Alcohol Levels and Wine


Have the alcohol levels in wine gotten too high? And, just what is too high? It’s a controversial subject, and one with many opinions about its relevance in today’s wines. Some say it doesn’t matter at all – “it’s just a number.” Others counter that it takes away from the wine itself, and hastens inebriation. How and why has this become a factor, and does it really matter, or is this a tempest in a wine glass?

Join us as we talk with Bartholomew Broadbent about the steady increase in alcohol levels in wine – its causes and its effects.

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Show #240
(43:33 min 30MB)

24 Responses to “Alcohol Levels and Wine”

  1. 1 Tim Meranda Jun 29th, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Your guest implies that it is 15% wine that gets people drunk too easily and therefore should be discouraged. Functionally this isn’t the case. Assuming a 160 pound adult two drinks of 12% wine consumed relatively quickly should result in a BAC of .05 to .06. Switching to two drinks of the 15% brew would result in a BAC of approximately .0625 to .075 still legal in most states and the UK for example. It takes a 3rd drink of either the 12% or the 15% to put this person over the .08 limit. Two drinks sober, three drinks drunk.

    As the guest prefers, drinking ½ a bottle of white before changing to the red, IS easily equal to dinking the two gin and tonics he uses in his illustration. As one of the panel points out there are a lot of variables that affect this function, and simply blaming the 15% content is an oversimplification

  2. 2 Rusty Gaffney MD Jun 30th, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Hi Tim

    Being a retired physician, I have studied the alcohol issue in some depth and performed breathalyzer experiments on myself. I weigh 175 lbs. I drank 5 oz of wine (a “standard” drink) over 10 mins – waited 20 mins and then measured my blood alc using a professional breathalyzer. Then I drank 2nd glass over 10 mins – waited 20 mins and repeated. One 5 oz drink of wine fully enters the blood in one hour and takes one hour to be filtered out by the liver but this will vary with height and weight and a number of other factors. For these tests I had an empty stomach, was sedate, same time each day. All wines were Pinot Noir. Of course these alc levels were not confirmed by a lab but were stated percentages on label.

    12.0% alc wine: 30 mins .04, 1 hour .07.
    12.5% alc. wine: 30 mins .04, 1 hour .07
    13.5% alc. wine: 30 mins .05, 1 hour .07
    15.0% alc. wine: 30 mins .08, 1 hour .10

    I have more data at these and other alc levels but this has been the consistent outcome.

    A couple of years ago I found the following with 4 oz drink and similar protocol:

    12.5% alc wine: 30 mins -.03. 1 hour .05
    13.9% alc wine: 30 mins – .04, 1 hour .07
    14.5% alc wine: 30 mins .04, 1 hour .07
    15.1% alc wine: 30 mins .05, 1 hour .08
    15.8% alc wine: 30 mins .06, 1 hour .10

    Remember, when a label says 15%, chances are the alc percentage is above 15% (1% variance allowed).

    Conclusion: There is a noticeable increase in blood alcohol level when imbibing wine at or above 15% alcohol with legal intoxication occurring within one hour after two drinks. 8 oz of 12.5% wine supplies 1.0 oz of alcohol, while 8 oz of 15.8% wine supplies 1.30 oz or 25% more alcohol. I am currently performing same experiments on women and expect the findings to show even higher blood alcohol levels at every step of measurement due to the 50% reduction in alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) in the stomach of premenopausal women.

    Really, anyone who drinks wine regularly will notice a striking intoxication difference at an hour when drinking a European wine at 12% for example and a California wine with stated 15% alcohol.

    BTW there is now an App for the iPhone that measures blood alcohol level and warns the drinker if .08 us exceeded. Great little device

    One drink sober, two drinks potentially legally intoxicated if wine is above 15%!

    Rusty Gaffney MD

  3. 3 GrapeRadio Bunch Jun 30th, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for the stats, Rusty. One would logically think that an increase in ABV would also translate to a potential higher level of inebriation, and your numbers would seem to bear this out. And yet, there are lots of people who cite other statistics in support of the thought that this minor increase in ABV is so infantesimally small as to be meaningless. How could two sides be so far apart!

    Homer: Every time I learn something new, it pushes out something old! Remember that time I took a home wine-making course and forgot how to drive?
    Marge: That’s because you were drunk!
    Homer: And how!


  4. 4 GrapeRadio Bunch Jun 30th, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Rusty, we cant trust your numbers because you were drinking at the time. 🙂


  5. 5 Tyler McAfee Jun 30th, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    It should be noted that although there is a 1 or 1.5% allowed variance in labelling, there is a 14% labelling barrier that can’t be crossed. For example, a wine with 14.8% ABV can legally be labelled 14.1%, but it can not be labelled 13.9%.

  6. 6 Tim Meranda Jul 1st, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Rusty very interesting data. I went back to my source, BAC charts from Virinia Tech, to double check my math and it was correct. In fact they calculate a .01% decrease every 40 minutes after drinking, while you show the BAC rising after an hour. Did you take any measurments after the 1 hour period?

  7. 7 Rusty Gaffney MD Jul 1st, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I have done measurements at 1.5 hours after start or 30 mins after the second reading and in every case, the alcohol level returns to the reading at 30 mins or the equivalent blood alcohol level after 1 standard drink. ie a 13.5% wine: 1 drink .04 at 30 mins, 2 drinks .06 at 1 hour, 1.5 hrs after start back to .04. This is consistent with what I have read that indicates the alcohol is absorbed within 1 hour and eliminated within another hour. I would bet if I tested at 2 hours the reading would be close to 0.

  8. 8 GrapeRadio Bunch Jul 2nd, 2009 at 6:03 am

    Rusty, I am 54, 5′ 9″, 185 lbs. If I drink 1 2oz pour of wine (Zinfandel) every 10 minutes, how long before I start making a complete fool of myself? 🙂

  9. 9 Tim Meranda Jul 2nd, 2009 at 6:21 am

    Thats not a fair question. Rusty would say that you already have made a fool of yourself by drinking any Zinfandel at all.

  10. 10 GrapeRadio Bunch Jul 2nd, 2009 at 10:26 am

    You know Rusty so well Tim.

    Eric would say that I do not need any drinks to make a fool out of myself


  11. 11 Tom Altmayer Jul 2nd, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Nice to hear Brian back on the show, I hope he’s doing well.

  12. 12 GrapeRadio Bunch Jul 2nd, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Happy to be back. =-)


  13. 13 Edward Mitchell Jul 7th, 2009 at 4:24 am

    I was intrigued by Bartholomew Broadbent’s statement that one bottle of California red might have the same alcohol content as one bottle of French red PLUS 2 vodka tonics. But this claim is in fact supported by the math:

    One bottle of wine = 26.4 oz.

    Alochol in one btl of Fr red (assume 12.5% alcohol) = 3.30 oz.
    Alcohol in one btl of CA red (assume 15.5% alchol) = 4.09 oz.

    Difference = 0.79 oz of alcohol

    Alcohol in one vodka tonic (1 oz Grey Goose @ 80 proof) = 0.4 oz.

    Conclusion: The alcohol difference between the CA and Fr red would equate to 1.98 vodka tonics. Of course, the calculations are influenced by the assumed alcoholic content of the wine, and the amount of vodka used in mixing the vodka tonic. But the point is made.

  14. 14 GrapeRadio Bunch Jul 7th, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Edward, I got a “D” in high school math, and now I regret about not studying harder. This was very cool of you to post.


  15. 15 Doug Smith Jul 7th, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Great comments here, thanks. Also want to echo Tom’s comment — really nice to have Brian back on the show.

  16. 16 mparnell Jul 7th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    First off, another great podcast as always guys. I thought this one was particularly interesting though as I had this same discussion with a friend not too long ago. Personally, as long as the wine still tastes great I don’t see whats the big deal between 12% and 14% (though I will have to admit I do have more low Alcohol wines in my collection).

  17. 17 Ben Jul 8th, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Did Mr. Broadbent say that people used to consume 50% of their calories as alcoholic beverages? I know that people used to drink a lot more before the 20th century, but that seems like an impossibly high average.

    Thanks for the great show – an instant classic!

  18. 18 Victor Cantarella Jul 11th, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    Are you sure that most people can’t tell the difference between a 13% and a 14.5%? I think it’s pretty evident. Why do you think the way that you do?

    Victor C.

  19. 19 Rusty Gaffney MD Jul 12th, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Hi Victor

    I agree that if people pay attention they will notice even a 1.5-2% diff in wine alcohol after a couple of glasses esp women.

    Be a guinea pig. Get a bottle of 13% Pinot and 14.5-15.0% Pinot. Drink a couple of 5 oz pours of each on separate days. I guarantee you, your wife will look a lot better after drinking the 15% Pinot and I also guarantee you that you will feel a lot better about life than the day before when you drank that 13% Pinot. Just don’t go out for a drive after 10oz-12oz of 15% Pinot. Remember, when the label says 13%, the wine is probably 13%. But when the label says 15%, the wine most likely is 15.5% or more (1% error allowed above 14%).


  20. 20 Rusty Gaffney MD Jul 12th, 2009 at 7:50 pm


    Broadbent was referring to the Irish


  21. 21 Seth Aug 4th, 2009 at 8:14 am

    A bit late to the conversation here, but I just listened to the podcast yesterday. I have to concur with Mr. Broadbent here. I don’t like getting wasted after a bottle. I can notice a HUGE difference (both in taste and my intoxication level) between wine in the 12% range vs. something closer to 15%. Personally over the years I’ve started to specifically look at the alcohol levels on a bottle before buying a bottle – and therefore lately I’ve mostly been drinking European wines.

    I’m also a health-conscious person, and I think the health factor definitely comes into play here. Why should people have to sacrifice their health to be able to enjoy a bottle of wine on a regular basis? As one gets older (as someone mentioend in the podcast), it’s definitely harder to drink as much without feeling the effects more strongly, and (I’m sure) impacting one’s health.

    It’s good to see you guys bring up the issue – I’ve been waiting for this actually. 🙂

  22. 22 Rusty Gaffney MD Aug 7th, 2009 at 9:30 pm


    I agree completely. The health benefits from wine stem from moderation as has been shown in many studies in peer-reviewed scientific literature. For men this is 2 or at most 3 drinks per day and for women 1, or at most 2 drinks per day. A drink is defined as 5 oz of 12% alcohol wine. If you are drinking a 15+ to 16% alcohol wine, you must limit yourself to 1 glass to receive the health benefits and what fun is that?

    The age issue is interesting because as women age, they develop more ADH in their stomach post-menopause so they can actually process alcohol better. It has been hinted at in a number of studies that older people can drink a little more and receive the same health benefits without harmful effects. That said, as you age, it would seem that the central nervous system effects are more pronounced with age leading to more pronounced loss of inhibitions and coordination at lower levels of alcohol intake.

  23. 23 Randy Holliday Aug 24th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    I just finished listening to the podcast. Sorry it took so long.

    I echo the “welcome back” to Brian. And, I really liked and related to this topic. For whatever reasons, I am finding that I am paying more and more attention to the alcohol level of the wines I drink. I am convinced, for my own palate, that wines with stated alcohol levels above 15% generally just don’t light my fire. I seek food friendly wines, and at our table, stuff in the 12-upper 14% consistently seem to give us the most pleasure.

    Given that data point, I am working through the current cellar to simply weed out the upper range stuff. And, as I buy more, the alcohol percentage becomes a factor in every buying decision.

    Count my vote in favor of Mr. Broadbent’s campaign. I would love to see the percentages in buying guides, reviews, wine lists, etc.

  24. 24 David Rapoport Mar 7th, 2010 at 10:37 am

    I’m quite late to this thread.
    Clearly the health questions and implications are important. One reason why I think that the trend they have the UK of putting units of alcohol on bottles as well abv is useful – the concept of n glasses of wine per day is pretty useless given the variation in %s.
    That aside, I truly think that higher abv wines are genuinely a crime against “place” or “terroir”, not to mention grape. When I taste, side by side, different vineyard releases of, say, Kosta-Browne or Loring or Martinelli or…, they are all so grossly the same, showing no real character of each site. Contrast that with Littorai or recent Copain releases, and each vineyard’s character shines through.
    As a consumer, with no financial stake in any winery (other than the hard earned $$ that I spend on their wines), I find the Kosta-Brownes and Martinellis and Turleys of the world are ruining the wonderful terroir that we have here in CA. To my taste, the fact that they make single vineyard wines is a joke: all the wines taste of heat and intense grape extraction. Truly crimes against terroir
    Never mind what the Michelle Rollands are doing to the wines of France
    One hopes that the trend truly starts to reverse.

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