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. It banned alcohol. The campaign to prohibit intoxicating liquor originated in the late nineteenth century through temperance movements, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. The groups were concerned with the prevalence of violent behavior throughout society and America’s considerable drinking problem in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 had provided a dry run for the concept of Prohibition, as alcohol sales were briefly banned to conserve grain for food. This test indicated that a more long-lasting ban was possible. Three years later, the sale of alcohol became illegal in America. Yet, despite good intentions, the ban initiated a period of excessive, illegal drinking in speakeasies, underground clubs, and any other possible secret location. As a result, there was a massive spike in criminality across America, as gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Dean O’Banion began making enormous amounts of money from bootlegging. While Prohibition meant big business for gangsters, it was a disaster for established, formerly legal purveyors of alcohol, none more so than America’s previously blossoming wine industry. However, there were a few wineries that were able to survive the fourteen years of Prohibition in America.[1]

It is important to remember precisely what Prohibition outlawed. It was initiated through the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress late 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. And in terms of winemaking, some wineries were allowed to keep operating in order to produce wine for religious purposes. Indeed, the exceptions in terms of viticulture did not stop there. When the Volstead Act came into effect as the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution on the 17th of January 1920, it also included a stipulation that people could make up to 200 gallons of wine every year in a domestic setting for use by their household. This amounted to just over two and a half standard 750ml bottles per day per household, hardly the level of consumption the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had been aiming at as they lobbied for Prohibition throughout the 1900s and 1910s.[2]

This rather extravagant allowance presented an opportunity for America’s viticulturists. They could not make and sell large quantities of wine themselves during the 1920s, but they could continue to grow vast quantities of grapes and then sell the grapes and juice to customers, who could make wine themselves. By 1925, five years after Prohibition had commenced, the amount of wine being made by Americans in their own homes had jumped from approximately 15 million liters in the late 1910s to over 340 million liters, representing a 22-fold increase.[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. Flame Tokay grapes and Emperor Grapes, which are not used to make wine by any sensible viticulturist, were widely grown during Prohibition and used to make poor tasting table wine, simply because the grapes were robust and could stand long trips across the country. To allow for large-scale transportation countrywide, some of the 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 of which are still viewable in museums today.

If anyone was ever questioned, what they were doing was theoretically allowed. However, any sane person could see that a loophole in the Volstead Act was simply being exploited to the maximum. Indeed, so flagrant was the ‘grape juice’ production system that the California Vineyardist Association eventually set up its own company called Fruit Industries Limited to distribute grape juice to homes around the country. Their grape concentrate bricks were marketed as Vine-Glo. This product even contained a warning label explaining to customers what not to do in order to make wine.The company’s more comprehensive advertisement of the product was no less blatant:

“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 entirely 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]

These circumstances defined the careers of some opportunistic individuals. Cesare Mondavi came out of Prohibition as a thriving winemaker. Born in Sassoferrato in central Italy in 1883, Mondavi was just one of 4.5 million Italians who migrated to the United States between 1880 and 1930. Before opening a saloon, he first took up work in Minnesota, working in an iron mine in 1908. Prohibition made the saloon illegal, but Mondavi adapted. In 1923 he moved his family out to Central Valley in California, where he became a fruit merchant—or at least that was the official story. Mondavi primarily dealt in grapes which he sent to his former saloon customers back in Minnesota and other customers in California. These same customers used Mondavi’s product to make wine in their own homes. Cesare Mondavi did well out of his trade in grapes, and in 1943, he was wealthy enough to purchase Charles Krug’s winery for $75,000. Later, Robert Mondavi, Cesare’s son, would go on to become one of the most influential viticulturists in Napa Valley. Eventually, the Mondavi winery was sold to Constellation Brands in 2004 for 1.36 billion dollars. It all began because of Prohibition.[5]

Mondavi wasn’t alone in his success during the 1920s and early 1930s. There were vast sums of money to be made from manufacturing ‘wine bricks’ and ‘grape juice.’ Since many vineyard owners had decided to rip up their vines and plant orchards of other fruit, market demand for grape juice was soon greater than those who were left could meet. As a result, prices skyrocketed. By 1924, the cost of grape juice concentrate per ton had risen from about $9.50 in the late 1910s to approximately $375, a 38-fold increase in five years. Those who were still growing grapes in California profited handsomely. One major winner was Beringer Vineyards, the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley, established in 1876. They were one of the wineries allowed to continue operating through Prohibition to make wine for religious purposes. They emerged successfully from Prohibition, and began offering wine tastings and tours of its premises within weeks of the revocation of the Volstead Act in December 1933.[6]

While Mondavi and a handful of others made significant money from Prohibition, the wine industry as a whole suffered greatly. As successful as many vintners were at getting around the Prohibition-era legislation, overall, the Volstead Act decimated the California wine industry. Vast numbers of vineyards went out of business, and some talented vintners retired without passing on their skills to the next generation. Moreover, those vineyards that survived had switched to growing cheap, poor-quality grapes to make ‘wine bricks.’ This was hardly a solid basis for a quality wine industry. When Prohibition finally came to an end late in 1933, the California wine industry was very different from what it had been prior to Prohibition. A significant portion of the product produced years later was cheap, low quality jug wines. Eventually, the industry recovered and regained its reputation for making quality products, but it took several decades. Meanwhile, small effects of Prohibition continue to this day. For example, some states still apply restrictions to the shipping of wine and the ability to purchase alcohol on Sundays.[7]

 

 

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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.

 

 

Reference

[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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