Sober Times, Desperate Times: Winemaking in the United States During Prohibition

Between 1920 and 1933, the United States engaged in an experiment that has never been recreated on quite the same scale anywhere in the western world. The consumption of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. Several temperance groups, like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, started in the late 19th century to push for laws restricting access to alcoholic beverages. Groups were formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to address issues including widespread violence and America’s severe alcoholism. Alcohol sales were temporarily outlawed during World War I to preserve grain for sustenance, providing a trial run for the notion of Prohibition.

This study demonstrated the feasibility of a more permanent prohibition. American Prohibition on alcohol sales began three years later. Even though it was intended to prevent excessive drinking, Prohibition led to a period of illicit drinking at speakeasies, subterranean clubs, and other hidden locations. Consequently, crime skyrocketed throughout the United States as mobsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Dean O’Banion made fortunes in the illicit liquor trade.

While Prohibition was a boon for criminal enterprises, it was a catastrophe for legitimate producers of alcoholic beverages, particularly the burgeoning American wine sector. Only a handful of wineries in America made it through the fourteen years of Prohibition.[1]

It is important to remember precisely what Prohibition outlawed. It was initiated through the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress in 1919. It is popularly known as the Volstead Act, named after Andrew Volstead, the committee chairman who oversaw the passage of the legislation through the House of Representatives. This banned the production, sale, supply, transportation, and possession of intoxicating liquor over 0.5% ABV.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies dumping illegal booze

Image Source – commons.wikimedia

However, as soon as the law was passed, many people began finding ways around Prohibition. For instance, the law allowed an exception for prescriptions; doctors could prescribe whiskey for ‘medicinal purposes,’ a vague concept that included everything from toothaches to headaches. Additionally, specific vineyards were permitted to remain open, so wine might be produced for religious ceremonies. There were other noteworthy viticultural outliers as well.

The Volstead Act, which became the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 17, 1920, featured a provision that allowed individuals to produce up to two hundred gallons of wine annually for personal consumption in their homes. In other words, this amounted to slightly more than 2.5 standards 750 ml bottles per day per household, well below the target level of consumption that the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had set for themselves throughout the 1900s and 1910s as they pushed for Prohibition.[2]

A Volstead Act Loophole

The viticulturists in the United States saw an opportunity in this relatively lavish allocation. While they could not produce and sell much wine in the 1920s, they kept growing plenty of grapes and sold the fruit to others who would later press the juice into wine. The volume of wine created by Americans in their homes increased 22-fold, from around 15 million liters in the late 1910s to over 340 million liters by 1925, five years after Prohibition had begun.[3]

The methods were ingenious. Grapes that did not travel well were replaced in the vineyards of California by poorer quality grapes that traveled better, such as Alicante Bouschet and Alicante Ganzin.

Since Flame Tokay and Emperor grapes were hardy enough to withstand long journeys across the nation, they were commonly cultivated during Prohibition and utilized to create poor-tasting table wine. To allow for large-scale transportation countrywide, some grape juice produced from their vineyards was made into a concentrated form euphemistically referred to as ‘wine bricks.’ These were congealed bricks of concentrated grape juice, some examples still viewable in museums today.

If anybody was ever questioned, their actions were technically permissible. Nonetheless, any reasonable person might perceive a Volstead Act loophole being used to the fullest extent. The ‘grape juice manufacturing technique was so blatantly fraudulent that the California Vineyardist Association established its corporation, Fruit Industries Limited, to deliver grape juice to homes nationwide. The brand name for their grape concentrate bricks was Vine-Glo. This product even had a cautionary label instructing consumers on how not to produce wine. The company’s more extensive promotion of the product was no less deceptive:

“Now is the time to order your supply of Vine-Glo. It can be made in your home in sixty days – a fine, true-to-type, guaranteed beverage ready for the Holiday Season. Vine-Glo comes to you in nine varieties: Port, Virginia Dare, Muscatel, Angelica, Tokay, Sauterne, Riesling, Claret, and Burgundy. It is legal in your home – but it must not be transported. You take absolutely no chance when you order your home supply of Vine-Glo, which Section 29 of the National Prohibition Act permits you.”[4]

Cesare Mondavi

For some resourceful people, their careers were determined by these conditions. Following the repeal of Prohibition, Cesare Mondavi established himself as a successful businessman in the wine industry. Among the 4.5 million Italians who arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1930, Mondavi, born in Sassoferrato in central Italy in 1883, was a prominent figure. He worked in an iron mine in Minnesota until 1908, long before he opened a tavern. Although the tavern was technically prohibited due to Prohibition, Mondavi continued to operate it. After relocating his family to California’s Central Valley in 1923, he purportedly started a new career as a fruit dealer.

Grapes were Mondavi’s primary commodity, and he sent them to his bar clientele in Minnesota and his new clients in California. The same consumers who bought wine kits from Mondavi also utilized his grapes to brew their wine. In 1943, Cesare Mondavi made enough money from the grape trade to buy the winery of Charles Krug for $75,000. Cesare Mondavi’s son Robert would go on to become a prominent Napa Valley winemaker. Constellation Brands paid $1.36 billion to acquire the Mondavi winery in 2004. What started it all was the prohibition era.[5]

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Mondavi’s success was not unique. The production of ‘wine bricks’ and ‘grape juice’ offered lucrative opportunities. As a result of the decision of many vineyard owners to remove their plants and replace them with orchards of other fruits, the demand for grape juice on the market rapidly exceeded the supply. Consequently, costs rose. In only five years, the price of grape juice concentrate per ton increased 38-fold, from $9.50 in the late 1910s to nearly $375 in 1924.

Those who continued to cultivate grapes in California made a fortune. Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously functioning vineyard in Napa Valley, founded in 1876, was a notable winner. They were one vineyard permitted to continue producing wine for religious reasons during Prohibition. Within weeks following the repeal of the Volstead Act in December 1933, they reemerged from Prohibition and started providing wine tastings and tours of their facilities.[6]

The wine business took a major hit during Prohibition, but Robert Mondavi and a few others reaped huge financial rewards. The Volstead Act devastated the California wine business, despite certain vintners’ efforts to circumvent the laws of the Prohibition period. Some of the most skilled vintners departed without passing on their knowledge, and as a result, many vineyards went out of business. Furthermore, the remaining vineyards were cultivating low-quality grapes to produce inexpensive “wine bricks.”

Certainly not the stuff from which a high-quality wine business might arise. The California wine business was drastically altered after Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933. Much of the output in subsequent years was comprised of inexpensive, low-quality jug wines. While it took decades, the sector is now back to producing high-quality goods again. Meanwhile, Prohibition’s minor after-effects persist to this day. For example, some states still apply restrictions to the shipping of wine and the ability to purchase alcohol on Sundays. [7]

On this Day

October 28, 1919 – On this day in 1919, the National Prohibition Act was passed. The law is often referred to as the “Volstead Act” after Andrew Volstead, a Minnesota representative and the House of Representatives Committee chairman who proposed and oversaw the bill.

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which banned the sale and use of alcoholic beverages, was introduced a few months after the Volstead Act was passed. The laws regulating the making of wine have several flaws. For example, wine might be made for religious events, and each person may make up to 200 gallons of wine yearly in their residences.

January 17, 1920 – On this day in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially banned liquor that could make people drunk. During the 14 years that Prohibition was in place, it is thought that Americans continued to drink in secret at home, in jazz clubs, and at speakeasies. Crime skyrocketed as gangsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano earned millions from producing and selling bootleg liquor. The grape juice and ‘wine bricks’ of concentrated grape juice allowed the California wine industry to survive and even thrive despite the disaster.

December 5, 1933—On this day in 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, essentially repealing the 18th Amendment after years of blatant disregard for the prohibition laws and an accompanying spike in crime. Unlike previous amendments, the 21st was approved by individual states. While the majority of governments adopted it nearly quickly, several remained dry for years. Mississippi was the final state to repeal the 18th Amendment, ceasing to be a dry state only in 1966. There are still dry counties in isolated regions of the United States where wine, beer, and spirits cannot be legally bought.

Did You Know that Prohibition Did Not Work?

“Production, sale, and distribution of alcohol for human use were illegal during prohibition, while the use of alcohol for industrial purposes remained permitted. Those who were able to do so continued to enjoy alcoholic beverages. It was done to help save the American farmer vinegar industry, but it also let wineries in California get over the ban. The vineyard workers developed a grape jelly they called “Vine-go.” Once mixed with water and aged for roughly two months, this grape jelly would produce a robust wine. There were also a few California vineyards that were allowed to continue making sacramental wine.”

Want to read more? Try these books!

First Steps in Winemaking When Champagne Became French- Wine and the Making of a National Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, 121)

References

[1] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2011) provides an excellent survey of Prohibition.

[2] Joseph R. Gusfield, ‘Social Structure and Moral Reform: A Study of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 61, No. 3 (1955), pp. 221–232; Brian L. Donovan, ‘Framing and Strategy: Explaining Differential Longevity in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, in Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 65, No. 2 (April 1995), pp. 143–55.

[3] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America (2 Volumes, Berkeley, California, 2005), i, p. 438.

[4] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America (2 Volumes, Berkeley, California, 2005), i, p. 437 (quote); Alice Louise Kassens, Intemperate Spirits: Economic Adaptation During Prohibition (London, 2019).

[5] https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=18701 [accessed 18/2/22]; Carol Emert, ‘Legendary California wine company is sold’, San Francisco Chronicle, November 4 2004; https://www.ckmondavi.com/cmk-family/ [accessed 18/2/22]

[6] Adam Teeter, ‘How Wine Bricks Saved the U.S. Wine Industry During Prohibition’, VinePair, August 24 2015.

[7] Mary Orlin, ‘The Legacy of Prohibition on Wine, 80 Years Later, Huffington Post, December 6 2017.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, WineTags: , , By Published On: March 13, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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