Prohibition Across the United States
December 5th is a date that brings joy and light to people’s faces in the bar and wine community. The date commemorates the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages, including wine.
Prohibition halted the legal production of wine for regular consumption. Despite the halt, some wineries continued to produce wine and grape juice for medicinal and religious purposes. Prohibition had significant effects on immigrant winemakers in different parts of the country. Let us take you through Prohibition’s impact on different regions.
Impact of Prohibition on Winemaking in America
European immigrants dominated America’s winemaking industry until Prohibition. They made the first underground cellars and wineries. California led winemaking in the United States and created a thriving commercial industry; up to 700 bonded wineries existed before Prohibition. Most of the vineyards were established in the 19th century and were family-owned. However, there were also wineries from large enterprises owned by European immigrants. Prohibition had a significant impact on these families’ and enterprises’ wineries.
Brotherhood Winery was established in 1839 by a French Huguenot, Jean Jacques. The winery has faced many challenges, including Prohibition, but continues operations to date. Wine lovers can visit the winery in New York and behold one of America’s oldest wineries. Louis Farrell bought the winery, and it was under his ownership during Prohibition.
California has long been considered the home of the American wine industry, although it was not so from the beginning. Until the mid-19th century, California lagged behind Missouri and Kansas as America’s greatest wine producers. The two states led in vineyard farming and large wineries. Kansas, in particular, was hinged on wine production through its fertile soils that favored grape farming. Most of the farmers in Kansas were German immigrants. However, the battle over slavery on the Kansas and Missouri border affected wine production.
Did You Know: In 1872, Kansas produced 35,000 gallons of wine which increased six times by 1882.
On the other hand, wine production in California flourished. Wine production continued into the 20th century when movements against alcoholic beverages started rising. Alcohol was considered the reason for societal moral decay. Most Californians, however, never thought it could become a law. Besides, they thought of it affecting spirits and whiskey. In California, European immigrants dominated winemaking and selling; they considered wine and grapes food since they took them with every meal. Italian immigrants, in particular, dominated California grape farming and wine.
California was home to the majority of American wineries before Prohibition. Prohibition banned drinks with more than 0.5 percent alcohol. Despite Prohibition being in place, winemaking continued under the Volstead Act. Under the Act, wineries were allowed to make wine for medicinal and religious purposes. Besides, the Act allowed the homemaking of grapefruit juices. “According to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan, families of French, German, Italian, and central European origin used as much as five percent of the state’s wine grape crops to make wine at home prior to Prohibition.” The Volstead Act allowed home winemaking to continue offering a lifeline for many wineries. Interestingly, vineyards increased by 125 percent by 1927. Vineyards flourished with increased demand for fresh grapes in the state.
Wente Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in California; it was established by a German immigrant, C.H. Wente, in 1883. Wente came from German in the early years of the 19th century. Wente vineyards survived Prohibition by selling its white wine to another winery, Beaulieu Vineyard. Beaulieu Vineyard sold its wine for sacramental purposes, and unlike many other wineries that disintegrated, it grew fourfold.
Other immigrant wineries that survived due to sacramental wine selling during Prohibition include Beringer (est. 1876), Pope Valley Winery (est. 1897), Bernardo Winery (est. 1889), Concannon Vineyard (1883), and San Antonio Winery (est. 1917). European immigrants established and owned these wineries, mainly from Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy.
The American south was dealt a heavy blow by Prohibition; it had many vibrant wineries that disintegrated. Only a handful survived through their sale of sacramental wine and meals. Post Familie Vineyards survived as its wine was served with meals in restaurants in Altus, Arkansas. Val Verde Winery, owned by Italian immigrants, survived by supplying the Catholic Church with sacramental wine. Many other wineries in Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina perished. Most were vibrant, and one can only imagine how they could have fared today had it not been for Prohibition.
The Midwest states were also devastated by the eighteenth Amendment. These states provided some of the best fields for grape farming, especially along the Missouri and Mississippi River valleys. Many wineries did not survive but the few that survived continued operations by selling to the north and producing grape juice.
Stone Hill Winery in Missouri was the second-largest winery in the country, established in 1847, producing up to a million gallons of wine by 1870. The winery was established in 1847 by German immigrant Michael Poeschel. When Prohibition came into effect, the winery halted wine production and started harvesting mushrooms until 1965.
Baxter Vineyards in Illinois was established in 1857 by Emile Baxter and Annette Baxter. Emile Baxter was born in France, while Annette was born in Scotland. Their winery was vibrant and successful and received “medals from the Illinois State Board of Agriculture in 1876, 1877, and 1879.” The winery survived by selling grapes to northern states.
Meier’s Wine Cellars was established in 1895, operating in Cincinnati. The winery started by making grape juice later began winemaking in 1900. However, they reverted to grape juice production when Prohibition came into place. After the repeal of the eighteenth Amendment, they reintroduced wine production and selling.
This Day in Wine History
January 17th, 1920 – On this day, the Volstead Act was ratified. Andrew Volstead introduced the Act to congress to define the implementation process of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Act provides exceptions, such as allowing wine production for medicinal and religious purposes. As a result, many winemakers sought loopholes in the Prohibition act to continue operation. Due to the Volstead Act, religious use of wine increased. In New York, clergypersons increased considerably. The Volstead Act also allowed legal homemaking of wine and grape juices allowing many wineries to continue operation during Prohibition.
December 5th, 1933 – The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed on this day, allowing the reintroduction of winemaking and other alcoholic beverages. President Franklin Roosevelt announced the 21st Amendment, ending the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition never significantly impacted society’s morality and became unpopular with time, leading to its repeal. As a result of Prohibition, other vices increased, such as bootlegging. Its repeal led to the reintroduction of legal winemaking and drinking.
May 24th, 1976 – On this day, California winemakers beat French winemakers in a wine-tasting event called the Judgement of Paris. The event was organized by Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, and Patricia Gallagher in Paris. The event had a significant impact on the economy of California wines. Previously, French wines were recognized as the best in the world. The winetasting event showed that Californian wine was as good as French wine. Besides, it was cheaper. The event legitimized Californian wine and incentivized American wine.
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 Pete Dulin, “When Kansas Was America’s Napa Valley,” What It Means to Be American, February 5, 2018, https://www.whatitmeanstobeamerican.org/places/when-kansas-was-americas-napa-valley/.
 Cindy Lambert, “Home Winemaking during Prohibition in San Luis Obispo County,” Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County, November 3, 2020, https://winehistoryproject.org/home-winemaking-during-prohibition-in-san-luis-obispo-county/.
 Stone Hill Winery, “Our Story – over 170 Years of History,” Stone Hill Winery, 2022, https://stonehillwinery.com/our-story/our-history/#:~:text=Established%20in%201847%2C%20and%20well.
 Shala Martin, “How Prohibition Shaped American Wine Country,” Wine Enthusiast Magazine (Wine Enthusiast Magazine, December 5, 2018), https://www.winemag.com/2018/12/05/prohibition-american-wine-country/.