I turned 21 in 1999, decades after the Roaring Twenties. Because of this, I can honestly say I don’t know what Prohibition feels like. I can only compare it to an empty keg at a raging party or that feeling I got one night in high school when I watched a disgruntled bouncer cut up my beloved fake ID. I, like most of us, became of age in an era when wine was freely flowing, beer was always on tap, and teenagers counted the days until their 21st birthday.
Those who were born at the beginning of the 19th Century, however, weren’t so lucky. In an era marked by pandemic flu and a world war, an era where drinking was not only used for pleasure but also used as a much needed escape from reality, Prohibition entered the picture.
Like an unwelcome patron who pulls up a stool at the local bar, saloon owners and alcohol lovers in America took one look at Prohibition and said, “We don’t want any.” It wasn’t the common man’s decision and, as beer fell to tears, whiskey winced, and cases of Merlot wined, Prohibition began on January 16th, 1920 when the 18th Amendment took effect, illegalizing the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol.
There were red flags against Prohibition from the start — anything the KKK fervently advocates is probably not the best idea — and Prohibition, in the end, did little more than increase alcohol consumption and pave the way for organized crime. Fourteen years later, in December of 1933, Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment, leaving many Americans to raise their glasses to lawmakers for the first time in over a decade.
The Volstead Act
During Prohibition, wine was treated a little differently than other types of alcohol. It was as if a bottle of Cabernet slipped the government a twenty and winked in a way that meant, “Shh…keep a cork on it.” This was due to the Volstead Act. Passed in the year before Prohibition began, it gave federal agents the ability to investigate and prosecute anyone caught in violation of Prohibition’s liquor laws. However, wines used for sacramental purposes were exempt under this act, allowing wine to slip through the cracks where beer was too thick to seep.
Because of this act, limited amounts of wine could be made both at home and in wineries. Those made in wineries were only available for purchase through warehouses owned and monitored by the government. Also, wine was only allowed to be purchased for use in religious ceremonies, particularly mass. These rules didn’t keep wine drinkers from only using wine for legal purposes. A conceptual “wine opener”, the Volstead Act provided a window of opportunity – one drinkers were quick to go through.
A study performed in 1925, during the heart of Prohibition, found that demand for sacramental wine increased by 800,000 gallons in a two year period. Perhaps churchgoers were legitimately making this demand — prohibition brought out a religious revival of its own — but it’s far more likely that people were purchasing sacramental wine for other uses. Just like the old saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole,” there are no atheists in Prohibition when religious wines are legal.
Even though Prohibition increased the consumption of wine by nearly 100 percent — as illegalizing anything will often do — many wineries were forced to close their doors. For those who didn’t make sacramental wines it was hard to get around the law and the grapes of wrath set in like no other time in history. Because of this, prohibition drastically changed the grape industry, placing grapes everywhere out of a job. The wineries that survived this era did so in part by transforming their grapes from wine-making grapes to grapes that served non-alcoholic purposes, such as Concord grapes used to make raisins, grape juice, and jam.
The grape industry of California was saved by the Volstead Act, which allowed fermented fruit juices to be produced at home. This gave wineries a reason to stay open. While this was intended to save the vinegar industry for American farmers, it also gave California wineries a way to break Prohibition rules. Those manning the wineries began producing a grape jelly called “Vine-go,” a jelly that, with the addition of water, would ferment into strong wine in roughly two months.
The Wine Itself
As Prohibition swept the nation, and people everywhere began making beer, whiskey, and wine in their houses, the quality of liquor greatly suffered. Novices of brewing and mixing were suddenly forced into expert status. Some people made liquor so strong it left people permanently blind or paralyzed, but wine wasn’t quite as dangerous.
While wine didn’t take away a person’s ability to walk or see, it did take away some people’s ability to truly appreciate fine wine. During this era, fine wine wasn’t so fine after all.
Having built an elegant reputation that went back to Biblical times, Prohibition made wine a little less sophisticated and a little more spontaneous. Wine had been produced by people renown for viniculture knowledge. During Prohibition, wine was often made by people who knew nothing about it. Naturally, this resulted in wines of inferior taste: it wasn’t the taste, after all, that many novice wine makers were pursuing.
As Prohibition drew to a close, wineries that had stockpiled wine over the previous fourteen years were able to quench the thirst of some of the parched nation. Since so many wineries had closed down and others had converted from wine-making grapes to other types of grapes, the wine industry took years to rebound. During this time of recovery, wines were continually made with less quality, hindering people from planting more vineyards.
For a while after Prohibition, it looked like the wine industry was on its way down the drain. As wineries began transforming back to growers of wine-making grapes, the quality of wine was eventually restored. Within a few years, the wine industry was on the upslope, and Americans were savoring each and every glass, probably now more than ever.