I'm just reveling in all the posts we're finding where people (often industry experts) are now willing to talk honestly about wine. And not just about wine in general, but about touchy issues like alcohol, ingredients, and labeling. Things that are often cloudy and confusing (and sometimes purposefully so) to most people not in the wine business.
This blog post by Sean Sullivan of the Washington Wine Report kicks off a good discussion about alcohol and labeling: http://www.wawinereport.com/2011/03/do-wineries-fudge-alcohol-levels.html
It's true wineries have some wiggle room when labeling their alcohol levels (1.5% under 14% alcohol and 1.0% over 14%). Mainly, this is to allow for variation in test results, and that makes sense. However, wineries can also take advantage of that wiggle room to list their alcohol as slightly lower (the vast majority) or higher (rare) than it actually is.
I actually find the discussion very interesting in the comments section of this post. There are instances where wineries will have a final wine with an alcohol of 13.98%, or something VERY close to bumping them up into the next tax bracket (14% and over). I've heard of wineries who decide to label as 14% and pay the higher taxes vs. staying right under 14%. They figure that if the government actually checks and they've paid higher taxes than they need to, then they'll be left alone. Honestly, we've never tested the theory, but it seems hard to believe the Feds would return money and make you pull product off of store shelves.
At home, however, we're now putting people's labels to the test. My husband and Foursight Winemaker, Joe Webb, recently bought an ebuillometer that now lives at our house. This is a small piece of equipment that measures alcohol by measuring the boiling points of liquids. It is widely accepted as an accurate way to test wine alcohol. When we come across a wine that we think may be listed inaccurately, we run it through the ebuillometer. Et voila! We know for certain.
I've been surprised by the number of bottles we've tested during the past few weeks that have been almost spot on. As it turns out, most of the brands we drink are being honest about alcohols to within 0.1% to 0.2%. We've only tested a few who are pushing their 1.0% margins to the very edge, and they were producers either known to make lower alcohol, "natural" wines or they were white wines. A surprising find...
I look forward to continuing to play with our new device - it's always a fun surprise.