Shaping the future of American drinking patterns more then any other political event was the period of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment’s constitutional ban on the manufacture, sale, and transport of all alcoholic beverages took effect January 16th 1920 and lasted until December 5th 1933. It was enforced by a set of rules known as the Volstead Act. When enacted, California had 700 wineries, but by the end of the 13 year dry period, only a meager 140 wineries remained.
The few decades before the Prohibition era, California was passing through a golden era of wine. Wining awards, American wineries were growing rapidly. They didn’t have to follow the European law and land regulations, thus giving American wine producers more freedom in the production and selling of these new world wines.
With a newfound right to vote, women were leading a prohibiting movement for a decade before the act was fully put into place.
While wine production dropped from 55 to 3.5 million gallons during this time, you may be surprised to learn that land dedicated to table grapes doubled, rising to 600 000 acres. Home winemaking largely increased. Part of the Volstead act stated that citizens could make 200 gallons of nonintoxicating cider and fruit juices a year. Since “nonintoxicating” was never properly defined, a whole new market began to take shape. Concentrated grape juice in cans were being sold, the most popular brand was called Vine-Glo. Compressed dehydrated grapes were sold as wine bricks. These came with yeast pills and had labels reading “ Warning. Do not place this brick in a one gallon crock, add sugar and water, cover, and let stand for seven days or else an illegal alcoholic beverage will result.” Talk about loopholes!!
Formed in the 1920s, speakeasies were the illegal replacements of saloons. In fact, for every saloon that closed down as a result of the new laws, half a dozen underground establishments sprung up. Thanks to a system of grafting along with police corruption, speakeasies flourished. A single speakeasy could graft up to $400 a month to Federal Prohibition Agents, police officers, and their District Attorney. Cops were paid off to turn their backs if they saw something suspicious.
After prohibition, solutions to provide a quick supply of wine consisted of the planting of low-grade grapes with thick skins. With time, an appreciation for fine wine was lost and replaced for an affinity for sweet, cheap, fortified wine. This remained the norm until 1967 when fine table wine led the production once again in California.
What was most devastating about prohibition concerning the future production of wine in the United States was the loss of knowledge. While traditionally, knowledge and techniques were passed down from one generation of winemakers to the next, prohibition caused a hurdle in this custom. Since the wine industry wasn’t able to reinvent itself until the 1960s, the historical traditions were lost. Winemakers now had to teach themselves how to make wine. Even the infamous Robert Mondavi and Earnest and Julio Gallo had to read books to teach themselves the art of wine making!