April 7, 2008 is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition’s first phase. Finally, beer and a low alcohol version of wine became legal. Upon signing the first phase into law, President Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The final repeal of prohibition occurred on December 5th 1933. On that day, in California wine country, Martin Ray, a Paul Masson wine maker, turned stock broker during prohibition, brought a huge bronze bell from an old schoolhouse to his old boss’s house and woke him up with the energetic ringing his giant bell. After fourteen long years, Prohibition was, at last, finally over.
Prohibition almost destroyed the wine industry in America. During prohibition, there was only a small market for legal wine: wine in medicine, flavoring for food,tobacco, wine vinegar, and, hallelujah, sacramental wine. Eventually around fifty wineries produced sacramental/communion wines. The most successful was Beaulieu Vineyard (a.k.a. BV) The winery was owned by the wealthy catholic Frenchman George de Latour. George was a leading figure in the Catholic church of San Francisco and was able to get endorsements from church leaders for his wine to be sold to churches all across the country. The BV stationary of the day proudly proclaimed itself, “The House of Alter Wine.” The Christian Brothers and Louis Martini also thrived during prohibition.
To survive Prohibition, some wineries resorted to selling grape juice and concentrate. Since Americans could no longer go out and buy wine, we became country of home wine makers. Growers sold juice and concentrate with names like Forbidden Fruit, Vine-Glo, and Moonmist with instructions on how to make wine (so as not to break the law). “Do not place the container in room with a temperature over 60 degrees or contents may ferment.” Years after prohibition had been repealed, Ernest Gallo commented to a room of enologists, “Some of you may remember what homemade wine was– something like grape juice in December and something like vinegar in June.”
The great depression in 1929 found our government looking for ways to raise revenue. Clearly, gangsters such as Al Capone, who by that time owned all 10,000 speakeasies (illegal bars) in Chicago, were making lots of money with alcohol. So people of the time thought it would be good to legalize alcohol, so it could be taxed. They said the new tax revenues could be used to pay off the national deficit. In addition, repeal would create sorely needed new jobs and markets for grain to make beer and spirits.
So repeal it they did, and tax it they did, and also heavily regulate it to boot. Many states outlawed the bulk sale of wine in barrels requiring the smaller more expensive but more easily taxable 750 ml bottles we have today. (Prior to the repeal of prohibition wine was commonly sold in bulk inexpensively tapped out of kegs, kind of like growlers for beer) After repeal, wine could no longer move freely across state lines. Feds said states could either grant liquor licenses, run a state monopoly, or remain dry. Each state created their own restrictions. For example, in Kentucky, you could have a drink at a licensed bar only if the container held two ounces or less. In New York today, you still can’t buy retail alcohol on Sundays. A wine maker once said, “Prohibition was never repealed, it was just amended.” Join us as we celebrate the repeal of prohibition and imbibe all those once forbidden refreshments at The Wine Stop on April 12th 1-5pm. Prizes will be given for prohibition era trivia. Cheers!
Certified Sommelier, General Manager, President Liane was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. She graduated from the Kamehameha Schools in 1977, and worked in the bookkeeping department of Villa Roma, a women’s retail clothing store owned by her mother Audrey Fu, before flying off to college in New York City. She was a physics major at New York University (NYU). In her first semester, she attended a concert that was interpreted for the deaf. She became fascinated by the idea of communication through movement which for her was kind of like hula on steroids.