In the words of Al Capone, “Prohibition has made nothing but trouble.” Although Prohibition was actually a boon for this crime boss and his colleagues, the trouble that Prohibition caused for the wine industry is still echoing today. Although it might seem hard to believe, the actions of a few people and an Amendment created over one hundred years ago nearly decimated the entire wine industry. And although Capone and other crime bosses benefited when bootlegging went underground, the family-built winery businesses were almost entirely pushed off the map, and struggled mightily to stay in business.
So what exactly happened? The 18th Amendment to our constitution is famously known for outlawing the sale of “intoxicating liquors.” Although meant to go after the big guns such as whisky and other spirits, the aftermath of the 18th Amendment nearly tore the American wine industry apart. When “intoxicating liquors” were banned, wine was part of that package.
On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act took effect, and the ramifications were felt immediately. Winegrowers, especially in the regions of Sonoma and Napa in California, had been building their orchards and their wineries for decades. Families were passing down orchards to families, the country was getting used to well-known winery names, and people were enjoying the pronounced tastes of reds and whites. But despite this successful grape growing and wine-making, the “dry movement” had simultaneously been gaining ground since the late 1800s.
Despite the slow building of the dry movement and the full year between the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act taking effect, when the intoxicating liquors actually became illegal and all the grape growing and winemaking stopped, it seemed pretty sudden for all those involved.
So what happened on January 17, 1920, the day after the Volstead Act took place? Many people who owned wineries just closed up shop instead of staying to fight the good fight, which would have been to keep their wineries open. This was devastating to those families who had worked for decades to build their businesses. But it was just too expensive and all-encompassing to turn their business from wine production into producing unfermented grape juice or table grapes, and one could never be sure of the regulations and rules that might be broken that could cause the business to be shut down entirely. The rules were often ludicrous; for instance, wineries could make wine, but could not sell wine.
For winery owners who were trying to feed their families, they needed to be very creative and even find some loopholes in order to keep wineries open and be able to make some money. Some winery owners turned their business to sacramental wines, because making wine for the church was still considered legal. Others used the loophole that making homemade wine was legal, in order to grow and ship grapes across the country that would be used for individual families to make wine in their own homes. Although the grapes that were shipped across the country were not of very high quality, they were enough to keep the wineries in business.
For all the teetotaler’s dreams of those who favored Prohibition, the staunch laws actually backfired in a major way. When told that alcohol was illegal, people went underground to make it and buy it in speakeasies, bootlegging wine when they could. The dark underground of Prohibition actually caused more trouble than alcohol did when it was still legal.
After more than a decade of people skulking around making, selling, and imbibing in liquor, in 1933 the 21st Amendment was enacted which repealed Prohibition. Although this sounds on the surface like a positive, it did nothing for the damage that had already been inflicted on the wineries. There were only 380 wineries in 1933, and for the most part, the high-quality grapes had been wiped out in the years of Prohibition.
‘It’s very simple,’ American wine historian Charles Sullivan said. “The 21st Amendment was a disaster: it solidified states’ rights over wine matters and, via the 10th Amendment, screwed up everything. Just ask a [California] wine-grower today. The restrictions, such as transport through states, are ridiculous. All I’ve heard from wineries is jabbering of the paperwork they have to file to get anything done.”
What might be truly hard to believe is that even long after wine was reinstituted as legal, the ramifications of Prohibition and the effect of all those long years with no wine production and sales still caused the wine industry to falter. Wine connoisseurs long after were suspicious of the wines because the wine quality during Prohibition was not very good, as the inferior grapes were shipped throughout the country.
Although hard to understand from our modern viewpoint, Prohibition affected the wine industry in ways that we still might entirely understand.