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Out, Out, Damn Alcohol

By Charles Olken

The alcohol rules in this country are nuts. Yes, maybe we needed stupid rules back in the period that witnessed the end of Prohibition because the abolitionists were still running wild and bad compromises helped move us past that awful period and back to some semblance of normalcy. Today, many of those rules just do not make sense—and, indeed, some of them have had unintended consequences that make it more difficult to make good wine.

The Fourteen Per Cent Solution
There is a silly provision in the governance of alcohol that taxes wines carrying more than 14% alcohol at higher levels than wines under 14%. And even if the rise in the prices of good wine have made the difference more than a little moot, since no winemaker worth his salt would now hold back on what he believes is right about winemaking to save on alcohol taxes, there is the totally unintended consequence that 14% ABV (alcohol by volume) has become some kind of artificial tipping point for those who prefer lower alcohol wines as a matter of taste.

It has even become so silly as to have one noted sommelier refuse to carry Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in his restaurant if the alcohol is over 14% but will carry anything from Burgundy where the limit on alcohol is 14.5%. The further unintended consequence is seen in the stated alcohol numbers on wine labels. If one tracks, as we do here at CGCW, the listed alcohols on wine labels, it is clear that many wineries are shooting for just under 14%. They are not trying to save a few pennies; they are trying to make themselves part of the “low alcohol” movement to please consumers who believe that 13.9% ABV wines are inherently better than 14.1% to 14.3% ABV wines—to name a level that is extremely popular on wine labels today.

If the 14% level had not been instituted as part of the “sin tax” on wine some eighty years ago, we would not see noted sommeliers and wine drinkers thinking that there was some kind of “sin” in wines just above 14% ABV versus just below. And, even though the extra pennies of tax are no longer a barrier, the barrier in thinking still exists for totally artificial reasons.

Marijuana Versus Wine
I was having dinner with a good friend from Mendocino County not so long ago and he related to me that medical marijuana “cards” are so easy to get in his home town that a very large percentage of the high school students have them. Okay, this is not a scientifically measured fact, so much as his impression, but since he is not inherently opposed to the smoking of pot, he has no axe to grind. In fact, as a wine professional, he certainly could be concerned about the impact on the sales of his favorite tipple were it not that we do not let anyone under the age of 21 drink alcohol by law.

But apparently, we do let them smoke pot. There is something unbalanced in that equation.

The Hidden Alcohol Statements On Wine Labels
I have beaten this horse before, but it is not a dead horse. Wine labels are required to carry alcohol statements within a variance of 1.5% for wines under 14% ABV and 1% for wines over 14%. The wineries argue that they would have to remake the labels every year and that different batches of wines with the same name and made by them would each have to be separately labeled. I have long felt that these separate batches should be designated so the consumer can know what he or she is getting, but that latter point is a fight for a different day. But tighter variance limits are easily doable with today’s technology.

There are several silly parts of the “required” ABV label statements currently in effect, and while winery behavior is not at all “pristine” and above suspicion in this area, it is the wine rules themselves that are the bigger problem.

Consider these bits of nonsense.

Statements of alcohol are required to be made on wine labels, but the rules allow those statements to be printed in type so small that it takes a magnifying glass to read them if the winery chooses that small size. Why require something that the consumer cannot read? Who else but the consumers are such statements for in any event. The Government has already extracted its sin taxes so ostensibly wine label info is directed at consumers.

These so-called “statements” (how can they be a “statement” of anything if they are unreadable?) are required to be printed in a contrasting color to that of the label background. One must presume that the intent is to make them readable. Yet, we see those statements is such illegible colors as light gray on cream, gold on red and a host of other virtually unreadable combinations. Some are even printed in a dot matrix format making them even harder to decipher.

Finally, the Government does not mandate where those statements need to go on wine labels. Go search for a bunch of them yourself and you will find them hidden anywhere a winery wants to hide them if that is their intent. Sideways, or in the middle of other print or set against backgrounds intended to obscure the facts. Again, an easy, no cost fix is available.

The Allowable Variance Problem
If you believe that alcohol levels matter, for whatever reason, then you will immediately understand that allowing a label to show variances from fact of up to 1.5% in the required ABV label is part of the road to obfuscation. Alcohol testing is not an obscure science. It is done every day and could be required for every bottling, including separate bottlings of the same labeled wine without so much as mussing the hair of the lab technician. We have an industry that now clusters wine levels near to 14%, in part, for artificial reasons and due to unintended consequences. If alcohol level is perceived by so many wineries as important, then it stands to reason that more accurate ABV statements are also important.

The Way Forward
It is a thesis of long-standing here at CGCW that wine labels should be accurate and not misleading. We were a vocal part of the struggles three decades ago to tighten up the requirements for varietal percentages and origin percentages in wine labels. Very few people in our industry would argue that we should go back to the days in which a Napa Valley Cabernet could contain 26% Cabernet from the Napa Valley, 25% anything else from Napa (adding up to 51% Napa), 25% Cabernet from anywhere else (adding up to 51% Cabernet) and 24% anything from anywhere.

Why should not alcohol labelling also be required to tell a more accurate truth in a more readable form? None of this is rocket science. None of this will prevent wineries from doing their jobs. And, if we do away with the artificial 14% ABV barrier for sin tax purposes, we might even allow wineries to do their jobs with less government interference and to make wine without worrying about false perceptions.


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by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:1/31/2016 7:55:32 AM


There are a couple of other issues with alcohol variances that you may want to take up.

First, since the repeal of Prohibition, individual states have been able to regulate alcohol within their borders.  Thus, some states do not allow wine to be sold over 15% alcohol within their borders.  Some counties in Texas don't allow wine to be sold if it is over 14% alcohol.  These state regulations are further incentive for lowering either the alcohol of the wine or the printed content of the wines.

Second, the TTB permits different means of measuring alcohol.  Ebuilliometer will give a notably different measurement of alcohol than will gas chromotography...and yet both are legal.  Differing temperatures of the wine samples will also lead to different results, though those differences are much smaller.  Those differences in methodology, resulting in different results, might need to be cleaned up as well.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

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