The more alcoholic California wines become, the less likely consumers are to notice their increased potency before they actually taste the fire in the glass. For example, our dinner tonight was accompanied by a modest California pinot noir - slim, supple, pleasantly engaging, whispering sweetly about its noble bloodline, but not about to cause a sensation at the table by bragging loudly about pedigree and complexity. Despite its reserve, however, it was fairly high in alcohol for the varietal, weighing in at 14.2 percent by volume. At least, that's what I think the label said. A tastevin is fitting at the table, a magnifying glass not so much.
For whatever reason - guilt? deception? typographical artistry? - the more alcohol a California wine carries these days, the smaller that disclosure on the label. I'm just back in California from Mexico, where wines both domestic and imported fairly shout their alcohol content in loud, bold type; no magnifying glass is needed at dinnertime in Mexico. Someone in the Mexican wine trade told me that the large-print disclosures are delegated by government authorities as a hopeful means of combatting alcohol abuse.
Government officials in the United States may be no less concerned about alcohol abuse, but they are more conservative in requiring wineries to disclose the alcohol content of their releases. Here, the fine print on wine labels really couldn't be much finer. Wine-label rules in the U.S. stipulate that the alcohol content appear in typeface of at least one millimeter, that it be offset against a contrasting background, and that it be readily legible under ordinary conditions, which, I suspect, doesn't factor in the subdued lighting favored by many restaurants.
By and large, California wineries may be living by the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit. The size of the type that wineries use today to disclose alcohol content not only often pushes the boundaries of what is allowed, the contrast between the boldness of the typeface and its background, an admittedly ambiguous standard, nevertheless seems to be embraced only rarely. More wine-label laws aren't needed, but if wineries don't take it upon themselves to be more transparent in their dealings with consumers that could be the consequence.