS extrapolated that if the test were sensitive enough to detect 80% of spies (a level of accuracy which it did not assume), this would hardly be sufficient anyway. Let us take for example a hypothetical polygraph screening of a body of 10,000 employees among which are 10 spies. With an 80% success rate, the polygraph test would show that 8 spies and 1,992 non-spies fail the test. Thus, roughly 99.6 percent of positives (those failing the test) would be false positives. The NAS concluded that the polygraph “…may have some utility”[15] but that there is “little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy.”.[15]:212

    The NAS conclusions paralleled those of the earlier United States Congress Office of Technology Assessment report “Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation”.[29] Similarly, a report to Congress by the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy[30] on national security concluded that ” The few Government-sponsored scientific research reports on polygraph validity (as opposed to its utility), especially those focusing on the screening of applicants for employment, indicate that the polygraph is neither scientifically valid nor especially effective beyond its ability to generate admissions..”.


    “Let us take for example a hypothetical polygraph screening of a body of 10,000 employees among which are 10 spies. With an 80% success rate, the polygraph test would show that 8 spies and 1,992 non-spies fail the test. Thus, roughly 99.6 percent of positives (those failing the test) would be false positives.”

    Who wants to be one of the 1,992 false positives?

  3. Seems the “Cool Kids” Somm Camp championing underdog grape varieties should adopt this as their motto:

    “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

  4. Randy Caparoso seems to be a founder of the Lodi Native Project, without disclosing that fact in his piece.

    The article from Alder Yarrow

    Lodi Native Project

  5. In response to David Scheidt’s investigation: Boom goes the dynamite. Looks like Mr. Caparoso has a dog in the fight he’s scoring.

    Regarding the greater topic of defining “honest” wine, I’d steer away from widely arguable terms like terroir and varietal character. There’s a more concrete takeaway here. To me, an honest wine boils down to:
    “Do you, as a winemaker/tasting room manager/broker/gm/proprietor/whatever, actually know what’s in the bottle? And are you willing to talk about it”

    There are a lot of wines, especially higher production, lower price point ones, made by blending bulk wines where the vineyard origin is lost. Additionally there is a bevy of wine additives that can be used to dramatically change a wine’s character.

    Wineries are legally obligated to track their blend compositions and the additives/adjuncts/fining agents they use to tweak a wine but when it’s all on the bottling line do people know and remember? More importantly, are they willing to have an open and honest conversation with the customer about the steps taken to achieve the wine? It’s not sexy to talk about PVPP fining to take the bitterness out of your Sav Blanc; or to talk about adding Petit Sirah to Pinot Noir to give it body and color, but these things happen all the time. Even detecting oak on a wine does not mean it’s ever touched a barrel. There are oak staves, blocks, beads, shredded oak, powdered oak, and even liquid oak extracts that can be introduced to wines.
    I’m not saying that doing the above things is wrong, they unquestionably improve wine quality and also keep the price-point down for consumers; but I think the consumer should know what’s in their wine and an ‘honest’ wine should share.

  6. See this article:

    “One Man’s [Paul Draper’s] Quest to Reveal What’s Actually in Your Favorite Wines”


  7. Randy Caparoso says:

    Hey, Steve, seems like I’m late to this party (or roast), but having just seen it (Dec. 21), my comments anyway:

    First, thanks so much for reading my Tasting Panel Magazine columns with such care and thought!

    Second, please notice that I quoted someone else saying “Lodi Zinfandels are among the most honest made.” “Among” being the operative term: I also find compelling honesty in many Zinfandels grown in regions, such as Dry Creek Valley, Inland Mendocino, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Contra Costa, Amador County, and so forth. Nowhere is the implication that Lodi wines are “more” honest than that of other regions.

    This is why, as you also noted, I also feel totally confident in my assessment that “Lodi does not grow the best wines in the world.” I also feel the same way about wines grown in Dry Creek Valley, Inland Mendocino, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, et al. My personal perspective, as it were, is quite catholic: I find quality and “honesty” in many places, and I have always had an aversion to ever saying some places are “better” than others, even when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir based wines.

    Napa Valley may produce, say, a bigger, headier Zinfandel than Lodi, and Dry Creek Valley may produce a jammier, zestier, more briary one compared to Lodi’s soft, gentle style. Honestly, I love them all; and I should think that they should be appreciated for what they are, especially if they are “honest” to their respective terroir related dispensations.

    Point also being: to many of today’s sommeliers (and don’t shoot me, I’m just the piano player), “honesty” is defined by wines that are crafted to taste where they come from, not what they “should” be according to certain people’s arbitrary conception of what constitutes “varietal character.”

    Zinfandel is a good grape to conduct this kind of discussion since, for a long time, it has not been considered quite so serious enough a varietal to demand a sense of place or terroir in its sensory aspects. Instead, most commercial Zinfandel is produced to taste like, well, “Zinfandel,” whether or not it comes from Lodi, Dry Creek, Napa, Amador or anywhere else. It’s a shame, because it’s a damned good, interesting grape with its own sense of transparency. Thank goodness, many of today’s Zinfandel specialists have been going the direction of under-emphasizing varietal character in favor of more nuanced qualities that allow terroir related sensations (aromatic and structural) to shine through.

    Steve, I know in the past that you have also written, of your disdain of the numerous clumsy, artless, exaggerated styles of Zinfandel. This is exactly why sommeliers is finer restaurants have traditionally been turned off to the varietal category. Go to your closest hoity-toity, white table cloth restaurant and try to find a popular brand of Zinfandel on the wine list. More often than not, those wines are just not there. Generally speaking, American Zinfandel has not been the sommelier trade’s cup of tea; not with so many other wines from around the world available to th em.

    The overriding point of my TPM column, written primarily for sommeliers and restaurant wine managers, is that there are indeed numerous New World wines out there that possess the Old World sensibilities of place that the trade prefers. The goal of our SOMM Camps is to immerse them in those places where those wines are found. The horse must often be led to water.

    In any case, hope this clears up any misunderstanding. Thanks again for this nuanced discussion!

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