Prohibition Wipes Out an Industry
The winemaking business had its ups and downs, sometimes due to insects and other times to economics. In 1920 however, it crashed and burned because of politics. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made Prohibition the law of the land. The Prohibition movement in America was not a sudden twentieth-century phenomenon. It started small, but soon became a national obsession.
In 1816 Indiana forbade Sunday sales of alcohol. In the 1840s “dry” towns and counties emerged in seven states. In 1851 Maine outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcohol. By 1855, New Hampshire, Vermont, Delaware, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York had followed suit. At the outbreak of World War I, thirty-three states had gone dry.
The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 29, 1919, and one year later Prohibition began, making virtually all alcoholic beverages illegal. Even after ratification by the states, the amendment still needed an act of Congress to make it enforceable. That came in the form of the Volstead Act, spearheaded by the Minnesota congressman of the same name.
Many supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment had assumed that the “intoxicating liquors” to be banned were the high-alcohol distilled spirits, with 40 percent alcohol. Sadly, Volstead defined intoxicating liquors as any beverage containing more than one-half of 1 percent alcohol, thus including beer, with its 3 to 7 percent alcohol, and wine, with its less than 13 percent alcohol.
The almost immediate result of these acts was the decimation of the American wine industry. Vineyards were uprooted. Equipment was abandoned. Growers and producers — if they didn't go completely under — had to find creative ways to stay in business. Cooking wine could still be produced, as long as it was salted and undrinkable. Sacramental and religious wines were still allowed, even wine made for medicinal purposes. Home producers were permitted to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year.
Ingenious California grape growers introduced a product they named Vine-Glo. While they weren't permitted to make wine, the growers could still make grape juice. They sold their juice with instructional material telling consumers what not to do, lest their juice turn to wine in sixty days.
Prohibition's damage to the wine industry was far more than economic; it was cultural. The art of winemaking, which had been practiced for centuries, became illegal. People who had invested their lives and savings in research and equipment had their investments wiped out. Thousands of workers involved in making, bottling, distributing, serving, and selling wine were out of jobs. In 1919 the United States produced 55 million gallons of wine. In 1925 it was 3.5 million gallons.
By 1933, when the Twenty-first Amendment repealed Prohibition, the damage had been done. The country had lost its winemakers and an entire generation of wine drinkers. Other effects of this “Noble Experiment” exist to this day in the form of direct-shipping and distribution laws. By 1936 fifteen states had laws that created state monopolies on wine sales and prevented free-market competition. Other states, while allowing hotels and restaurants to serve wine, banned bars and “liquor by the drink.” The after-math of Prohibition resulted in a hodgepodge of alcohol laws that vary from state to state and community to community.