After I filed my Washington Post column for this week about alcohol labeling for wines, Michael Kaiser of WineAmerica sent me a link to this report from the TTB, the federal agency that regulates wines and their labeling.
The upshot? The U.S. wine industry appears to be pretty accurate and honest in its alcohol labeling.
Keep in mind that the regulations give some flexibility, mostly based on tax category: If a wine is under 14% alcohol, the level stated on the label can vary by 1.5% either way. Over 14%, and the tolerance is 1%. For consumers, that means a 12.5% wine can actually be 14%, while a 15% wine may be as high as 16%. The assumption is that high-alcohol wines are understated by as much as 1% on the label.
That may be, and this report does not shed light on that. But of 196 wines selected for testing in 2012, the TTB found only one that exceeded the regulatory tolerance for alcohol labeling. (See my column for an explanation of why these tolerances are important.)
In contrast, out of 85 spirits tested, 60 were higher than the alcohol labeling limits.
To be sure, the TTB did find 11 wines that were in the wrong tax class, which may suggest an alcohol labeling issue. And 10 were found to have “non-mandatory information” differing from the certificate of label approval, suggesting that back label information was unreliable. (Without further investigation, I blame the Marketing Department(s).)
But the upshot: As long as we know what we’re looking at, we can apparently trust the alcohol level stated on a wine label.