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Messages in a Bottle: What is an Honest Wine?

The other day, in the course of constructing a review, I found myself describing a wine as "honest." And I meant it. But I've been thinking a lot about that word, and what it really means. I believe honesty is important in a wine, and on reflection, I think much of my personal quest, when it comes to what I choose to pay real money to drink, involves the search for the honest wines among the crowd.

That crowd, I should say, does not consist of dishonest wines. I'm not deliberately setting up a dichotomy here between the "real" and the "fake" or the "natural" and the "industrial." Dividing the wine world into such stark factions is not only unproductive, it's stupid. We live in a complex world, and anyone who proclaims such black and white divisions exist has some sort of agenda.

Instead I'd like to suggest that the honest wines distinguish themselves from the pack in the same way that truly kind and thoughtful people might stand out against the background of all the different kinds of folks that you meet in the course of a day, a week, or a month. We all go through life interacting with lots of people, most of whom are simply "there" — unremarkable in the most literal sense of the word — perhaps interesting, perhaps annoying for a moment, perhaps boring as hell. Occasionally, however, we come across a person that is somewhat singular in their respect and attention for us, and we are struck by this fact. We say to ourselves, "Wow, that person is really special." Such is the effect of an honest wine.

Honest wines appear so not just emotionally, but in real tactile qualities. You can taste the honesty in a wine.

Honest wines lack a certain polish and glossiness. This isn't to say they don't have finesse, or poise, or grace. Rather their textural qualities have a fuzzy edge to them, an imprecision that I've come to appreciate like the hand of a favorite piece of fabric. Most often, I believe, this texture comes from not fining and filtering a wine heavily. Such processes, some have said, strip the soul from a wine. I have certainly tasted my share of wines that had beautiful, pure flavors, but were like drinking liquid glass — too much crystalline transparency made the wines as deep as a glossy centerfold.

When it comes to flavors and aromas, honesty means flavor, and a lot of it. And perhaps more accurately, a lot of them. Honest wines are not gregorian chants, they're choruses of melody and harmony. Sometimes they have their share of dissonance, too.

Ultimately what I'm talking about here is a concoction of complexity, intensity, and sometimes a purity of flavor. When young, honest wines are often a beautiful expression of fruit — ripe (but not too ripe) unadulterated juicy goodness, without a full wooden jacket of vanilla scented oak. When old, their fruit is joined or replaced by other, sometimes more exotic flavors and aromas.

Honest wines give you their flavors without mediation or filtration through a layer of wood. I'm not against the use of new oak by any means, but there are wines that sublimate wood into muscle and sinew and bone, and then there are wines that are literally destroyed by wood, which flavors them beyond recognition. New oak is at once a magical and dangerous friend that most honest wines use only judiciously, or often avoid altogether.

The complexity of honest wines is often grounded, quite literally. Whatever your notion of terroir, be it the intangible "somewhereness" of wine, a more strict geological interpretation, or a broader more expansive notion of every factor at play in the environment, honest wines have got it. In fact, you might say you need a certain amount of honesty in a wine to be able to taste the place it comes from.

Beyond, or even in spite of the particular sensations of a wine, honesty shines through in the way the wine makes you feel. Not all honest wines are great — some aren't even good — but when you drink an honest wine you know where you stand, and you leave the experience with the notion that you've appreciated a real piece of the world.

But sometimes, honest wines are electrifying, and can leave you with the feeling that things will never quite be the same. These are the experiences that I seek in wine. If wines speak a truth at all, these are the utterances most real and most profound, that remind us of who and where we are, and what we have the potential to become.

Comments (14)

gianpaolo wrote:
02.03.09 at 6:06 AM

this post is making me think quite a lot Alder. You are right in saying that the notion of honesty is rather a tactile one and not just some moral assumption on the wine itself.
In fact, I think that reading your post, one the things that come to mind is that "imprecision" can be a synonymous of honesty in the best cases.
As a winemaker, how can I make something imprecise that I like, that some people may like, but that can return back to the winery with claims from the market, such as tartrate precipitation, reduction, etc? That probably wouldn't set you off, but what about our average customer?
Interesting anyway, really interesting.

Arthur wrote:
02.03.09 at 7:43 AM

Good writing Alder.

I'm not sure I agree entirely with the textural aspects you address. An unfiltered and unfined wine will have rich and robust and maybe fuzzy textural characteristics in youth but with time in the cellar it will change texture as the sediment it puts down reveals a smoother, more polished mouthfeel. If you taste the same wine 10 years apart will you judge it to be equally honest?

Intensity and power of some aromas may often be related to fermentation esters. These not only blow off relatively soon, revealing the wine's "truer" character, but can be manipulated - or, more accurately, the wine production process can be manipulated to bring out the expression of specific fermentation esters.

Then is the part of “how it makes you feel”. Emotional reactions are subjective insofar that they are the result of and contingent on past personal experiences.

So, in light of the latter two points, could we be looking at t a distinction between “honesty” and “honestiness” in wine?

Alder wrote:
02.03.09 at 8:46 AM

Arthur, you can use whatever words make the most sense to you. I'm not trying to establish an objective standard for the evaluation of wine, just trying to convey some sense of what makes wine exciting for me.

Arthur wrote:
02.03.09 at 8:58 AM

I was getting the sense that when you said:

"Honest wines appear so not just emotionally, but in *real tactile qualities*. You can taste the honesty in a wine."

you were suggesting that these characteristics suggest that a wine is "honest".

I'm not after semantics here (surprise!) but it occurred to me that a wine that you may consider honest in its youth might may loose those tactile hallmarks you propose with cellaring. The question, ultimately, is: what are the flags of an honest wine in a mature wine? And those those traits different from what the wine displays in youth?

Alder wrote:
02.03.09 at 10:49 AM


Maybe, but I certainly had, say, some of the 1960s Burgundies I've enjoyed in my mind when I wrote that, and I would say that they had a texture that conveyed honesty. Younger completely unfiltered and unfined wines (especially red) have an incredibly tactile body to them, even a graininess that you can feel on the tongue. As these wines age, that graininess dissapates as sediment falls out, but there's still a velvet quality that wines hang on to in my experience. Dessert wines tend to be another animal, of course. Anyhow. I Don't mean for this to be so precise or categorical.

02.03.09 at 4:37 PM

I tend to think of honest wines as ones that speak of an effort by the winemakers to let the grapes do the talking, rather than heavy handed intervention that seeks to minimize, control, or otherwise manipulate the wine.

Alice wrote:
02.04.09 at 2:22 AM


Very beautifully rendered. --Alice

nikolai wrote:
02.04.09 at 6:41 PM

As is so sadly obvious nowadays honesty is in short supply.Nice thoughts Alder.

Dylan wrote:
02.05.09 at 12:33 PM

Obviously some inspired writing. Wines of a particular virtue have the ability to get us in a thinking or somewhat philosophical mood. I believe that's the point I see in your post, Alder. In an experience with a wine you deemed "honest," you were compelled to explore this feeling for what it actually meant to you. What's interesting about your definition of honesty is not that it stands out against a backdrop of bottled lies, rather it stands out for being honest with itself. Be that a good type of stand out, or a bad, it is always memorable for having done so. We are struck by experiences from an sidewalk eccentric as much as we are an especially fond school teacher. What makes either of those people particularly honest, in my mind, is that they are never trying to be something they are not. The sidewalk eccentric does not hide ashamed of his eccentricity, that school teacher teaches the subjects which enliven their spirit. Those have always been the people who stood out to me, the ones who were always honest to themselves; and, in this case, maybe it's the honest wine as well: a wine not afraid to say, this is who I am and where I am from, and, you will know that upon meeting me.

Bio Boy wrote:
02.05.09 at 8:59 PM

Excellent post. You are really on to something here.
Some comments:

" We live in a complex world, and anyone who proclaims such black and white divisions exist has some sort of agenda."

Yes, it is black and white. The agenda is this: a filtered wine is a dead wine or a wine with a compromised soul if you will. It has been stripped, the macro-molecular structure so dis-associated as to render it undrinkable for months for some wines and years for others. Some say the chains grow back after filtration, I'm not so sure. There is no replacement for the accentuated flavors, enhanced mouthfeel of an unfiltered wine and there is no replacement for the anchor of an "honest" wine to be unfiltered.

How else could we be "electrified" and walking through the labyrinthine wine vaults of the soul?

That "somewhereness" is the terroir, purely translated, unadulturated wine bliss that we all know and love.

John Brooks wrote:
02.09.09 at 11:37 AM

I'm a rep for Renaissance Winery and if there is one thing only that I wish people to take away from their experience of these wines, it's the honesty imparted to them by Gideon's (our winemaker’s) non-manipulative techniques. The ability of these wines to express the essence of the place from which they come, is, to me, a revelation as to what can be produced (with an honest effort) from grapes in CA. Gideon's terroir-driven, non-fruit-bomb, sane alcohol level, balanced, long-lived, highly concentrated, not over-oaked, unfiltered, unfined, hand-picked grapes, biodynamically farmed, red wines are certainly to my personal taste, if not everyone's. Some prefer the glossy wines. I do think though, that if more producers brought more honesty to their production techniques, many of us would be happier and more satisfied wine lovers.

Sean wrote:
02.10.09 at 10:25 AM

Great post, Alder.

02.12.09 at 9:56 AM

I really enjoy this post.

Thank you Alder!

12.01.10 at 12:50 PM

The new buzz word is "authentic". But like all the good wine descriptors, it's been latched onto by every wine marketer in the business and it's currency is rapidly being eroded.

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