What does “% ABV” on my Wine’s label mean?

Winemakers are required by federal and state laws to list the alcohol level of a wine on the wine’s label. And “% ABV” stands for percentage alcohol by volume. Since wine labels get printed before final alcohol levels can be measured, California laws permit some leeway on the stated alcohol level.


If your wine’s label states 14% ABV or less, the allowed variance is 1.5%, and if the label states 14.1% ABV or higher, the allowed variance is 1%. So, a wine labeled 14% ABV can be as high as 15.5% or as low as 12.5% and a wine labeled 12.5% ABV can be as low as 11% and as high as 14%, while a wine labeled 14.1% ABV can be as high as 15.1% and as low as 13.1%.


Too much math? Nevermind. If you like the wine then enjoy it. Cheers!


Do you have a question on wine, submit it to us at


Linda Flemins, CL Keedy, Wine Education Committee


Pairing Wine Education and Fun Since 1978

In my nearly 40 years in the wine industry, and 37 years with the Orange County Wine Society, I have seen many changes in the industry and with our organization. Some members say we are a social club that gets together to drink wine, while others point to our educational contribution to the wine industry with our competitions, educational wine events and scholarship donations. I say these are not mutually exclusive categories and the OCWS has been pairing wine education and fun since 1978. And we do it well!

When I first joined the organization in my early 20s, I looked up to the experienced members who ran amazing wine events throughout the year such as the monthly winery programs, the wine competitions and the OCWS “booths” at the OC Fair. The main location was at the end of our old trailer, and the second location was upstairs in the corner of the Flower and Garden building.

Making Connections

At the Commercial Competition, we had fewer varietal categories, significantly less wine to move and lots of strong young members to move it. It was at these events that I first met winemakers like Carol Shelton, Kent Rosenblum, Jerry Lohr, Gary Eberle, Dave Cofrane and Jim Prager, to name a few, and learned more about the exploding California wine industry. We have lost many of our beloved founding members and winemaker friends over the years but our organization remains strong with younger generations and winemakers joining us in our mission.

Wine Extraordinaire

Between the 1980s and early 2000s, OCWS was the star of the wine universe in the OC, hosting mega-tastings called the Wine Extraordinaire (boutique wineries) and the Wine Classic (winners from the competition). Hundreds of people would flock to the Anaheim Hilton to taste varietals from more than 100 wineries and 20 to 30 local restaurants. We had to rent one of the largest ballrooms in the county just to accommodate the size of the event.

These were amazing tastings with more wines than one could taste in a day… although many people gave it their best shot! Alas, the word got out that wine tasting was a great way to raise money and many organizations started using the wine-tasting format to support their efforts. I have yet to see a wine tasting in the OC since that has had that number of wineries but with so many great causes competing with us in the wine-tasting arena, we no longer hold these events. The last Wine Extraordinaire was in 2015.

Tasting on the Road

In addition to hosting local events, OCWS members have traveled the state by car or bus and the globe by cruise ship with organized trips and tastings over the years. Sometimes we’ve had 50 to 100 people going to wineries at the same time or over the same weekend.

I can recall one trip to Sonoma during barrel tasting weekend where one of our members discovered a new winery that had just opened its doors that weekend. The breakfast room was abuzz the next morning as members shared their notes from great finds the day before. By the end of the weekend, most of us had visited that new winery and joined their wine club.

One of the things I love about this organization is its support for the smaller wineries as well as the large wineries.

OCWS Successes

OCWS has so much to be proud of as an organization, from celebrating our 47th year hosting the OC Fair wine competitions to donating over $780,000 in scholarships to eight California colleges and universities. Most recently, we instituted the Limited Production Winery Program for our competition to help smaller wineries enter the competition and be recognized.

Our efforts reach the public during the OC Fair through our educational and fun programming with tastings of award-winning wines to featured winery programs where the public get to meet the winemakers in person to the popular wine seminars that take a deeper dive into a particular type of wine or wine and food pairings.

Since its inception, OCWS has grown significantly. As long as I can remember, we have been hovering around 1,000 members, but the organization started with just a small group of home winemakers in the early 1970s. While many nonprofit organizations suffered greatly during the pandemic, OCWS tightened its financial belt, paused membership dues and temporarily moved their educational content online. We weathered the storm and now have over 1,000 members going into this year’s OC Fair, our biggest recruitment time, so we are on track to grow to our largest membership by August.

Getting Involved

As an all-volunteer member organization, we rely on our members to put on amazing events and spread the word about our organization. I highly recommend becoming an OCWS ambassador by letting wineries know you are a society member when you visit them, taking photos of our ribbons and medals at the wineries and posting them on social media, supporting them by purchasing wine and promoting all that our organization does.

There are so many ways to get involved from volunteering at events or for work parties, volunteering for a committee or just attending one of our many events! It is through our amazing membership that we have been able to thrive over the past 45 years. It is through our members that we have been successful in pairing wine education and fun since 1978!

Carolyn Christian, OCWS Vice President and Historian

Wines of Alba, Italy—Close to Home!

we love to travel. This past October, less than five months after our quasi-world cruise, we were at it again, this time back in Northwestern Italy where Manuela was born – in the region known as Piemonte, or Piedmont for the English speakers. And, of course, our travels would not be complete without a trip to a few wineries.

About an hour and a half south of Ivrea, now our second home, and south of Turin, are two cities – Alba and Asti. Surrounding Alba are the two well-known Italian AVAs, Barolo and Barbaresco. We stayed near Alba to see the sights but also to visit three outstanding wineries that produce wines from these AVAs.

Some more background for you. Italy has some very specific rules and standards that are set for its AVAs that assures both quality and distinct characteristics to be found in the specific AVA. You know them as DOC and DOCG. I will spare you from the Italian, but the later – DOCG – implies the highest quality and distinction. And in all of Italy, Piemonte has the greatest number of DOCs, 37, and DOCGs, 18, than any other Italian region, more than the famous Tuscan region. I will get into this more as I talk about the three wineries, but one example of the regional requirements is that there can only be natural irrigation of the vines, regardless of the climate and weather. The three wineries that we visited, adhere to that requirement, producing Barolo and Barbaresco DOC and DOCG wines.

Something else I want to share with you that is no small achievement. All three of the wineries that we visited were not just fourth- or fifth-generation family-owned establishments, they were all owned and managed by the women of the families. And well managed they were.  So, let’s get to the specifics.

Pio Cesare

After learning about Pio Cesare from a network channel called V is for Vino – something else that I found and recommend to OCWS – we knew we had to come find out for ourselves. Pio Cesare was started in 1881 within the city of Alba, just twenty years after the formation of country that we currently know as Italy. Five generations later it is one of the most historical and well-known wineries in Italy and elsewhere, producing 450,000 bottles mainly of Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto and Chardonnay.

Our host for the two-hour tour and tasting was Davide. And as is the practice of Pio Cesare, he devoted the entire time just to Manuela and me. Davide began with a bit of the history of both the family and the home that became the cellar and winery. It is still the home of the current family to this day.  The cellars, comprising four levels, are constrained by ancient Roman walls dating back to 50 B.C. Over the decades, expansion of the facility included going under the adjacent Tanaro river. The cellars were abound with massive French and Slavonian (similar to Hungarian) oak barrels. Our guide pointed out two distinctive highlights to be found in the cellars. One was the century-old single bottle “elevator” that brought filled bottles to the top level and empty bottles back down. Another highlight was to see at some three levels belowground an original vine still growing after more than one hundred years. Davide also pointed out that there are bottled wines still in the racks dating back to at least 1916 and that the labels had not changed significantly in over the past one hundred years.

The current managing family member is Federica Boffa, only 25 years old. She does have other family members to support her. As for the vineyards, which are distinct throughout Barolo and Barbaresco, Pio Cesare owns many. Davide told us that all grapes are grown on estates contained within the family-owned 170 acres and within the Barolo or Barbaresco AVAs.

The tour was phenomenal, but then we came to the best part – the tasting. We were seated at the table that the family still uses for its holiday gatherings. Davide brought out four reds and, surprisingly, a Chardonnay. Apparently, back when fourth generation owner, Mr. Pio Boffa, was visiting California, he became enthralled with Chardonnay. He thought that if France and California can grow it, so could he, despite local assertion that it would never thrive. Pio Boffa was one of the great pioneers of Chardonnay planted and produced in Italy in the early 1980’s. I can tell you that after tasting the 2020 Piodilei Chardonnay, he exceeded all expectations. After a taste and some more explanation by Davide, he had me set my glass of Chard aside while we went on to the reds.

And, of course, each of the reds had some history behind them.

The first that I tried was a 2021 Grignolino. I had only learned of this varietal just a few days before while in Ivrea – Manuela’s home town – and was quite pleased. The Grignolino presented by Davide was fantastic, something between a Malbec and a Pinot Noir, in my opinion.

The remaining three reds were the commonly known ones of the region, the first being a 2020 Fides Barbera d’Alba. Wonderful! It should age a bit longer, but was still ready to drink now. Typical of Barbera, it was medium bodied, but like a Pinot, it would be great with white meats, fish and pasta.

This was followed by two Nebbiolos, a 2019 Barbaresco, and a 2018 Barolo. Both were outstanding but needed to age a few more years to reach their peak. In fact, Davide told me that only the family had previously tried the 2019 Barbaresco since bottling. I was the first outside the family – what an honor! It was still young though. Two to four years from now, it will be phenomenal.

Wrapping up the tasting, we went back to the Chardonnay, now that it had been open for a while. You could definitely discern a subtle difference. And after the full-bodied reds, it held its own, while expressing some of the characteristics of the Nebbiolos! Excellent.

As we were saying good-byes, Davide informed me that the wines are not sold on the premises. Thus, you are not pressured to buy after your tour. He also said that Pio Cesare was undisputedly, the best winery in all of Alba… it’s the only winery within the city. A mere technicality!


The next day we traveled south toward the Barolo region to a town called La Morra. There we encountered a winery facility, primarily the aging cellar, on top of the hillside, outside of town. The winery is called Agricola Gian Piero Marrone, or simply, Marrone. We were met by Nina Schurer, who was our tour guide and hostess. Nina is originally from the Netherlands, but had moved to the region with her family only a few years earlier. Needless to say, she was fluent in several languages.

Gian Piero Marrone, a third-generation owner and operator of the winery, has turned operations over to his three daughters, Denise, Serena and Valentina, making it now four generations of winemakers. The current winemaker is Valentina, the youngest of the three Marrone sisters, but still with the helping hand from her dad Gian Pierro Marrone. The three sisters are already the 4th generation in this family making wine, each of them with her own task. Be it sales and marketing, administration or process management. The three of them together are well equipped to lead this family business further into the future.

If Pio Cesare could be considered a large operation, Marrone was on the medium size. Yet, it was by far, a more diverse producer of wine. The family owns vineyards both within the Barolo and Barbaresco AVAs, as well as outside in the nearby region of Madonna di Como. At least twenty different lines (for lack of a better word) of wine were bottled by Marrone. Varietals included Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis, Chardonnay and Moscato could be found here, but to retain their DOC or DOCG status from one of the regions, such as Barolo, then they could only produce the wine of the varietal from that region. Barolo and Barbaresco wines are 100% of the Nebbiolo varietal, but come from the two distinct regions with different terroir and different production requirements.

We received an informative and impressive tour of Marrone’s aging cellar. It appeared to be substantially underground, maintaining a constant temperature. The facility was very impressive, as you would expect, containing the numerous oak barrels or “bottes.”

At one point though, Nina pointed out something we had never seen before. For some of the varietals, part of the aging process is carried out with the lees (or inactive yeast material) still in the barrel. But what Marrone does that is different is that the barrels are stacked on rollers. Then, for as long as the wine is in the cellar, which varies from six to eighteen months, the barrels are hand cranked to rotate and, thus, stir up the lees. The churning process, known as battonage, takes place two to three times a week. This enhances the exposure of the lees to the wine and allows for more extraction of the elements that Marrone’s winemaker wants as part of his final product. The photo shows some of the barrels on rollers.

At the end of the tour, Nina took us to their aboveground tasting room. More like a veranda, it had an incredible view of the region. And we had ideal weather for it too.

I was able to choose from a number of wines for my tasting. Naturally, I went for what the region is famous for, starting with a 2019 Barbera d’Alba Superiore. If you know Barberas, this was right there – lighter than the Nebbiolo, very fruity but surprisingly purplish in color. And also surprisingly, it was 14.5% ABV. My tasting notes say I must find this one in the California markets.

Next up was a 2019 Nebbiolo d’Alba Superiore. Not a Barolo or Barbaresco, but still in the neighborhood. Nina told me that this wine spent six months in small botte, one year in large botte and one year in the bottles before being served. It was excellent. And side note: For those of you that know that I make Nebbiolo at home, this Marrone Nebbiolo was exactly why I do!

But perhaps the best was saved for last, I tasted the 2018 Pichemej, a Barolo DOCG. It was bold and flavorful, as I would expect from a Barolo, but clearly at the top of the class.  OK, the sad part is, I was so into this wine, I failed to write down my notes, but I remember it well and that isn’t that what drinking great wine is all about!

Azienda Agricola Pietro Rinaldi

Heading back toward Alba, we stopped at Azienda Agricola Petro Rinaldi. We selected this winery based on the very positive recommendation of one of my close Italian friends. Once again, we hit the jackpot. Like so many in the area, the Pietro Rinaldi winery is located high up on a hill. And like the two I had visited previously, this was another four-generation family-owned winery dating back to 1920, currently owned and operated by Monica Rinaldi.

Smallest of the three I visited, Pietro Rinaldi was every bit as charming as the other two. And, of course, all grapes for their wines are estate grown and were DOC or DOCG (only their Rosato was not). Pietro Rinaldi’s production included Barolos, Barbarescos, Barbera d’Albas, Dolcetto, and Langhe Arneis.

Our host, Ombretta, told us of the history and production of the wines, but quickly set us down for the tasting.

Ombretta presented me with five wines for tasting – shown in the adjacent photo.

We started off with a 2021 Rosato. This rose wine was 13½% ABV, so you know it was dry. Our host told me that it was macerated for two hours and that this was only the third vintage of this wine. It was dry and a bit bitter but could still be aged for three more years. Clearly this was intended for pairing with summer meals.

On to the reds…  First up was a 2020 Barbera d’Alba. Fermented to 14% ABV, and aged in steel tanks, it was medium bodied, dry, fruity and quite pleasant. This is a summertime wine. Ombretta said it did not require further aging. This was followed by a 2018 Barbera d’Alba Superiore. This Barbera was aged one year in steel tanks followed by one year in oak. Barbera is not known to be tannic, but this one was very mild in oak tannins when I tasted it. Definitely a notch above the prior Barbera and it can be enjoyed year round. Definitely a good wine to have around.

My fourth tasting was a 2020 Langhe Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo is, by far, the predominate varietal of this part of Italy. Langhe is another broader name for the AVA region. This particular wine was a blend of Barolo and Barbaresco, taking the best and distinctive differences of these AVAs – and, thus, the name Langhe. It had been aged in oak for one year. Our host said this would age well for up to ten years. Since I make Nebbiolo, I am always a fan. I found this wine to be light for a Nebbiolo, but would be very good with most foods year round.

For my final tasting, I was offered a newly released 2018 Barbaresco – sound familiar – that was excellent. It had a strong fruity aroma. It was a single-vineyard source, which is referred to as an MGA.  MGAs, or menzioni geografiche aggiuntive (there will be a test on this later), are specifically delineated place-names, that is, vineyards, within Barolo and Barbaresco that have been codified since 2010.

All were excellent wines. I bought two – one was the 2018 Barbaresco (new release) – to hold for a few years. But unless you plan to visit us in Italy, I won’t be able to share them with you.

In conclusion, I can say my trip to this region was outstanding. It was not our first time, and certainly won’t be our last. And, as they will be receiving copies of this article, I wish to take this moment to thank our three wonderful hosts. They each added to the experience. If you make it to this part of Italy, please seek them out!

– W. Scott Harral, Contributing Writer

Boysenberry Wine—Grape Wine is also a Fruit Wine!

I’m lucky to live in Southern California, where I can get access to some incredible wine grapes. But wine grape activities take place in the autumn for picking, crushing, fermenting and pressing. Then they go into the barrel, and there’s not a whole lot to do until bottling time. In the winter and spring, I like to make some wonderful fruit wines! But before you go and say “harrumph” to fruit wine, remember – grape wine is also a fruit wine!

These pictures show my 2021 Boysenberry wine, from berries grown by my brother David in Boise, Idaho. As is only obvious, I named it my Boiseberry Wine!  Since my brother grew them and we share our last name, can I call it Donnelly Estate Wine? Oh hell yes!

Unlike grapes which can usually be harvested in one picking, boysenberries are hand-picked one at a time over a two-month period, so Dave and his wife Michele picked the berries between July and August, and froze them as they were picked.

When he had enough for a batch of wine (and a few more pounds for ice cream – YUM!), he shipped them down to me. I started the batch on October 5th with 23 pounds of berries for a 6-gallon batch.

After sanitizing everything, I added the berries and water into a 7-gallon food-grade bucket (no Home Depot buckets).

One habit I use with fruit wines is that I buy and use quality bottled drinking water to bring it up to 6 gallons; I don’t use tap water.

If you remember the old Hamm’s Beer, they had an animated bear in their commercials. Their slogan was, “It’s the water that makes the difference!” I’ve always taken that advice to heart, whether I’m making wine or beer.

I then added about 11 pounds of sugar to bring it up to my target of 25 brix (25% sugar), added about a gram of potassium sulfite as a preservative, and pitched Red Star Premier Classique yeast. Hint here: use the stirring tool with an electric drill to save you a lot of time and elbow grease stirring, to dissolve the sugar!

The “must” (unfermented wine) takes about 2 weeks to ferment while the sugar changes into alcohol. During this process, the fermentation causes a bi-product of Carbon Dioxide, which is seen here with the bubbles.

Once the 25% sugar has fermented down to zero (the hydrometer actually reads slightly below zero), I will have wine with about 14% alcohol, right in the range of a typical California red wine.

After the fermentation is done, I use a strainer to separate the solids from the wine, and I transfer the wine to a carboy and top it off to 6 gallons with water. There are still a lot of solids in suspension in the wine, but as it sits and ages in the carboy, most of those solids precipitate to the bottom, and I can “rack” (siphon) the clearer wine off the top, and toss the solids.

After about 2 months and a couple more rackings, I filtered my Boysenberry Wine, and it’s BEAUTIFUL, with a transparency and maroon color you have to see to believe!

But it’s pretty tart, since all of the sugar has been turned into alcohol, and the boysenberry flavor is muted! Next up: back-sweetening it. The term “back-sweeten” means to add sweetener, usually sugar, after fermentation: the back-end of the process. Here, I typically sweeten by about 3%, which brings back the unique qualities of boysenberry flavor, similar to blackberry, but with more bite.

Some people like to add more sugar to make a sweeter dessert wine, but I prefer to make my fruit wines in a table-wine style, and not much perceived sweetness. That way, it makes for a WONDERFUL aperitif before dinner, and a refreshing beverage on a hot afternoon!

Before I can add sugar to back-sweeten, I need to stabilize the wine, so it won’t start re-fermenting.

Commercial wineries do this by cold-stabilizing their wines. If you’ve visited a commercial winery, you may have noticed a ring of frost around their stainless-steel tanks. By reducing the temperature down to the mid 30 degrees, they are neutralizing the yeast. But glycol chillers cost several thousands of dollars, and since I’m a cheapskate, I don’t have one.

I use potassium sorbate and sulfites to stabilize the wine before I add more sugar, to prevent the residual yeasts in the wine from acting with the additional sugars.

To decide how much sugar to add to back-sweeten the wine, I set up a bench test. This process involves setting up several different samples of wine with increasing quantity of sugar. I now taste the wine, sometimes with friends who NEVER say no when offered wine, for their opinions. (Dave and Michele, come down from Boise and taste this wine!) I may or may not take their advice – it’s MY wine! Well yea, it’s Dave and Michele’s wine too …

I pour one glass with no additional sugar. The 2nd glass has ½ teaspoon of sugar. The 3rd glass has 1 teaspoon of sugar, the 4th has 1½, and the 5th has 2 teaspoons. I then taste, and decide which is my favorite; often “it’s between 3 and 4”, so I pour another glass with half the increment, and choose.

Once I have picked my favorite, I measure the brix with a hydrometer of the chosen wine, which usually reads somewhere between 2 and 4 brix. The unsweetened wine measured below zero, -1.5 (Specific gravity -0.994). After my bench testing, I chose #4, 1½ teaspoon of sugar, which measured Brix of +1 (or Specific Gravity 1.08), which equates to adding 2½% sweetening.

That becomes my target brix, +1, to back-sweeten the entire batch.

Remember that when you add sugar, creep up on the target, adding a little at a time. Don’t add one large addition. You can add more sugar, but it’s hard to take it out if you over-shoot the target.

I ended up adding about three cups of sugar to reach my desired flavor: not overly sweet, still a little tart. Again, during this process, using a stirring tool and a drill will save you a lot of time!

Now that I have my wine sweetened to my taste, it’s time to bottle and wrap up this project. I now have about 5½ gallons of Boiseberry Wine. One gallon of wine fills five standard bottles, so I’m estimating that I’ll need 28 bottles. I always prepare a few extra, so I’ll sanitize 30 bottles.

The wine supply stores sell two different kinds of bottle corking machines. The cheap ones are about $20, but they are difficult to use. I recommend getting a floor corker, which starts around $70. This corker will save you time, effort, and maybe even avoid some spills.

After corking your bottles, it’s time to spruce them up! We do this with bottle toppers that resemble the foil on the top. These are available in different colors, and are shrink-wrap plastic. You can buy an expensive heat gun for about $180, or you can just dunk it quickly into boiling water for almost no cost. Hey, we’ve already established that I’m cheap, right?

The last thing to do to make your bottle pretty, is to put on a label. I’ve named my amateur winery “Donnelly Micro Micro Winery”, because I’m really, REALLY small! I also put on the varietal, the date picked and the date bottled, and some other info of interest to fellow winemakers, such as yeast and residual sugar.

I like to use clear colorless bottles, to show off the beautiful color of the wine.

You will have a wonderful beverage to share with your family and friends, and they make great gifts any time of the year!

– Kevin Donnelly, Winemakers’ Group

The article is also available on the WineMaker Magazine website, titled “Boysenberry Wine: My Out-of-Season Winemaking Adventures.”