American Prohibition and its Lasting Legacy on the Wine Industry

by Payton Alexander

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.

What Is Prohibition? 

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. 

How Did Prohibition Impact The Wine Industry? 

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. 

The Prohibition Loophole

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?

Repeal Day And The Aftermath

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.



FEATURED EVENTS

Crush Wine Experiences

October 23, 2021

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Piedmont Italy: Barolo and Barbaresco tour

Oct 23 – 30, 2021
6 nights, 7 days
Milan, Barolo, Alba, and Turin

RESERVE NOW
Crush Wine Experiences

September 23, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Kotti Berliner – Food & Wine Pairing

Join us for a Virtual Food & Wine Pairing with Brooklyn’s Kotti Berliner. Explore delicious döner kebabs paired with wine. Meet Kotti founder, Erkan Emre.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

September 16, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Broadbent Selections – Portugal

Join us for a Virtual Tasting with one of America’s leading importers of high-quality Portuguese wines.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

September 2, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Cusumano Winery – Sicily, Italy

Join us for a Virtual Tasting with the maker of the #1 selling Sicilian wine in the U.S.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 26, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Kunde Family Winery

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. The Kunde family has farmed an 1,850-acre estate in Sonoma Valley for 100 years.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 19, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. Great wine starts in the vineyard.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

August 12, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Dutcher Crossing Winery

Join us for a Virtual Tasting. Distinctive and hand-crafted wines produced from award-winning vineyards.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

June 12, 2020

At Your Home

RGNY At-Home Blending Session

Be your own winemaker for a day — guided by a professional on Zoom video!

PURCHASE KIT & ZOOM TICKET
Crush Wine Experiences

May 29, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Virtual Wine & Pizza Tasting with Jamesport Vineyards

What’s better than great wine and artisanal pizza?

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 28, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Foxen Winery & Vineyard Virtual Tasting

Experience the magic of Santa Barbara wine.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 28, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Foxen Winery & Vineyard Virtual Tasting

Experience the magic of Santa Barbara wine.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 21, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Chateau Montelena Winery Virtual Tasting

This tasting will be epic.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 19, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Ridge Vineyards Virtual Tasting – Monte Bello winery

The New York Times described Ridge Monte Bello as “America’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon.”

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 18, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Tenuta di Lilliano Virtual Tasting

Very special tasting. Don’t miss it!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 15, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Pedroncelli Winery Virtual Tasting

Four Generations of Family Pride at Pedroncelli Winery, since 1927

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 14, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Provence Rosé Group Virtual Tasting

The best rosé in the world comes from Provence.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 13, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

St. Francis Winery Virtual Tasting

Voted “#1 in America” in 2013 and 2015 by Open Table customers.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 12, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Ridge Vineyards Virtual Tasting – Lytton Springs

The New York Times described Ridge’s Cabernet Sauvignon as America’s greatest.

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 11, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Oak Farm Vineyards Virtual Tasting

Visit the famous wine-growing region of Lodi County, California – virtually!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

May 8, 2020

Live Online Zoom Broadcast

Goldschmidt Vineyards Virtual Tasting

Visit Sonoma County – virtually!

RSVP FOR FREE
Crush Wine Experiences

April 18, 2020

Marlboro, NY

Wines & Bites!

Hudson Valley’s yummiest wine and food tasting event

GET TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

March 7, 2020

New York’s Premier Winter Wine Event

NYC Winter Wine and Food Festival

Enjoy a winter getaway without even leaving the city.

GET TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

January 19, 2020

Riverhead, NY

RG|NY Blending Session

Join RG|NY winemaker Lilia Perez, for a unique tasting and blending session.

PURCHASE TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

December 14, 2019

Ulster & Orange Counties, NY

Wreath Fineries at the Wineries

Don’t miss the ultimate holiday wine tasting event in the Hudson Valley. Sales end Thursday, Dec 12 at 11:59pm!

PURCHASE TICKETS
Crush Wine Experiences

November 14, 2019

New York, NY

Around The World In 10 Wines

Experience a global tasting in 2 hours with award-winning artisan cheese and charcuterie

PURCHASE TICKETS

RELATED WINE BLOGS

autumn wines

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

5 Autumn Wines Perfect for Cooler Weather
Fall is a festive season. And as the temperature drops, our thoughts inevitably turn to thick sweaters, blazing fires, and myriad of foods and spices, plus of course, those autumn wines. In addition to universal favorites that are uniquely food-friendly, like Pinot Noir, we think of the bigger, bolder, more complex wines like the proverbial - Read More
Read more...
new world wine

Friday, September 30th, 2022

New World Wine vs. Old World Wine: Global Winemakers are Changing Wine Markets
As the budding wine connoisseur that you are, you may have heard the terms, “Old World,” and “New World” wines. Old World wines refer to wines that come from traditional winemaking countries. These are countries in Europe and parts of the Middle East like France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Germany. New World wines come - Read More
Read more...
low abv

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022

Low Alcohol, High Flavor: Low ABV Beverages You’ll Love to Drink
Whether you’re trying to cut back on your alcohol consumption or you know you have a long night of bar hopping ahead of you, it helps to know what’s available to help keep your alcohol intake low. What’s more, you don’t have to sacrifice flavor to do it! By choosing drinks with low alcohol by - Read More
Read more...
LOAD MORE