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.

In the late 19th century, several temperance groups, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, began to push for laws restricting access to alcoholic beverages. These 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.

How did Prohibition affect the wine industry?

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 almost fourteen years of Prohibition. [1]

Prohibition 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.

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.

Wine Bricks and 200 Gallons

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 standard 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]

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.

wine bricks

Wine Bricks

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, and some are still available to view in museums today.

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]

For some resourceful people, these conditions were sufficient to create a lucrative career.

Post Prohibition

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, and eventually opened a tavern. Although the tavern was technically banned due to Prohibition, Mondavi continued to operate it. After relocating his family to California’s Central Valley in 1923, he 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 and in 2004, Constellation Brands paid $1.36 billion to acquire the Mondavi winery.[5]

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Mondavi’s success was not unique. The production of ‘wine bricks’ and ‘grape juice’ offered lucrative opportunities. Additionally, because many vineyard owners removed their vines and replaced them with orchards of other fruits, the demand for grape juice on the market rapidly exceeded the supply, causing costs to rise.

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 entrepreneurs such as Robert Mondavi were able to pivot their businesses to fit the political climate of the time and reaped huge financial rewards.

Conclusion

The Volstead Act devastated the California wine business, despite certain vintners’ efforts to circumvent the laws of the Prohibition period. Many vineyards went out of business and as a result some of the most skilled vintners departed without passing on their knowledge. Furthermore, the remaining vineyards were cultivating low-quality grapes to produce inexpensive “wine bricks.” This was certainly not the environment from which one would expect a high-quality wine region to 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. Although it took decades, the sector was able to rebound and produce high-quality goods once 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. It is informally known as the Volstead Act after Andrew Volstead, the Minnesota House Representative who chaired the House of Representatives Committee, introduced, and managed the legislation. The Volstead Act laid the ground for introducing the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution a few months later, which prohibited the sale and consumption of intoxicating alcohol. Several loopholes were contained in the legislation concerning wine production. For instance, wine could be produced for religious ceremonies, and individuals could manufacture up to 200 gallons of wine within their own homes every year.

January 17, 1920 – On this day in 1920, the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution formally established the prohibition of intoxicating liquor in the United States. Prohibition lasted nearly 14 years, but throughout that time, Americans continued to drink in speakeasies, jazz clubs, and in their homes. Crime ran rampant as mobsters such as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano made huge sums of money from the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol. The California wine industry was negatively impacted but did survive, in large part by continuing to sell grape juice and ‘wine bricks’ of concentrated grape juice to customers to make wine in their own homes.

December 5, 1933 – On this day in 1933, after years of flagrant flouting of the prohibition laws and an attendant rise in criminality, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was passed, effectively revoking the 18th Amendment. Unlike other Amendments, the 21st was passed on a state-by-state basis. While most states implemented it almost immediately, there were still dry states for years to come. Mississippi was the last to revoke the 18th Amendment and only stopped being a dry state in 1966. There are still dry counties in some small pockets of America today where wine, beer, and spirits still cannot be purchased legally.

More Articles:

Justice and Injustice in Prohibition in the United States

Prohibition Across the United States

MAJOR MILESTONES DURING THE WINE PROHIBITION PERIOD

Want to read more? Try these books!

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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, 4 November 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, 24 August 2015.

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

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