The US Wine Industry During Prohibition

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National Prohibition had a profound impact upon the US wine industry. Not only did it have a major effect on wine producers and consumers during the 13-year period when it was in force, but the consequences linger to this day—nearly 81 years after Repeal. To learn more about this seminal event in the history of the US Wine Industry, VINE TALK interviewed Carla De Luca Worfolk, Director and Executive Producer of the film America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition. Our conversation with Ms. De Luca Worfolk is divided into three parts. Part One covers how the wine industry and consumers coped with the impact of National Prohibition. The second installment focuses on how the US wine industry rebounded from near extinction to become the internationally respected producer of world-class wines it is today. Finally, the third installment explores the enduring legacy of Prohibition and how it has influenced industry structure, regulation and consumer attitudes towards wine.

VT: Why were many in the wine industry shocked that Prohibition applied to wine as well as beer and distilled spirits?
CDW: When National Prohibition began with the 18th Amendment in 1920, many working in the wine business were immigrants whose families came from Italy, France, Germany, and other European countries. Their strong cultural and religious traditions included wine as part of their everyday diets and lifestyles. Believing in the great promise of their new homeland, as they lived and worked on their own farms, it was hard for them to imagine that this new law—a constitutional amendment—would apply to them, and their hard-earned livelihoods would be dramatically curtailed.

In addition, the societal problems that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Anti-Saloon league were rallying against mainly had to do with the public abuse of beer and spirits, so many people also wrongly assumed that the commercial making, selling and distribution of wine would be an exception. They were shocked it was not, and wineries were, of course, decimated. Yet, a provision in the law still allowed for home winemaking on a limited basis, to the delight of many winemakers and consumers alike.

VT: How did the home winemaking “boom” come about and how did that impact the industry?
CDW: The Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress in 1919 to enforce National Prohibition, had a provision that allowed each household to make up to 200 gallons (about 1,000 750ml bottles) of wine annually for their own use. This was essential to keeping many grape growers in business, particularly in California where most of the wine community was located even then, pre-Prohibition in the early 1900s. This also kept the emerging American wine culture and traditions alive among immigrant populations, especially for those living on the East Coast.

Amazingly, in spite of Prohibition, the acreage of California’s vineyards doubled between 1920 and 1925. More delicate grape varietals were increasingly replaced by very hardy, thick-skinned grapes, like Alicante Bouschet and Malaga, that weren’t necessarily good tasting but could better withstand the arduous transport. Many thousands of grapes were regularly loaded onto railcars and shipped across the country, where people could buy them right off the trains or at nearby fruit auction houses and groceries. But by 1926, with an eventual oversupply of grapes and in a changing, unregulated market heading towards the Great Depression, the boom ended. Growers who couldn’t sustain their operations in other ways went out of business. This really began the bleakest period, as the majority of remaining vineyards were abandoned or uprooted.

VT: What other strategies did grape growers and winemakers use to keep their businesses going?
CDW: A small number of determined, ever-optimistic entrepreneurs found several ingenious ways to survive throughout the period, always with an eye towards the future and an unwavering belief that Repeal would eventually happen. The more established wineries, like Italian Swiss Colony, were able to shift their operations to make grape products, including all variety of juices, concentrates, sauces, syrups, jams and jellies, and these were well advertised in pamphlets and magazines of the time.

Even more cleverly, winemakers invented legal products that could be used to “assist” buyers with home winemaking. With names like “Moonmist” and “Forbidden Fruit,” these grape products were often sold with instructions explaining exactly what to add so the wine would ferment properly. Fruit Industries, the maker of VineGlo, would even dispatch service personnel who would mix and bottle the wine for you in your own home. My favorite product is the little-known “wine brick,” a congealed grape block that, taking a somewhat opposite approach as laws became more stringent against concentrates, issued prominent warnings on their wrappers like: “Don’t add water and sugar, as the brick will turn into wine!” We did an extensive national search and were thrilled to discover a “wine brick” at the Museum of History and Art in Ontario, California, which they allowed us to film for our documentary.

Some wineries were also able to continue producing wine legally for religious purposes, mainly for synagogues and the Catholic churches. Some also sought permits to bottle wine for “non-beverage” purposes, such as flavorings in food and as “tonics” for medicinal use, for it was legal to obtain a doctor’s prescription for alcoholic beverages—another interesting exception allowed under the Volstead Act.

VT: How much of the US wine industry survived Prohibition?
CDW: Overall, very little of the wine industry survived Prohibition, especially when we think of the industry as we know it today, thriving in wine regions throughout the country. Commercial winemaking had been destroyed, and at the time of Repeal in 1933, there wasn’t an organized industry, only some remaining businesses in California and in other pockets of the country. Once estimated at perhaps 2,000 wineries in 1919, the number of American wineries in 1933 totaled a few hundred, and most were on a very small scale as family operations. The vast majority of winemakers and grape growers had been forced out entirely.

But those who were able to sustain their businesses in the ways mentioned did a remarkable service to the wine community as a whole just by continuing on, so the winemakers and grape growers could rebuild with some history and momentum behind them. And it was primarily the leadership efforts of a few individuals and families that made all the difference during the critical years right after Repeal. Their resiliency, willingness to help each other, and genuine creativity, charted the course which enabled the US wine industry to rebound in the coming decades.

To learn more about how the US wine industry rebounded to become the internationally competitive producer of high quality wines it is today see: Rebuilding the US Wine Industry after Prohibition.

Carla De Luca Worfolk, Director and Executive Producer of the film America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition, is an Emmy award-winning television and documentary producer. Throughout her extensive media career, the San Francisco Bay Area native has gravitated towards assignments with an emphasis on education, public service and policy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors from Santa Clara University and a Master of Journalism degree from the University of California at Berkeley. During her time as a CNN producer in Atlanta, Worfolk supervised content for the highly-rated CNN Saturday/Sunday Morning program and was also on the Emmy-winning team that covered the Olympic Park Bombing in 1996.
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