What Happened During Prohibition?

If you think of illegal substances that are transported via bricks wine is probably not the first thing that comes to mind immediately. The fact is, wine that’s boxed does not count. In Prohibition however, alcohol drinking people evaded prohibition laws by dissolving wine concentrate into water, and making wine from them.

Naturally, the responsible makers of grape bricks weren’t looking to be a part of the problem and so they proactively warned purchasers to be aware that “After you dissolve the bricks in one gallon water, don’t put the liquid inside a glass jug stored in the cupboard for a period of twenty days, as it will transform to wine.” The creators of the Vino Sano Grape Brick carefully outlined the flavors that negligent handling of bricks of grapes will cause: burgundy port, sherry, claret and riesling.

I’ve not tried wine made with grape bricks. However, I’m sure Wine Spectator would rate it somewhere in between vinegar and prison wines made by mixing grape juice and packets of ketchup into an Ziploc bag before waiting for it to ferment in a hot radiator.

Prison It was, of course, as the perfect place to land for vintners who were reckless with their grape bricks However, grape bricks actually served as an effective way to stay clear of the strictures of laws. A loophole in prohibition laws permitted families to make 200 gallon per year of fermented juice from fruit for at-home consumption. If the wine was not taken out of the home, the drinking was the lawful limits. The grape brick business Vine-Glo informed clients that wine made with bricks is “entirely legal within your home, however it should not be shipped.”

The home is where the bulk of winemaking during Prohibition was carried out, mostly with families from the eastern and southern European countries that had long-standing winemaking traditions. The bootleggers who were successful tended to avoid selling wine and instead opted for spirits distilled, which were more profitable. A quarter-ounce of gin that was 50 proof included the same amount of alcohol as 6 bottles of vino, and was much easier to transport, as per Last Call Daniel Okrent’s epic story of Prohibition. Naturally, the limitation of 200 gallons per year still left some room which could be offered to family and friends which helped increase the consumption of wine within the U.S. from 70 million Gallons per year from 1917, to 150 million in 1925.

The wine industry also made money for the grape growers. Growing grapes was legal and shipments towards the east from California frequently blocked the nation’s railway lines, causing expansions at certain railyards. Farmers who were unable to resist the pressure of Prohibitionists to plant vines in other crops, rushed to plant grapes. The cost of land for vineyards increased from around $100 an acres in 1919 to as high as $500 per acre after that, and prices for grapes increased from $9.50 per ton , in 1919, to as high as the high of $82 by 1921. In 1924, they reached to as high as $375. A single Italian social club located in Minnesota looking to purchase grapes for winemaking at home one of the grocers named Cesare Mondavi California to procure a sufficient supply. Fortune was calling Mondavi, who resigned the lifestyle of an Minnesota retailer and relocated the family of his, which included the young son Robert and his family to his home in the Golden State.

“Many growers, like Julio Gallo, ripped out old vines of grapes that produced renowned varieties like zinfandel and semillon and replaced them Alicante Bouschet”

This is the point the place where wine’s Prohibition story goes into the same dark alley that many beverages during the time were found. Many of the alcohol drinks at the time were disgusting (the expression “bathtub Gin” basically says the whole story) and wine was not an exception. A lot of growers, like Julio Gallo, ripped out old grapevines producing renowned varieties like zinfandel and semillon, and replaced them with Alicante bouschet, a variety that many winemakers rank above ragweed when it comes to horticultural pedigree. It was because the alicante grape grew in huge quantities and also had a tough, tough skin which made it easy to transport. Its dark flesh could be squeezed repeatedly and, after adding some sugar and water, it produced more than twice the volume of wine that is produced by other grapes.

Vintners who’d spent their entire lives acquiring the mysterious art of winemaking were shocked at the invading alicante’s takeover. The first time, the grapes from Alicante sold for a high price However, the over-planting of grapes created a an abundance that exceeded the huge demands for wine. The issue of what to do with the extra grapes was considered by the trade magazine California Grape Grower, which effectively promoted delicacies, such as grape Ketchup and grape fudge.

At the time Prohibition was removed in 1933, lots of harm was done as it was evident that the California wine business was designed to produce poor wines. As other alcohol-based beverages like distilled spirits and beer started recovering following Repeal and home winemaking declined, and Americans consumed about half the amount of wine they consumed prior to Prohibition.

Maybe it was the bad wine that led F. Scott Fitzgerald, possibly the greatest chronicler of Jazz Age America, to famously declare, “There are no second actions within American life.” It took a half century before proving him not to be correct, however American consumption of wine returned to the pre-Prohibition level in the year 1975. At that point, California was full of winemakers who put quality ahead of the sheer quantity. The now famous “Judgment of Paris” was held a year later. In it, often underrated and under-appreciated American wines were compared in a blind tasting with their respected French counterparts. The winner was an American wine took the top prize, astonishing all of the world, and making one of the most memorable second acts in American’s drinking history.