Many a wine consumer has tasted a wine and then looked at the alcohol level and thought, “That doesn’t seem right.” There are many reasons why that suspicion might be correct.

Wines fourteen percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and under are allowed a 1.5% margin of error – provided the alcohol content does not exceed 14%. Wines over 14% are allowed a margin of error of 1%. In other words, a wine listed at 15% alcohol may be as high as 16% without running afoul of the feds. For this reason alone, there is a good chance that the percentage listed on the label is not entirely accurate. There are other reasons.

Wineries sometimes have their labels made before they have their final ABV numbers. There’s no problem with this – as long as the final alcohol level is within the allowable margin of error. However, if the level is beyond the margin of error, sometimes wineries don’t pay to make new labels. I first noticed this happening when I saw discrepancies between technical sheet and label information.

Some wineries seem to just put the same number on the label every time on every wine (14.5%!) year after year. Presumably, what is on the label is close enough to the actual ABV level so who cares? Doing otherwise means getting new labels made. I recently tried a lineup of wines from a winery where every wine had the exact same alcohol level listed. What are the chances?

Taxation is also an important consideration. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) taxes wine at 14% ABV and under at $1.07 per gallon; wine over 14% is taxed $1.57 per gallon. Wineries therefore have a financial incentive to label their wines below 14% ABV. Do some try to take advantage of this? No idea, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

I also have a suspicion that some wineries like to err on the side of listing lower ABV levels than what is actually in the bottle. I have tried numerous wines where I thought the percent alcohol was considerably higher than what was listed. Though that is only anecdotal, I know several winemakers who have sampled a bottle of wine, seen the alcohol level listed, and subsequently tested the wine and found that the ABV was considerably higher than what was listed (and not necessarily within the margin of error).

Are some wineries consciously listing a lower alcohol percentage than what is actually in the bottle? Alcohol levels in Washington State and elsewhere have increased dramatically over the last ten years. Are wineries willing to own up to these ABV levels or do they fear a consumer or critical backlash? I don’t know, but, anecdotally, there seems to be many wines that have higher alcohol levels than what they have listed.

How widespread are these issues? I have no idea frankly. I expect that larger wineries are more exact with their ABV numbers than smaller wineries both because they have better equipment and because they have more to lose if they are in error. Presumably these wineries are also more likely to have their wines checked by the TTB, although I have no idea how frequently these types of checks are done.

Personally, I am of the opinion that the alcohol level printed on a wine label can be useful information, whether saying something about the potential crispness of a riesling or the opulence of a cabernet. I would love to see the labels accurately portray what is in the bottle. But, for now, look at those labels with some skepticism. Many times the numbers listed are not exact.