Study: wine labels understate alcohol

Sometimes you need a study to affirm what you suspect. Such is the case with a recent paper that shows wine labels to understate actual alcohol by at least 0.3 percentage points, on average. And increasing alcohol levels have little to do with climate change in aggregate; instead, the researchers suggest, it results from winemaker choice.

The study, whose lead author Julian Alston of UC Davis, examined data from 129,123 wine samples. Although the US federal authorities perform scant testing of wines in the marketplace, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) runs each bottle of wine through a lab test before it is allowed to appear in the market (I wonder who brings home the leftover Petrus each year?). The Alston study uses a large portion this LCBO data from 1992-2009 to compare the alcohol level stated on the label versus what actually appears in the bottle and puts to shame my data set of 84 bottles for my own study in Wine & Spirits last year. The working paper was published by the American Association of Wine Economists.

Using climate data, Alston et al. find that the heat index in most wine countries grew less than rise in alcohol levels–to explain a rise of wine percentage point in the alcohol of a wine, a 20 degree Fahrenheit increase would need to been seen, which obviously didn’t happen in the time frame. Thus, they conclude not all that surprisingly, that their findings “lead us to think that the rise in alcohol content of wine is primarily man-made.” This is a particularly interesting empirical finding since it categorically refutes the claims of some winemakers who point to global warming to explain why the level of alcohol has risen in their own wines over the past decade or so.

Turning to the discrepancy between what’s on the label and what’s in the bottle, the study finds 57% of the nearly 100,000 samples to understate the alcohol level with the worst offending category being New World red wine (about .45 percentage points). They lay the blame for this at the door of winemakers and vintners:

We speculate that commercial wineries for the most part have relatively precise knowledge of the alcohol content of the wines they produce and that the substantial average errors that we observe are not made unconsciously. This speculation is based in part on informal discussions with some winemakers who have admitted that they deliberately chose to understate the alcohol content on a wine label, within the range of error permitted by the law, because they believed that it would be advantageous for marketing the wine to do so.

They suggest that consumers “will happily pay a premium” for the riper, more intense flavors that come from the grapes hanging longer in the vine but that consumers don’t want the alcohol that also comes with it, which leads to the cause of widespread label understatement.

What do you think about that assertion?

The authors conclude, “What remains to be resolved is why consumers choose to pay winemakers to lie to them.” Funny, yes, but consumers can be forgiven for trusting what is on the label as being accurate. The blame for the discrepancy, in my view, ultimately rests with regulatory authorities who either tolerate the “lies” or fail to monitor deviations from stated levels.

It’s a rich study and definitely one worth geeking out on while sipping a wine that has a 57% chance of misstating the alcohol level. Take a look:

“Splendide Mendax: False Label Claims about High and Rising Alcohol Content of Wine” Working Paper #82, AAWE [pdf]

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29 Responses to “Study: wine labels understate alcohol”

  1. Interesting article! I agree with your conclusion: if a body exists to regulate the accuracy of labels, then consumers should be able to rely on what they read and not wonder why after just a glass or two they wake up with a big headache in the morning!

  2. I know of wineries who do the opposite – somewhat OVERSTATE the alcohol level as a way to hint at the “plush, ripe style” (read: over-extracted and clunky). Rules should be changed to require no more than 0.5 percent error.

  3. Well, the lies aren’t really lies if the regs give you a range in which to operate.

    Now, if you want to say that wine laws are archaic and make not a scintilla of sense when taken as a whole…I’ll probably just stipulate and have another glass!


  4. Not breaking out California, (France is broken out in some of the data), is a huge mistake in approach. The climactic differences throughout the state are quite vast

  5. Labeling with the intent of deceiving is a lie; whether it’s legal is a different question.

  6. @Christine,

    Often its a question of having to reprint a label. So to call it lying in all cases is a little misleading. It’s more cost cutting. And for those cases where there is intent, well all marketers are liars®. They’re are all seeking to tell a story. The story just has to be consistent, not necessarily accurate, to be a good strategy. Life in the big city.

  7. Hey Josh:

    I agree that if you have an inaccuracy because labels were printed that’s not a lie because there’s no intent. However, I respectfully disagree that it’s OK for a good marketing proposition to intentionally deceive.

  8. “Understate actual alcohol by at least 0.3 percentage points”

    Wow, this is not really news. This is actually impressive! Go to the TTB website, “a tolerance of 1 percent, in the case of wines containing more than 14 percent of alcohol by volume”.

    This isn’t to scam consumers. It’s because there’s always error in sampling and analysis. A lot of small wineries still use the old school Ebulliometer which is accurate to only +/- 0.5% v/v. We cannot afford to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for an alcolyzer.

    The likely culprit is that labels have a long lead time when ordering. The lab runs the analysis and cranks out a number. Between label production and bottling, alcohol levels are rising in barrel. The lab cannot factor that in to the final answer. There are variables like cellar temperature and humidity to consider.

    I think this is much ado about nothing.

  9. Much ado about nothing indeed. Having run a lab I can tell you that you can put five samples of the same wine through identical analyses and get five different numbers – not hugely different, but different nonetheless. Which is the “real” alcohol level?

    Also, if 57% of the label values are under the measured alcohol level, does that mean 43% of the label values are over? That suggests that the non-systematic error rate is just 7%.

  10. The folks stating that the difference is due to equipment accuracy are wrong. The average wouldn’t be consistently high. It would be the same. Only the deviation would be higher.

    Only very small lots will deviate as much as +/-0.1% during final blending after the label has been ordered.

    In the press, high alcohol levels are very often considered a negative. I’d guess it’s the number one complaint about CA wines. What do you expect a winery to do? The wine tastes great and the reviewer loves it. But, if you put a higher alcohol number on the label you get a lower rating of the wine not because the reviewer can tell the difference, but instead because of simple prejudice. The same is true for a lot of consumers.

    Do you really want the real number or the placebo we have now?

  11. it is unclear from your post wheter understating the alcohol level is a new phenomenon or if it has been so all the while since the earliest samples from 1992. has there been a rise in alcohol levels but the declarations on the labels have remained at the same level as in 1992? if not, why does the author connect this phenomenon with the heat index?

  12. Certainly, this is indeed the case. It is all too easy to send a single bottle of to the laboratory of the local regulatory council, but watered down, and, duely have the entire vintage passed on that one sample.

    As one producer said to me upon seeing my face at the time; ‘I can see I am the first person telling you this’.

  13. […] Tyler Colman (aka Dr. Vino) reports on a new study from the American Association of Wine Economists, which “shows wine labels… understate actual alcohol by at least 0.3 percentage points, on average.”  The researchers examined data from a mind-boggling 129,123 wine samples. They also concluded that “increasing alcohol levels” are the result of “winemaker choice.” W. Blake Gray also comments on the AAWE study. […]

  14. Can we please move on from the alcohol in wine subject? OMG is has been beaten to death. Has anyone ever had a mixed drink? If so, it has 3x the alcohol of a glass of wine. Lets please get over it. Don’t the wine media have anything else to talk about or research?

  15. I own a retail store and greater than 90% of my customers pay no attention to the alcolhol level on the label. When I discuss alcohol level with customers who drink the CA over fruited high alcohol they say “Oh that’s why I always have an alcohol buzz after a glass and sometimes a hangover the next day. I believe alcohol is understated much more than the average .5%. I drink a lot of old world wines and don’t get that alcohol buzz.

  16. @littlerip

    Luckily we don’t have to rely on anecdotal information any longer! 🙂

    We have actual data. And the data says that all wines are under reported on ABV. The reasons *why* aren’t proven, but the math behind the result is clear.

    One of the many reasons why I love data. Folks should produce more of it!

  17. Interesting comments. I have two points to bring up.
    1. How do we know that the liquor control board of Ontario knows how to measure alcohol any better than winemakers?
    2. 0.3% is no biggie. Doing quick math for total alcohol consumed, a bottle of 14.4% alcohol wine would be the same as consuming a bottle and a tablespoon of 14.1% alcohol wine.

  18. Really late on the bandwagon for this story, and yet no matter how many times people in the industry that actually know what is going on explain it to everyone, you still just don’t get it.

    100% label accuracy is currently extremely difficult at best. Label turnaround time can be months. Blends typically aren’t assembled until well after the labels have been ordered for various reasons. The Winemaker/QC/QA person in charge or ordering labels will look at all of the data in the wine tracking software that they use, and calculate as close as possible to the expected final blend alcohol.

    So why is it reported low? BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT THE WINE WRITERS HAVE FORCED ON YOU! Customers want the wine flavors that only come with ripe fruit, but have been convinced through the wine media that higher alcohol levels are a terrible thing. News flash, the weather in California is MUCH warmer than the weather in the grape growing regions in Europe. Our grapes actually get ripe and don’t need added sugar to ferment how we want them. Wines get lower scores solely because of high alcohol content. Positive wine scores = sales because people buy what the Wine Speculator tells them to buy, so what do you think is going to happen?

    I also love the people that think that a 0.5% alcohol difference is going to make any difference in whether or not they get a headache, it’s laughable. That’s right, blame the wine and not the fact that you drank the whole bottle.

    And you really needed some study to figure out that the rising alcohol levels has nothing to do with climate change? Sounds like a typical grad student project.

    So petition the TTB for stricter reporting levels, and go ahead and ask for calorie content, as well as every processing step that was ever involved in the production of that bottle of wine while you are at it. We will comply, and happily pass the added expense on to the consumer.

    I mean, what do you really want? You want the flavors that come from ripe fruit, but at the same time you want lower alcohols. You want more information about how the wine is made, yet scream and rage when you hear terms like ‘watered’, ‘acid adjusted’, ‘tannin added’, ‘de-alcoholized’, ‘concentrate’ and a host of other terms you don’t fully understand. Oh, and make sure the wine gets at least a 90 in the Specualtor and costs less than $25.

    I miss the days when wineries, and Winemakers, were allowed to make wine they way they want to make it, and hope sales are good because other people like it too. Now winery production facilities are led by the sales and marketing teams of corporations that wouldn’t know a good bottle of wine if it was shoved down thier throats.

    Done with my rant, I’ll go take my meds now. 🙂

  19. @josh

    Yes, you are correct, however just passing along real world informal accounts of evidence, just like comments from the wine makers informally indicating they understate alcohol levels for marketing purposes.

  20. Is there not a tax consequence?? I thought there was?

  21. Yes, there is a tax consequence for importers, although the break is at 14%.

    Last year one of my producers wanted me to redo a back label from 14% to 13% because the wine was 13.8%, and in France they’re allowed to round down. She labeled the French stock at 13.5% because she was convinced it would sell better. So the wine writers in France also go for the lower alcohol wines.

  22. That last one should have been a redo to 13.5%, sorry.

  23. It should be noted that the tax issue applies to both imported and domestic wines – tax rate is higher at and above 14%.

  24. […] Wine labels misstate alcohol levels The Weekly Virginia Wine News Roundup: 5-28-11 by Virginia Wine Trips, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Posted under VA wine news roundup,Virginia Wine and tagged with virginia wine, virginia wine blog Comments (0) […]

  25. Right now TTB is claiming 90 days out for label approval. I can vary 1percent either way without having to get new approval for each and every bottling of each label. My current appointment with a mobile bottling company has been rescheduled 3 times waitng on approval. You bet that evey label gets submitted at 15 percent, giving us the leeway of 14 to 16 percent. Given the penalties for mis-stating alcohol we print almost everything at just below 15 percent to get the widest possible legal alcohol (you can’t cross the 14 percent threshold by even less thn .05 percent). The actual amount of alcohol variance in a 750ml bottle is negligble– but you can bet the customer preaidisposition is not… Ask any tasting room employee!

  26. I am with Zeke on this, I mean if you aren’t drinking an entire bottle it works out to one of your glasses was just a touch more generously poured. For those of us drinking at home, I doubt we have masted the perfect “measured pours.”

    For those who drink an entire bottle and wonder why they are hung-over in the morning, I just roll my eyes. Do not get me wrong, I have consumed entire bottles in a night before, sometimes a bit more, but if I feel it the next morning I do not act surprised.

  27. I think some people are missing the point on this. I agree that the little bit more or less alcohol that you consume depending on the alcohol content of the wine does not make much difference, but it has everything to do with the way the wine yields its flavor and is (or it not) balanced, and is (or is not) elegant, open, and true to its varietal type and origins. That’s the real issue, not how you feel the next day.

  28. […] Julian’s findings are not all that shocking. It turns out that none of the winemakers are breaking the law. They are just fudging the numbers a bit. Check out Dr. Vino’s explanation of the study. […]

  29. […] Hmm, not a tough decision for me. Coming from the world of wine, where labeling is mandatory if not always accurate, I’m surprised that not all beers have the abv on the label but that would go a long way in […]


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