California and Prohibition: Collateral damage

Alcohol supplies being destroyed during the Prohibition period

Call it absurd. Dub it naive. Describe it, hyperbolically, as the most asinine, most fruitless curb on alcohol ever conceived. We are, of course, speaking of the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which, exactly a century ago, gave the American federal government the means to severely impede the sale of ‘intoxicating liquors’. Ratified, theoretically, to foster a better society, Prohibition proved to have the opposite effect. The forbiddance of alcohol ushered in an iconic era of bootleggers, speakeasies and a wholesale disregard for an amendment that engendered far more problems than its supporters had so naively believed it would resolve.

Ironically, however, all signs would indicate that wine had never been a prime target of prohibitionists, whose sights were set mainly on spirits, an aspect wine-grower Andrea Sbarboro had pointed out as early as 1907. In one of his pamphlets he wrote: ‘No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.’ But what did this matter? Wine was lumped in, its de facto ban causing untold damage to wine-growing throughout the nation – most devastatingly in California, then as now the most prestigious, most widely planted state in the union.

Prohibition timeline

Late 19th to early 20th century The ‘dry’ movement intensifies in the US; California wine is thriving

1907 Wine-grower Andrea Sbarboro argues that wine is not whiskey

16 January 1919 The 18th Amendment is ratified; sales of ‘intoxicating liquors’ are prohibited

16 January 1920 The Volstead Act takes effect; home winemaking and bootlegging surge

1923 Georges de Latour, owner of Beaulieu Vineyard, plants new vineyards for the booming sacramental wine business

1927 Grape sales for home winemaking reach fever pitch; bootlegging is now rampant

5 December 1933 The 21st Amendment takes effect; Prohibition is repealed

Post-Prohibition Recovery of California wine industry slowly begins; draconian rules are no help

1966 Legendary wine-grower Robert Mondavi founds eponymous winery

24 May 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting confirms the quality of California wine

Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa survived Prohibition by making sacramental wines

Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa survived Prohibition by making sacramental wine

Cruel blow

On the eve of Prohibition, the California wine industry had been thriving for several generations, the finest wines produced exclusively from Vitis vinifera grapes sourced from familiar regions such as Sonoma or Napa (the former at this time was far better known than the latter) and some other districts. By 1919, about 121,400ha were under cultivation, with more than 700 wineries in operation, all worth, San Francisco Judge DD Bowman asserts, ‘annual revenue[s] of $30,000,000’ for state coffers. ‘In 1919,’ remarks Prohibition authority Vivienne Sosnowski, ‘during an especially glorious autumn before Prohibition, the world was still full of promise for all the wine and ranching families of the valleys. But that promise, along with their faith in their country, would soon be brutally broken.’

On 16 January 1920, the National Prohibition Act came into effect. Better known as the Volstead Act after arch-prohibitionist Andrew Volstead, the effects of Prohibition were all but instantaneous. For example, what to do with some 643,520hl of ready-to-go California wine that, especially after a bountiful 1919 harvest, could no longer be sold? More importantly, how were wineries and the many thousands of families whose livelihoods depended on them going to survive? Could Prohibition be combated by regulatory loopholes? By selling wines illegally?

Congressman Andrew Volstead

Congressman Andrew Volstead

According to American wine historian Thomas Pinney, ‘the simplest and most common response to Prohibition on the part of American wineries was to simply go out of business rather than try to stay alive by undertaking new enterprises’, such as making dried…

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