While writing about the proposed wine nutrition labels, I once again wondered about the existing alcohol content labeling. The current "standard" is based on an international agreement that allows wine bottlers more or less complete flexibility in where and how to list the wine's alcohol content. Considering the creativity that goes into many wine labels, flexibility is a good thing - there's no need to put a fixed-size message like tobacco health warnings just to let someone know that their Merlot is 13% alcohol.
What I do wonder, though, is why some winemakers go to such great lengths to conceal this information. Not long after I started doing my little wine reviews, I began posting the alchohol content for each wine tasted. This forced me to find that information on the bottle. I was amazed that on some bottles I was nearly unable to locate the alcohol statement, even after scanning the label several times. In some cases, I had to examine the label under bright light to find that the maker had included the alcohol content in miniscule, light gray type, running vertically along the edge of the label. Lest one think that the vintner was concerned about destroying an attractive bottle design, I should make it clear that all of these bottles had other, far easier to read text content - the name and location of the winery and/or importer, a description of the wine, tasting notes. etc. The only text that got the special invisibility treatment was the alcohol data.
The part that strikes me as odd is that the alcohol content of most wines differs by a percent or two at most - it's certainly not a differentiating factor from a purchaser standpoint, i.e., nobody is going to pick a 13.5% Cabernet Sauvignon vs. a 13% because they expect more of a buzz. Likewise, nobody trying to avoid alcohol would select the 13% Cab based on its miniscule difference in potency.
Buyers may find the alcohol content a bit useful, but mostly in evaluating what a wine is likely to taste like. If I see a Zinfandel labeled at 14.9%, I expect a bigger, bolder wine than a Pinot Noir labeled at a couple of percent less... but neither value, in and of itself, means much. Still, it's irritating when wineries obfuscate this information to the degree that some do.
Are winemakers just being ornery in resisting the requirement to publish alcohol content on the label? "We'll do it if we have to, but by golly we'll do it in a way that nobody can find it!" Is there another reason? Post a comment with your opinion...