From January 17th, 1920 to Repeal Day on December 5th, 1933, the United States attempted to prohibit alcohol consumption among its citizens. Almost immediately, it was apparent that criminalizing alcohol brought a new slate of issues, including a rise in organized crime and the loss of billions of dollars in tax revenue. This thirteen-year period of American Prohibition left a lasting mark on the wine industry, with its devastating effects still felt today.
Keep reading to find out about American Prohibition and how it shaped the American wine industry.
First, let’s understand what Prohibition was. From 1920 to 1933, the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was illegal in America under the 18th Amendment of the US Consitution. Various interest groups lobbied for Prohibition for decades prior, each blaming alcohol for a variety of societal ills. In the 1800s, the average American was drinking almost seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. That’s a whopping three times as much as we drink on average now.
However, in just a short time, the unintended consequences of the law proved worse than what it aimed to prevent. Prohibition allowed the Mafia and other violent organized crime syndicates to firmly take over communities. Underground speakeasies began producing mass amounts of low-quality bootleg liquor to cash in on a hot black market. With no federal oversight to ensure safety, an average of 1,000 Americans died of tainted liquor every year during Prohibition.
With some officials and governors flatly refusing to enforce the law in addition to the economic pressures of the Depression, Prohibition ended after just thirteen years.
While California may be the best-known wine region in the US today before Prohibition states like New York, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois, and New Mexico were battling for that distinction alongside the Golden State. Many wineries thrived along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and throughout the plains of the West. Nationwide, vineyards and wineries were doing very well, with more added every year.
That momentum ground to a halt in the year before Prohibition was formally enacted. Under the terms of the 18th Amendment, wineries had few options but to shutter completely. Many sold off their stock before ripping up vines to plant something else. A handful were able to continue producing sacramental wine for Catholic services, such as Beaulieu, Concannon, and Beringer.
Others skirted the spirit of the law by selling blocks of grapes directly to consumers. A loophole in the amendment allowed men to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year for personal use. It was not illegal to drink alcohol during Prohibition. However, wineries needed to brand these grape bricks as ‘fruit juice’, and provided instructions on the packaging on how to prevent fermentation.
Californian wine growers particularly clung to this loophole, which may be part of the reason it’s such a prolific wine-growing region today. In fact, it boasts more pre-Prohibition wineries than any other state. They were able to stay afloat by shipping the compacted bricks of grapes throughout the country on trains. Grapes with thicker skins, such as Alicante Bouschet, were particularly popular as the varietal could withstand months-long train rides.
Of course, some wineries continued working illegally. Perhaps the best-known story is that of Robert Biale’s Black Chicken Zinfandel. The Biale family continued operating their farm throughout Prohibition, selling fruits, vegetables, and eggs to the community. Savvy buyers would ask the farmers for ‘a black chicken’ over the party line telephone system, with other listeners none the wiser that they were ordering a jug of wine.
Related: How is Wine Regulated?
By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that Prohibition was not living up to its promise. Not only were people continuing to drink and profit off of alcohol sales, but it also cost $300 million to enforce. With the devastating economic downtown of the 1930s, the shocking $11 billion of lost tax revenue was too much for the nation to withstand. The 18th Amendment was repealed on December 5th, 1933. It was the first time in US history that a Constitutional amendment was repealed.
Celebrations rang out throughout the country, with President Roosevelt enjoying a martini. Foppiano, a California vineyard that had been raided by federal officials just a few years prior (with 100,000 gallons of vino dumped in the nearby river) was immediately ready to go to market with 83,000 gallons of wine. Many other wineries had also been illicitly producing wine and were similarly ready to restart sales right away.
The vast majority of wineries were converted into other farming ventures to survive during Prohibition. The chilling effect of the 18th Amendment meant the permanent loss of thousands of vineyards. The Mid-West and the Southern regions never recovered.
It took many decades following Prohibition for America to regain its standing in the greater wine world. Today, we produce over 800 million gallons of wine per year, placing us fourth in production behind Italy, Spain, and France. These days, American wines frequently win prestigious awards and compete for top billing on Michelin-starred restaurant wine lists.