The Effect of American Prohibition on Napa Valley

In January 1920, the American Prohibition Act came into effect. The thirteen-year ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages would be enshrined in the constitution. With many wineries forced to close, the devastating set of legislation had massive impact on the American wine industry.

Despite this, there were some wineries who managed to thrive during this period. Although for a few, much of their business may have been illegal. Before 1900, there were more than 140 wineries in Napa Valley. And a few of these California wineries, including some well-known names today, were able to survive the long years of Prohibition. 

Leveraging Loopholes

One of the loopholes in the 18th Amendment that a few wineries were able to capitalize on, stated that wine was still allowed to be made and sold for religious purposes. Other wineries pivoted their business model and began selling grapes, juice, and raisins directly to customers. 

Other wineries turned to the black market to sell their wines. During Prohibition more than a few bottles of wine found their way into the speakeasies and other illicit bars that sprung up all over the country.

Another set of wineries admitted defeat from the beginning, and tore out their grapes and replaced them with fruit orchards in the months between the act’s passage and its implementation. Although, others chose to keep their vineyards, believing that they could make enough money selling fresh grapes and raisins.

Prohibition allowed for a second loophole; people were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year at home just for household consumption. Wineries soon capitalized on this and began selling both grapes and wine juice to home winemakers. 

By Prohibition’s end Napa had become a dominant player in winemaking and would continue to dominate throughout much of the rest of the century.

The Advent of Wine Bricks

Wineries began to get creative in how they sold grapes to home winemakers. Many wineries began producing ‘grape bricks’. As a result, it was possible for these grape bricks to be shipped to home winemakers all over the USA. These bricks were actually a block of concentrated grape juice meant to be dissolved in a large amount of water, and then left to ferment.

However, the tricky part was giving instructions on how to make wine. Of course, legally the wineries couldn’t just include a set of instructions with the box. So wineries began doing the opposite, they put warnings on the boxes with clear steps of what not to do to make your juice turn into wine. It was a clever approach to getting around the law.

The instructions on the box just said to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water. Then underneath the warning label would advise caution; if the jug was left in a cool cupboard for more than 21 days it would change into wine.

Aside from the “warning,” grape brick makers, like Vino Sano were very open about the real purpose of their product. They even included the name of the flavor – Burgundy, Claret, or Riesling, one might encounter if they left the juice to ferment by mistake.

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Many wineries, notably the famous Beringer Vineyards, became wealthy from these wine bricks. When Prohibition came into effect, demand for grapes and grape concentrate rapidly increased. The rising demand happened at the same time there was a disrupt in the supply of grapes; as many wineries had already ripped up their vines to plant orchards. By 1924, the price per ton had risen to $375. This was a staggering 3,847% increase from the pre-Prohibition price of $9.50. See more resources here

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