Alcohol measure

When wine label reads “alc 14% by vol,” that means 14 percent alcohol, correct?

Maybe. This is column for number nerds, tax trackers, and label scrutinizers.

Alcohol percentage on a label is best guess. Winemakers aim for accuracy, but many labels are printed before wine is finished. Even after finishing, testing methods produce varying results.

Acknowledging this, laws permit 1.5 percent variance for wine with 14 percent or less alcohol. If label says 14, it could be as low as 12.5 percent. It likely is not above 14 because 14 is a magic government number.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) collects wine taxes and polices wine labels. They assert wine between seven and 14 percent alcohol is “table wine” and do not even require a percentage on such wine, although most makers voluntarily include one. The TTB collects a $1.07 per gallon tax on table wine (about 20 cents per 750 ml bottle).

Rules and taxes change above 14 percent. TTB somehow believes such wine is “dessert wine” and collects a $1.57 per gallon tax (about 30 cents per 750 ml bottle). Label wiggle room changes to one percent. If label says 14.1 percent, there is good chance it is at least that.

UC-Davis research reveals when labels are inaccurate, wines over 14 percent tend to understate, in some cases to avoid higher taxes. Labels claiming less than 14 percent tend to overstate to play it safe. Most common fudge: 12.5 percent, meaning the level could be anything from 11 to 14.

Glad to clear that up for you.


• Apothic Red Winemaker’s Blend 2010. Zin-syrah-cab-merlot; full body, dark & red fruits, mocha, cola, vanilla; bit sweet, plush, smooth, delicious wow value; 13% alcohol. $9

• Meeker Gold Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. Full-body, nice acidity—cab blend great with steak; dark fruit, soft tannin; rich, ripe, value; 14.4% alcohol. $15

• Mollydooker The Boxer Shiraz 2010. Big, rich, powerful, full body fruit bomb; black and blueberry, menthol, spice; medium tannin, long finish. Decant to avoid sediment and bring out cherry and vanilla flavors. 16% alcohol. $35