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I'll drink to that: Prohibition repeal turns 75

With wraiths of the 1930s seemingly lurking around every corner — Stock panic! Bank failures! Cloche hats! — the appeal of repeal is particularly strong this year, with a number of bars and restaurants planning to mark the milestone.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here's a word that can still send chills through wine country: Prohibition.

The great temperance tryout, which ended 75 years ago this December, may not have done much to stop drinking, but it did succeed in putting a cork in America's burgeoning wine industry — and ushering in an era of plonk that lasted decades.

“There was a lot of wine made and drunk during Prohibition, but the standards were poor. It set things back very seriously,” said Thomas C. Pinney, author of “A History of Wine in America.”

With wraiths of the 1930s seemingly lurking around every corner — Stock panic! Bank failures! Cloche hats! — the appeal of repeal is particularly strong this year, with a number of bars and restaurants planning to mark the milestone.

“It's a great day of the year,” said Jackson Cannon, bar manager of Boston-based Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, which has been serving Prohibition-inspired cocktails all year and arranged a party to begin Dec. 4 and carry through to Dec. 5 — the official anniversary of repeal.

Even all these years later, there still are a few hangovers from the days when (officially) no liquor or wine was served at any time.

“Its lasting legacy has been a fundamental misunderstanding between use and abuse by the American public,” said Eileen Fredrikson, a wine analyst with Woodside-based Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates. “There are still places where wine on the table is just not part of the culture. People grow up with iced tea. They don't even think about wine as possibly an enhancement to a family meal.”

On the legal side, repeal was orchestrated to let individual states set their own rules, creating a jumble of laws that continues to complicate wine shipping.

Still, Fredrikson plans to raise a glass to the 75th anniversary of repeal.

“You bet,” she said with a laugh. “We raise a glass every night. A glass at dinner is one of the small luxuries of life that keeps you sane.”

The temperance movement built up over decades, spearheaded by people who argued that alcohol was ruining lives, especially of the working classes.

They succeeded in 1919, with Prohibition taking effect a year later.

From the start there were loopholes. Individuals could make up to 200 gallons a year of "fruit juices" for personal use. Sacramental wine also was allowed and alcohol could be prescribed for medicinal purposes.

Wineries used their own wiles, labeling bottles for "medicinal use only" and selling grape juice carefully labeled with instructions to on no account take certain actions, such as leaving the barrel to sit in a warm place, a sort of "Warning: Contents may ferment."

Napa vintner Jim Regusci remembers hearing stories from old timers about the "milk" company, which didn't see so much as the flick of a cow's tail, but regularly sent a truck to the Napa Valley to pick up batches of bootleg alcohol for delivery to San Francisco.

For legitimate operations, Prohibition descended swiftly.

Jim Bundschu of the Gundlach-Bundschu winery in Sonoma County, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, recalls hearing how the winery “just was literally padlocked up. They were bottling apricot brandy one day and the next day no one came back to the winery.”

Like some other wineries, Gundlach-Bundschu kept afloat growing and selling grapes. (Bundschu and his father revived the winery in the '70s, part of the renaissance of American wine.)

But many shut up shop.

At the start of Prohibition there were about 700 wineries operating in California. By its end there were about 40, said Fredrikson.

Some credit Prohibition with giving organized crime a stronger foothold, though Pinney says that's a hard question to answer definitively. Some unfortunate people died during the period from drinking bad liquor or methyl (wood) alcohol.

It's highly unlikely that Prohibition itself would make any kind of comeback. Many groups are devoted to helping people cope with alcohol abuse, but even a group as big as Alcoholics Anonymous says it takes no stance on issues such as alcohol bans, a spokeswoman said, focusing instead on helping people.

In the end, the Depression helped hasten the end of Prohibition.

“It was a sort of no-brainer. 'Of course, we'd better get back to producing legal alcoholic drink instead of letting bootleggers make all the money,'” said Pinney.

Unfortunately, a depression is no time to start up a capital-intensive industry like the fine wine business.

Wineries that had survived the dry years by selling grapes already had switched to tougher-skinned fruit that traveled better, but made inferior wines.

Meanwhile, all that Chateau de Basement cooked up at home hadn't exactly stoked appetites for refined wines

So what poured out from California after repeal were sweet, fortified wines that went by the labels "port" and "sherry," though they had little in common with the fine vintages produced by Portugal and Jerez, Spain.

“Table wine almost disappeared for the first decade after repeal,” Pinney said. “It took a long, long time to alter that.”

It wasn't until the late '60s, about the time fine wine champions like Robert Mondavi were emerging, that quality domestic wines made a comeback.

For today's wine country visitors, Prohibition is just a memory to be glimpsed in the crumbling ruins of "ghost wineries," that folded under the triple threat of a late-19th century outbreak of vine disease, Prohibition and the Depression.

But the past is much more concrete at the Regusci Winery where the 1878 Occidental-Grigsby winery that went bust in the Depression still stands. This is a sturdy "ghost" made of walls two-feet thick and still in use for barrel storage.

At dusk, the setting sun gilds the building's elegant facade, picking out the lettering of the old winery name etched in the hand-cut lava stone.

Regusci likes the idea that winemaking is still going on here.

“It's kind of taking this piece of property back to where it originally was," he said, "except it's legal.”