When you purchase a bottle of wine, there\u2019s no doubt that you\u2019ve noticed certain things on the label, like the producer, appellation and a Surgeon General\u2019s warning.\r\n\r\nOne 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.\r\n\r\nThe 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\u2019s why.\r\n\r\nThe TTB regulates what\u2019s 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\u2019s on the label, though it cannot exceed 14%. For a wine above 14% abv, a 1% variance is allowed.\r\n\r\nSo, for example, a bottle of wine listed at 12.5% alcohol could actually be anywhere between 11% and 14%.\r\n\r\nWhy 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.\r\n\r\nUntil recently, there was a considerable financial incentive for wineries to fudge the numbers\u2014list the wine at a lower alcohol level, pay less in taxes.\r\n\r\nAdditionally, for minor label changes, like the vintage, wineries don\u2019t 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\u2019t need to submit a new label, and the wine can be anywhere from 14.1% alcohol all the way up to 15.5%.\r\n\r\nThis is why 14.5% and 13.5% are, by far, the most common numbers you\u2019ll 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.\r\n\r\nWhy 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.\r\n\r\nFor 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\u2019s one of the reasons that alcohol levels could be even less accurate than the allowed variance.\r\n\r\nSome wineries also believe there\u2019s a stigma associated with higher-alcohol wines. While some may favor \u201chedonistic\u201d styles of wines higher in alcohol, many winemakers, sommeliers and consumers rebelled against this style.\r\n\r\nThe 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 \u201cdesired\u201d percentage, stating that it might be \u201cadvantageous for marketing the wine.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nA 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.\r\n\r\nHow 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.\r\n\r\nThis 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\u2019t truthful. Except, of course, for the wine lover at home who wakes up the next morning with a headache, wondering what the hell happened.\r\n\r\n\r\nCritic versus consumer\r\nMaybe, this could all make some sense from a regulatory point of view. But I find the current approach to alcohol labeling lacking.\r\n\r\nAs a critic, I couldn\u2019t care less what the alcohol level is as long as the wine is in balance, whether it\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nOff 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\u2019m in the mood for some evening. Maybe it\u2019s not. Wouldn\u2019t it be great if the alcohol level could provide something of a guide to wine style?\r\n\r\nAs a consumer, when I drink a wine that\u2019s 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.\r\n\r\nFinally, I believe it sets a bad precedent to put something on a wine label that simply isn\u2019t accurate. What\u2019s the point of listing alcohol percentages if they aren\u2019t reflective of what\u2019s in the bottle? Information on wine labels should be useful to consumers. If it isn\u2019t, who exactly is it useful to?\r\n\r\nSo, what\u2019s the solution? I would like to see wines labeled within at least a half-percent of their actual level.\r\n\r\nWhy a half-percent? It\u2019s 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\u2019t perfect, but it\u2019s a lot more accurate than what\u2019s currently allowed. It also aligns with standards in the European Union.\r\n\r\nYes, 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.\r\n\r\nBut right now, the alcohol percentage on a wine bottle serves no one other than the government. Isn\u2019t it time that listed alcohol percentages began to serve wine drinkers?