Appetizers
August 23, 2007
First, Grab a (Magnifying) Glass

Comments here about high-alcohol wines prompted some readers to complain that they have difficulty finding the alcohol content on bottle labels.

I share their frustration. With some bottles of wine you virtually need a magnifying glass as well as a corkscrew to get a grip on what you're getting into.

You can save yourself the search by realizing that not all bottles of wine list the alcohol content, which, incidentally, is to be on the front label. There are numerous federal rules governing information on wine labels, and one of them says labels need not list the alcohol content if the wine contains between 7 and 14 percent alcohol. In those instances, however, the label is to say "table wine" or "light wine."

Only when a wine's alcohol content exceeds 14 percent does the amount need to be specified on the label. Even then, however, the specific figure need not be accurate. If a wine includes more than 14 percent alcohol, the stated figure can vary by as much as 1 percent either up or down. That is, the alcohol content in a bottle with a label saying the wine contains 16 percent alcohol actually can be as low as 15 percent or as high as 17 percent.

Similarly, the tolerance in wines containing between 7 and 14 percent alcohol can range 1.5 percent in either direction. That is, a wine whose label says the alcohol content is 12 percent actually may contain as much as 13.5 percent alcohol or as little as 10.5 percent alcohol.

A complicating factor in calculating how much alcohol is in a wine is that the tolerances aren't permitted if the actual alcohol content were to put the wine in a different tax classification. The three tax classes for wine are 7 percent to 14 percent, over 14 percent to 21 percent, and over 21 percent to 24 percent. That is, if a label says the wine contains 13.5 percent it actually may contain as little as 12 percent alcohol but it can't contain more than 14 percent.

The federal regulations are much more detailed than that. If the alcohol content is more difficult to find and read than seems reasonable, that's because federal authorities don't want vintners to use alcohol as a marketing tool. The type size specifying alcohol content on containers of wine of 5 liters or less must be at least 1 millimeter, but it can't be more than 3 millimeters. Furthermore, the notice is to contrast with the background - several vintners and their graphic artists aren't abiding with the spirit of this regulation - but it isn't to be set off with a border or is it to be otherwise "accentuated."

To learn more of the nation's wine-label regulations, go here to read the Beverage Alcohol Manual (BAM) of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

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