Chow Town

With less regulation, it’s hard to know what the alcohol level is in a given wine

A new federally funded cellphone app allows people who may have had one too many to get an idea just how drunk they are — and hail a ride home.
A new federally funded cellphone app allows people who may have had one too many to get an idea just how drunk they are — and hail a ride home. KRT

Have the alcohol levels in wine been rising for the last few years?

The numbers are conclusive: 30 years ago, typical California wines had 12 to 14 percent alcohol. Today they are more likely to be 14 or 15 percent, an increase of 10 to 20 percent in the potency of a glass of wine.

For some that insist that today’s riper wines are stronger and therefore more likely to age, I offer this minor piece of evidence: a bottle of Girard 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon.

I don’t keep much in the way of older California wine, but I have a few such bottles around if only to prove that California was once built of slimmer stuff. The alcohol level on the Girard 1984 was unspecified. The term “table wine” has been allowed for decades to mean any wine that is 12.5 to 14 percent in alcohol. My best guess is that the Girard Cabernet was just over 14 percent.

You might be surprised to discover that the labeling rules on alcohol are a bit lax. Last year, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department admitted that it was unable to test the alcohol levels of any of the 25,000 to 35,000 wines that are sold in the U.S. market annually.

So alcohol levels are no longer what they appear to be. I have tasted wines listed as 14.5 percent that strike me as closer to 16 percent. The TTB has more or less admitted that such things happen, and that they are not staffed sufficiently to track any such violations. Everyone is on the honor system now.

That’s a shame because tax collection rates are based on alcohol levels. By reducing regulatory oversight, Congress has reduced tax collections.

Maybe that’s irrelevant to this wine — maybe that Girard was more than 14 percent, maybe it wasn’t. But it was delicious. It had cedar, cassis and a touch of green pepper. That may not sound delicious to you, but Cabernet has a peppery side to it and when it’s properly balanced by rich fruit, it can be exciting. This wine was.

Sure, it was on its last legs, I suppose, but for a good hour, that wine seemed balanced and pretty and reminiscent of a time when alcohol levels were just a bit gentler.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.