PHOENIX — Whether you like red wines or whites, you should know: hidden on the bottle you’re buying is a white lie. A study published in the Journal of Wine Economics found that of the more than 91,000 bottles tested from all over the world, the vast majority inaccurately listed the alcohol content. In most cases, 57.1 percent, the bottles were boozier than their labels said. Another 32.2 percent of the bottles contained less alcohol than listed.
“Those of us that have been in the business forever — I’ve been doing this for over 20 years — we all know. It may say 14.1 percent, 14.2 percent, but most likely it could be 14.6 percent to 14.8 percent,” said Scott Yanni, partner and general manager of 5th and Wine in Scottsdale.
The study found winemakers have been systematically misreporting the alcohol content figure for decades. On average, wines were off by less than half a percentage point.
That’s perfectly legal. In the U.S., wines with less than 14 percent alcohol by volume can be off by 1.5 percent; wines with more than the 14 percent threshold can be off by 1 percent.
“A lot of that may be you printed 10,000 labels. You’ve got four tanks. So there may be just a slight variance within each tank,” said winemaker Cory Whalin of Su Vino Winery, also in Scottsdale.
But there are also marketing reasons to play with the alcohol figure, both Whalin and Yanni said. Even though most consumers largely choose their wine by varietal, vineyard or region, alcohol content does factor into the decision-making process of some buyers.
Savvy wine consumers often have an expectation about the alcohol content that certain types of grape should produce, and deviating from that figure could be a turnoff, Yanni said.
“If I see a Pinot Noir that’s 14.5 percent alcohol or higher to me, it tells me the winemaker chose to blend it with something to give it more body or change the color or alter it,” Yanni said. “It’s not a true expression of the grape.”
Experts say many consumers prefer wines that are less alcoholic. However, wines with bolder, more intense flavors are in vogue. One way to satisfy those often-competing desires: scale back the listed alcohol content.
The study authors suggest another possible incentive for under-reporting alcohol content: taxes. In the U.S., the federal excise tax rate increases $.50 per gallon on wines over 14 percent alcohol.
However, Whalin of Su Vino Winery said that’s a risky strategy, one he doesn’t believe many wineries would attempt.
“If the federal government were to come in — and the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] does audit wineries – and they find that you’ve said it’s a 13.5 on your label and it’s a 14 percent, they’re now going to go back and tax you and penalize you.”