How Accurate are Wine Label Alcohol Levels?

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.

Alcohol labelThat 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.

About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (
This entry was posted in California, Rants, Washington Post, Wine and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How Accurate are Wine Label Alcohol Levels?

  1. Allen Clark says:

    I can see where accuracy in labeling is important (and not just abv) and therefore needs to be regulated. The tolerance is pretty broad (hey, the figure is to tenths of a percent) and the industry could certainly tolerate a finer tolerance (0.5%?), but the thing that bugs me is – what’s the point of the dividing line? I’ll bet the original distinction between wine below 14% abv and wine above 14% abv was a matter of trying to distinguish between fortified and unfortified product. A bit dated. Unfortified wines regularly exceed that threshold. In any event, I don’t think there needs to be any tax distinction anyway. TTB needs to modernize and simplify.

  2. ConnieD. says:

    Thank you for posting this, Dave! This is certainly important, and explains why some wines that appear to have only a modest alcohol level will still give you an alcohol heat experience.

  3. Julie Judson says:

    Thank you for renewing my interest in wine again.

  4. Pingback: The International Style of Winemaking, and why it drives so many people crazy

    • Dave McIntyre says:

      But the report cited in the blog post found that alcohol labeling for wines was accurate – meaning we cannot assume one labeled 13.5 is necessarily over 14. A wine can be 15 and balanced – that’s rare to be sure, but it happens. Can we really make snap judgments based on the fine print?


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