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Alcohol levels on wine labels. Not necessarily what’s in the bottle

on 25/04/11 at 10:39 am


Time for a small industry secret: Most of the nation’s top winemakers spend their days making dessert wine.

In the eyes of the federal government, that is. As far as the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau is concerned, any wine with more than 14 percent alcohol must be classified type 88: dessert/port/sherry/(cooking) wine.

Marcassin Pinot? Dessert wine. The Cabernets of To Kalon? You got it.

Silly, perhaps, but wine’s alcohol level is plenty serious. Why else would it be the one piece of technical data required by law to be on every bottle?

The easy answer – that taxes are higher on wines with more alcohol – ignores the fact that a lot of wine lovers pay keen attention to the big number in the tiny type.

And not just out of curiosity. It’s a matter of debate whether high-alcohol wines go with food or show ample nuance. But what’s beyond question is that the same-size glass of wine with even a bit more alcohol gets you drunk faster. That’s giving pause to more wine drinkers for reasons that have nothing to do with taste.

So, starting next week, The Chronicle will print the listed alcohol levels of each wine we recommend in the Food & Wine section.

A handful of mostly niche publications have taken similar steps. And Britain’s Decanter magazine will publish alcohol levels beginning in May. But few newspapers or magazines have routinely published this information.

High-alcohol debate

Including us. Occasionally we’ve noted alcohol levels where germane. But we resisted printing them regularly because the act of bringing alcohol into the discussion of a wine is inherently political.

Our decision comes at a time when it is harder than ever to understand the implications of alcohol in wine. Regulations reflect a world of decades past, when “table wine” was meant to hover around 12 percent alcohol and anything that dared surpass 14 percent was assumed to be fortified. Early examples that defied the trend, like the 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel, left regulators stumped.

Yet, the origin of the 14 percent rule is a mystery, even to many in the wine industry. Wine attorney and historian Richard Mendelson suspects it may predate Prohibition.

Or it may stem from a hodgepodge of past practices. After all, the quaint remnant of the “table wine” designation – once meant for wines between 11 and 14 percent alcohol – lives on. Most European wines were shipped with labels that indicated them simply as “table wine,” enough that Josh Jensen of Calera chose to emulate language from his favorite Burgundies in his inaugural 1975 vintage. Even then, the term was losing its meaning.

“Initially we didn’t want to put the number on,” Jensen recalls, “and then after about 10 years of doing that, people would say, ‘Oh, this is just a table wine,’ and I’d say, ‘This is our best wine!’ And so we started putting alcohol numbers on.”

If 14 percent seems arbitrary as a dividing line, its financial implications are not. Currently the TTB assesses a tax of $1.07 per gallon, or 21 cents per bottle, for wines 14 percent alcohol or less; wines above 14 percent are taxed at $1.57 per gallon, or 31 cents per bottle.

For a large winery producing 100,000 cases of wine, nudging above 14 percent costs an extra $120,000. To the largest producers, there are good reasons to keep alcohols low. And for all the kvetching about high alcohols, most wine taxed in the United States remains in that “table wine” bracket: 440.6 million gallons of bottled wine were at 14 percent or less last year, compared with 50.2 million above 14 percent.

Hot topic in wine world

But for higher-end wines? Life above 14 percent is routine, and for the past two decades it was often a required path to critical success.

All this presumes truth in labeling for alcohol levels, which often isn’t the case – enough so that we tested 19 wines to check their accuracy. (See story above.)

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