Why a Wine’s Alcohol-by-Volume is Lying to You

Man scrutinizing a wine label
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When you purchase a bottle of wine, there’s no doubt that you’ve noticed certain things on the label, like the producer, appellation and a Surgeon General’s warning.

One thing required to be on a label (sort of) is the percent of alcohol by volume, or abv. You might be surprised, however, to learn the alcohol percentage listed is often not entirely true.

The truth is that the alcohol percentage on a wine label is more to serve the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) than it is to serve you, the consumer. Here’s why.

The TTB regulates what’s mandatory, permissible and forbidden on wine labels. For alcohol percentages, wineries are allowed a certain amount of variance from what is listed. For a wine with 14% abv or below, for example, the actual alcohol content can differ by as much as 1.5% from what’s on the label, though it cannot exceed 14%. For a wine above 14% abv, a 1% variance is allowed.

So, for example, a bottle of wine listed at 12.5% alcohol could actually be anywhere between 11% and 14%.

Why the variance? Wineries need to submit labels to the TTB for approval in advance to ensure the label complies with the law. These approvals take time, and the final alcohol level of a wine might not be established at the time of submission.

Until recently, there was a considerable financial incentive for wineries to fudge the numbers—list the wine at a lower alcohol level, pay less in taxes.

Additionally, for minor label changes, like the vintage, wineries don’t need to seek a new approval, as long as the alcohol level is within the allowed variance. To label a red wine at, say, 14.5% abv means a winery doesn’t need to submit a new label, and the wine can be anywhere from 14.1% alcohol all the way up to 15.5%.

This is why 14.5% and 13.5% are, by far, the most common numbers you’ll see for red wines from the U.S., as they straddle that 14% break point. Wineries are also allowed to put ranges for alcohol levels or just use certain designations, like Red Table Wine, that need to be within a certain specified alcohol range.

Why is 14% the magic number? Historically, wines at 14% abv and below were taxed at a lower rate than those above 14%. Changes in wine laws in 2017 made wines up to 16% taxed at the same level, but the variances did not change.

For this reason, until recently, there was a considerable financial incentive for wineries to fudge the numbers. List the wine at a lower alcohol level, pay less in taxes. It’s one of the reasons that alcohol levels could be even less accurate than the allowed variance.

Some wineries also believe there’s a stigma associated with higher-alcohol wines. While some may favor “hedonistic” styles of wines higher in alcohol, many winemakers, sommeliers and consumers rebelled against this style.

The fear has been that if a winemaker were to show a wine to a sommelier labeled at 15.4% alcohol, there would be less chance that the wine would be tasted, let alone placed on a wine list over a bottling labeled 14.4%. Supporting this idea, a 2015 study found a tendency to underreport levels for higher-alcohol wines toward a “desired” percentage, stating that it might be “advantageous for marketing the wine.”

Should You Smell the Cork When Opening Wine? Always.

A final incentive for wineries to not take the stated alcohol level too seriously is that oversight is light. There are more than 10,000 wineries in the U.S. that make tens of thousands of wines. Only a miniscule fraction of them can be checked.

How small? In 2016, the last year data was reported to the public, the TTB Alcohol Beverage Sampling Program checked a grand total of 118 wines.

This means that, historically, a winery could pay less in taxes, have a better chance to land on store shelves and restaurant lists, and likely no one would be the wiser that the stated alcohol wasn’t truthful. Except, of course, for the wine lover at home who wakes up the next morning with a headache, wondering what the hell happened.

Close up of different wine bottles at a wine store
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Critic versus consumer

Maybe, this could all make some sense from a regulatory point of view. But I find the current approach to alcohol labeling lacking.

As a critic, I couldn’t care less what the alcohol level is as long as the wine is in balance, whether it’s 13% alcohol or 16%. Moreover, at Wine Enthusiast, all wines are reviewed in blind tastings, so any concern that wines listed with a higher alcohol percentage might affect a review is unwarranted.

Off the clock, however, I care a good bit more about the alcohol percentage. If a wine is labeled at, say, 15%, I know I can expect it will be riper in style than it will be at 13.5%. Maybe that style is what I’m in the mood for some evening. Maybe it’s not. Wouldn’t it be great if the alcohol level could provide something of a guide to wine style?

As a consumer, when I drink a wine that’s say, 14% alcohol, I know I can drink a bit more than I can at 16% without feeling the aftereffects. When I see bar menus list the percentage of alcohol in a beer, I sometimes use that information and elect for a lower-alcohol beer as my second pint.

Finally, I believe it sets a bad precedent to put something on a wine label that simply isn’t accurate. What’s the point of listing alcohol percentages if they aren’t reflective of what’s in the bottle? Information on wine labels should be useful to consumers. If it isn’t, who exactly is it useful to?

So, what’s the solution? I would like to see wines labeled within at least a half-percent of their actual level.

Why a half-percent? It’s a compromise. There will always need to be some permissible variance to allow for labeling delays and for a wine to fully finish. Additionally, not having to resubmit labels for approval every year is a big deal. A half-percent isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more accurate than what’s currently allowed. It also aligns with standards in the European Union.

Yes, this change would make things a little harder for wineries. They would have to be more careful when they measure alcohol levels. Wineries might also have to submit more labels to the TTB for approval, which could result in delays.

But right now, the alcohol percentage on a wine bottle serves no one other than the government. Isn’t it time that listed alcohol percentages began to serve wine drinkers?

Published on September 4, 2019
Topics: Editor Speak
About the Author
Sean P. Sullivan
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Washington and Idaho

In addition to his work at Wine Enthusiast, Sean P. Sullivan is the founder of Washington Wine Report, a site dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest that has twice been named ‘Best Single Subject Wine Blog’ by the Wine Blog Awards. Sullivan has authored over 100 print articles on Northwest wine. He resides in Seattle, Washington.

Email: ssullivan@wineenthusiast.net.



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