Remember Diogenes? He was the guy who supposedly carried around a lamp in broad daylight, searching for an honest man. Sadly, there’s no evidence as to whether or not he finally found one.
If he existed in the present day, Diogenes would sooner or later have stumbled onto the American Association of Wine Economists, one of the few groups of people in modern society devoted to telling the truth. If the name sounds familiar, you probably recall them from their exposé of the Wine Spectator restaurant wine list awards. The Spectator gives out over 3500 of these awards annually, with the main qualification apparently being the remittance of a $175 fee. The AAWE fabricated a restaurant in Milan, faked the menu and wine list, paid their $175 and got the award.
They recently published the results of a study of 129,000 wines from vineyards around the world, which indicates that nearly 60% of the wines are understating alcohol levels on their labels. This is nothing new. Many wineries don’t compose their final blends until shortly before the wine is bottled, leaving little time for laboratory analysis and the printing of labels. For this reason, many labels contain the winery’s best guess on the alcohol level given vintage conditions.
However, there are other reasons for fudging alcohol content. In the U.S., wine that contains more than 14% alcohol is subjected to a much higher rate of taxation. The TTB allows a variance of 1% on wines of more than 14% alcohol, and a 1.5% differential below that level. Thus, your wine can be 15% but labeled 13.5% to avoid the excess taxes. If you look around, you’ll see a great number of 13.5% wines on the shelf.
The other reason is perhaps more interesting. In this age of climate change (or global warming, or whatever you want to call it), many consumers are tiring of high-alcohol wine. The trend today is toward a wine which is fresher, lower and alcohol and easier to drink. In this context, lowballing the alcohol level can be quite deliberate. “Some winemakers,” said the report, “have admitted they deliberately chose to understate the alcohol content on a wine label, within the range of error permitted by the law, because they believed it would be advantageous for marketing the wine to do so.”
As always, caveat emptor.