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California labelling

There seems to be a long overdue reaction, by critics and consumers, against the dizzying alcohol levels in many wines from California. And if this month’s Californian Cabernet tasting (p77) is anything to go by, producers may even be listening. The worrying thing, however, is that consumers can’t trust what they read on the label.

Below 14%, US regulations permit a variation of 1.5% in stated alcohol levels. Thus a wine labelled 12.5% could have an alcohol level anywhere between 11% and 13.9%. If a wine has over 14%, it enters a different American tax band, and regulations allow just a 1% variation, so the wine you select because of its 14.1% on the label could legally contain 15.1%.

Top Napa winemaker Randy Dunn, whose superb Cabernets never exceed 14%, is incandescent. ‘I’ve had the alcohol levels of some 20 cult wines lab tested. Some wineries have wildly understated the alcohol content. People in restaurants drink them without realising they can be a full degree or two stronger than the label says. Then they drive home and have an accident. Who’s to blame?

Yes, the driver. But also the winery that has deliberately understated the alcohol.’ A Sonoma winemaker, quite independently of Dunn, showed me the results of his own lab tests. Not only were many labels seriously inaccurate, but some were plainly illegal, with wines of 15.8% alcohol labelled as 14.5%.

Why is a highly regulated industry allowed to get away with it? A standard excuse is that many labels are printed before bottling, so wineries have to guess the alcohol. But winemakers know the alcohols once fermentation is over, so it can’t be that hard to get close.

Most wineries age their wines in bottle before labelling and release, so there should be ample time to print accurate labels. Some wineries take a blanket approach. Thus most Duckhorn wines are 14.5%, Flora Springs 14.2%. Yet many wineries are coy about alcohol.

The Bogle Zinfandel labels is printed in type too tiny to be legible. This is by no means atypical. Given the importance of the information, why are wineries so reluctant to impart it? Most wineries are not acting illegally.

But the wine drinking public is being routinely deceived. This is unacceptable. Precision in this area is tricky, and to demand complete veracity would be difficult. But there is flagrant abuse of already lax regulations. The rules should be tightened, and there should be more testing of wines by the authorities to ensure consumers are not denied the information they need in order to act responsibly.

Stephen Brook is a Decanter contributing editor, and USA Regional Chair at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Written by Stephen Brook

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