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Prohibition and Wine's Darkest Hour

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When you think of illicit substances that are shipped in brick form, wine probably doesn't come to mind first. And no, boxed wine doesn't count. During Prohibition, however, drinkers got around laws that banned alcohol by dissolving bricks of grape concentrate in water and fermenting them into wine.

Of course, conscientious makers of grape bricks didn't want to contribute to bad behavior, and responsibly warned buyers that, "After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine." The makers of the Vino Sano Grape Brick even dutifully indicated what flavors one's careless handling of grape bricks would result in: burgundy, sherry, port, claret, riesling, etc.

I've never tried wine made from grape bricks, but I imagine Wine Spectator would rate it somewhere between vinegar and prison wine made from mixing grape juice and ketchup packets in a Ziploc bag and letting it ferment on a radiator.

Prison, of course, seemed like the appropriate landing spot for irresponsible grape brick vintners, but grape bricks were actually a safe way to avoid restrictive laws. Loopholes in prohibition legislation allowed families to produce 200 gallons per year of fermented fruit juice for home consumption. As long as the wine didn't leave the house, drinkers were safely within legal bounds. Grape brick company Vine-Glo reminded customers that wine made from bricks was "entirely legal in your home, but it must not be transported."

And home is where most winemaking during Prohibition occurred, often among families originally from southern and eastern European countries with strong winemaking traditions. Established bootleggers largely avoided selling wine in favor of distilled spirits that were more lucrative. A quart of 50-proof gin contained as much alcohol as six bottles of wine and was a lot easier to transport, according to Last Call, Daniel Okrent's epic history of Prohibition. Of course, the legal limit of 200 gallons per year left room for a little extra that could be sold to friends and neighbors, helping to more than double wine consumption in the U.S. from 70 million gallons per year in 1917 to 150 million gallons by 1925.

Wine was also lucrative to grape growers—growing grapes was perfectly legal, and shipments headed east from California often clogged the nation's railway networks, prompting expansions at some railyards. Farmers that had succumbed to pressure from Prohibitionists to replace their vines with other crops rushed to replant grapes. The cost of vineyard land went from about $100 per acre in 1919 to $500 per acre a year later, and grape prices soared from as low as $9.50 per ton in 1919 to $82 in 1921. In 1924 they spiked as high as $375. One Italian social club in Minnesota, seeking to acquire grapes for home winemaking, sent a grocer named Cesare Mondavi to California to acquire a suitable supply. Fortune beckoned, and Mondavi quickly abandoned the life of a Minnesota grocer and moved his family, including young son Robert, to the Golden State.

Unfortunately, this is where wine's Prohibition story takes a familiar turn down the same dark alley where many drinks during the era found themselves. Most alcoholic beverages of the time were awful (the term "bathtub gin" pretty much says it all), and wine was no exception. Many growers, including Julio Gallo, ripped out old grape vines yielding respected varieties such as zinfandel or semillon and replaced them with alicante bouschet, a grape that many vintners rank slightly above ragweed for horticultural pedigree. The reason was because alicante grew in large volumes and had a tough skin that made it easier to ship. Its dark flesh could also be pressed repeatedly, and after adding a little extra sugar and water it yielded more than double the amount of wine as other grapes.

Vintners who had spent their lives mastering the elusive art of winemaking were aghast at alicante's invasive takeover. At first, alicante grapes fetched high prices, but overplanting created supply that outstripped the vast demand for grapes. The question of what to do with all those excess grapes was addressed by the trade publication California Grape Grower, which helpfully promoted delicacies such as grape ketchup and grape fudge.

By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, much damage was done and the California wine industry was largely outfitted to produce lousy wines. When other alcoholic beverages such as distilled spirits and beer began recovering after Repeal, home winemaking plummeted and Americans drank about half of the quantity of wine they'd been drinking before Prohibition.

Perhaps it was all the lousy wine that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the greatest chronicler of Jazz Age America, to famously state, "There are no second acts in American lives." It took half a century to eventually prove him wrong, but American wine consumption returned to its pre-Prohibition rate by 1975. By that time, California was full of vintners that reprioritized quality over sheer quantity. The now-infamous "Judgment of Paris" was held one year later, in which underrated and overlooked American wines were pitted in a blind taste test against their pedigreed French counterparts. An American wine won, surprising the entire world and creating one of the greatest second acts in America's drinking history.

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He is currently writing a book about bourbon for Viking/Penguin. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire and on Twitter @ReidMitenbuler.

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