The indispensable tool for the Massachusetts adult beverage trade.

Single Blog Title

This is a single blog caption

Alcohol Content Keeps Soaring

your position in this industry – wholesaler, retailer,
restaurateur – it’s likely that you see bottles of wine on a
daily basis. But when was the last time you took a close
look at the alcohol content listed on the side of a bottle,
particularly one from California? It just might surprise
you. As California wineries continue to produce big, hearty
wines, alcohol content is steadily climbing. This increase
is due to an elevated “hang time” of grapes that is extended
so as to produce a fuller, richer flavor. This may sound
well and good but it is not without a catch. The longer the
grapes are left on the vine, the more sugar they generate.
During fermentation this translates into higher alcohol
content, sometimes upwards of a staggering 18% (the average
falls between 12 and 14%). Although a fair number of these
potent wines make it to market, some vineyards are choosing
to add water (a practice known as “watering back”) to their
wines in order to keep their alcohol levels in check. Under
normal circumstances, watering down any type of alcohol is
considered a grave sin, but in this case it’s an
increasingly common, and arguably effective,

So, is this all
a big deal? Although some in the industry say no, others
raise the caution flag on a number of fronts. It can
certainly be argued that vintners should be able to do what
they need to, without scrutiny, to achieve the desired
results – whether by adding water, or performing scientific
wizardry that sounds like it’s out of an advanced chemistry
class. Conversely, there are long-established standards and
regulations in the wine industry that cannot simply be
ignored or sidestepped. The question is: are these
winemaking techniques affecting the industry -either
positively or negatively – and ultimately, the consumer? A
variety of experts, from vintners to importers have weighed
in with their thoughts and commentary on these two growing


Although high alcohol wines and watering back techniques
exist around the world, the current focus is mainly on
California. Noted wine expert Leslie Sbrocco, author of Wine
for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing and Sharing Wine, had
this to say on the subject of some West Coast wines’ alcohol
content: “Many of them are too high, but California is not
the only culprit. It’s simply not enjoyable to drink, you
feel like you’ve been kicked in the head.” Sbrocco also
notes that when grapes are ultra-ripe the wines seem to lose
their distinctiveness. She does however offer a solution of
sorts. “You can put off having higher alcohol levels if the
wine is balanced and well made. I find myself gravitating
towards wine styles with lower alcohol,” says Sbrocco. Bill
Russell, a winemaker from Westport Rivers Vineyard in
Westport, Massachusetts, offered a viewpoint concerning
regions. “The dilemma is that we’ve always, as American
consumers, bought into the idea that the perfect place to
grow grapes is California. It’s a good place to grow grapes;
the perfect places are few and far between,” says Russell.
He also opines that in California the grapes need hang time
in order to develop flavor in the fruit and lipins in the
tannins. Of course, this begs the question: Should wines be
grown in a region where they need to actually be overripe to
get the desired flavor?


The practice of adding water to wine during fermentation is
not new but it is generally done in a “hush hush” manner.
Although it’s being used for balance purposes, it still has
a negative stigma attached to it akin to watering down
bourbon in order to cheat the customer. In California it is
mainly the younger, innovative winemakers who tend to be
vocal, outspoken proponents of industry acceptance. Also,
wine is taxed according to how much alcohol is in it so
there’s some financial motivation. So what is the expert
take on the issue of adding water to wine? Bill Russell
doesn’t see any problem: “I think if the end product is good
and that’s what they need to do then you know – it’s just
water – it’s not like they’re adding the flavor,” he says.
Author Leslie Sbrocco is also fine with vintners adding
water, provided it doesn’t affect the ultimate taste and
quality – though she does think it’s worth keeping tabs on.
“It’s a fairly normal practice but it gets to be a bad habit
if winemakers’ mentality is that they’ll use the overly ripe
fruit and then water it back,” she says. Sbrocco points out
that this can lead to a really unbalanced product. Neil
Deininger, the New England Regional Manager for TGIC Wine
Importers questions the practice. “I certainly don’t think
it’s the best thing to do, I think less interference is a
better thing,” he says, adding that he was a little
surprised to hear California wine producers are doing it. On
the retail front, John Stephanski from Bauer Wines on
Newbury Street says that, although he hasn’t heard much in
the way of adding water to wine, he does have something to
say on the subject: “It seems that winemakers have at their
disposal a variety of techniques to modify or alter their
final outcome. I understand that historically winemakers
have sometimes added water to reduce high levels of
acidity”. He also offered up a quick history lesson and says
that according to the Romans, it was considered downright
barbaric not to add water to one’s serving of


Wine making is quite regulated in California, which comes as
no surprise. A visit to the California Department of Health
Services website paid dividends in the form of Title 17,
Chapter 5, Article 14 of the California Administrative Code
which is “Wine Standards and Prohibited Practices”. This
pertains directly to the usage of both sugar and water. It
states that: “no water in excess of the minimum amount
necessary to facilitate normal fermentation may be used in
the production or cellar treatment of any grape wine.”
Essentially, it is a solution for “stuck fermentation”, a
term for what happens when the sugar doesn’t convert to
alcohol. Although the decision to add water is left to the
discretion of the winemaker, it’s generally only advocated
in situations where the vintage is at risk due to the sugar
levels. As to whether this is being seriously regulated, or
for that matter enforced, is hard to say. Research didn’t
reveal any hard evidence either way – meaning it is either
flying underneath the radar or has not provoked any whistle
blowing. In Europe adding water is considered to be nothing
less than fraud and is quite illegal, although many
winemakers do it out of necessity to save their

So what’s
the chatter on a retail level about alcohol content?
Stephanski with Bauer Wines weighed in. As far as the
overall subject of alcohol content in wine, he does note a
small level of concern from his customers and estimated that
perhaps 1O% of them do inquire about it. “These people will
specifically ask if there is an alcohol flavor and what the
percentage is. Some consumers will dismiss certain varietals
and wine producing regions,” he says. According to
Stephanski, Zinfandel, for example, has historically
contained a high level of alcohol that typically adds to the
appeal and uniqueness. But he also sees the downside,
saying, “As these levels increase in some wines, it is
overpowering the fruit this creating an unbalanced wine that
is unrestrained, clunky and impossible to match with any
food.” Some consolation can be taken in the fact that once
the bottle is opened on a high alcohol content wine there is
a certain amount of settling in which the alcohol flavor, to
use Stephanski’s term, “blows off”. “But once a consumer has
an initial taste they sometimes can’t move on,” he adds.
Time will have to tell if consumers will start asking more
not only at their local wine shop but also in a restaurant
setting before making their decision of what wine to

The issue
is a multi-faceted one. While it is not at a critical point
just yet, it doesn’t seem likely to stop anytime soon. “The
industry needs to be aware that this could become a greater
issue if the alcohol levels continue to increase,” says
Stephanski. “As soon as it begins to interfere with people
enjoyment of wine then there is a problem. People want
approachable, easy to enjoy wines, but overall, they must be
balanced,” he surmises. According to Deininger, people drink
their wine of choice and the amount of alcohol it contains
really isn’t taken into consideration all that much. As for
the practice of adding water during fermentation to achieve
the desired results is becoming more prevalent. The bottom
line will always be taste. However it is clearly worth
keeping an eye on alcohol levels as the “hangtime” of grapes
out west continues. The Golden State certainly offers plenty
of long days and sunshine but one has to wonder, could it be
too much of a good thing? There is one thing we can all
agree on and that is the simple desire for a good glass of
wine to enjoy at our table that won’t put us under it.


you’re aware of the new kid on the block vying for
a spot, even a small one, on the playground.
Beringer’s White Lie, Early Season is an early
season chardonnay that was created by, and is
targeted to, women. It uses early season grapes and
claims to be a crisp, fruity wine that is low in
both calories and alcohol content and is geared for
everyday drinking. I checked in with Leslie Sbrocco
to get her thoughts on whether White Lie had the
makings of an official trend. “I don’t see this as
a trend. There are wines naturally low in alcohol
so it’s just a matter of seeking out those if you
want substantially lower alcohol (8 to 9%),” she
says. Sbrocco also forecasts a future where things
will level out. “I see the trend as wines
ultimately coming back into balance and settling,
maybe not into the old standard of 12 % but
hopefully lower than the highs of today.” Sbrocco
is also well aware of the fact that the customers
will be the driving force. “We’ll get to the point
where alcohol is overdone and consumers will demand
less. It’s already happening, so we’ll see.” While
TGIC Wine Importers’ Neil Deininger wouldn’t
personally buy this wine he does note that there is
likely a market for it. John Stephanski with Bauer
Wines is aware of White Lie but questions its
long-term success. “I’m sure there is a segment of
the market that seeks this out, just like the
people who are looking for low carb beer and
spirits. However I’ve only been asked about this
wine on one or two occasions,” he says. He also
thinks it may be a novelty and most people either
don’t care enough about alcohol content or will
take the time to ask or look at the label. Check
out White Lie for yourself at