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Prohibition and Wine’s Darkest Hour

If you think of illegal substances that are transported via bricks wine doesn’t usually come to mind immediately. The fact is, wine that’s boxed does not count. The history of prohibition however, drinking people evaded laws against alcohol by dissolving wine concentrate into water, and making wine from them.

Of course, responsible producers of grape bricks did not want to be a part of the problem and kindly warned consumers that “After you dissolve the bricks in one gallon water, you should not put it in a glass jug stored in the cupboard for a period of twenty days, as it will transform to wine.” The producers of the Vino Sano Grape Brick carefully outlined the flavors that reckless handling of grape bricks could produce: burgundy port, sherry and riesling.

I’ve never had the pleasure of tasting wine made of grape bricks. However, I’m sure Wine Spectator would rate it somewhere in between vinegar and prison wine . It is made by mixing grape juice and packets of ketchup into the Ziploc bag, and then let it ferment in a hot radiator.

Prison Of course, it seemed as the perfect place to land for reckless grape brick vintners 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 Gallons annually 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 advised clients that wine made of bricks is “entirely legal within your home, but should not be shipped.”

Home is also where the majority of winemaking during Prohibition was conducted, usually with families from 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 had the same amount of alcohol as the equivalent of six wine bottles, and was much easier to transport, as per Last Call Daniel Okrent’s epic story of Prohibition. Naturally, the lawful amount of 200gallons per year still left some room which could be offered to neighbors and friends and helped to increase the consumption of wine across the U.S. from 70 million annual gallons from 1917, to 150 million by the year 1925.

The wine industry also made money for winemakers–growing grapes was completely 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 was ranging from $100 to $100 per acre in 1919 , to $500 per acre after that, and prices for grapes went up from $9.50 per ton , in 1919, to as high as the high of $82 by 1921. In 1924, they reached up to $375. A single Italian social club located in Minnesota in search of grapes to make wine at home one of the grocers named Cesare Mondavi California to find a suitable supply. Fortune came calling Mondavi to leave the lifestyle of an Minnesota grocery store owner and relocated the family of his, which included the young son Robert in his home in the Golden State.

“Many growers, like Julio Gallo, ripped out old grape vines producing reputable varieties like zinfandel or semillon, and replaced them with Alicante Bouschet”

This is the point the place where wine’s Prohibition story is a familiar route into the same dark alley that many beverages during the time were found. Many of the alcohol drinks at the time were disgusting (the phrase “bathtub Gin” is pretty much the best description of everything) and wine was not an exception. A lot of growers, like Julio Gallo, ripped out old vines that produced reputable varieties like zinfandel and semillon, and replaced them with Alicante bouschet, a variety which many vintners place slightly above ragweed when it comes to horticultural pedigree. This was due to the fact that 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 repeatedly pressed with some sugar and water, it produced more than twice the quantity of wine 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 were expensive however, overplanting led to a demand that was greater than the 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 wine ketchup and grape fudge.

At the time Prohibition was removed in 1933, lots of harm was done in there was a lot of damage to the California wine business was designed to produce poor wines. As other alcohol-based beverages such as spirits distilled and beer started recovering following Repeal and home winemaking declined, and Americans were drinking less than half the amount of wine they consumed prior to Prohibition.

Maybe it was the bad wine that led F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous chroniclers of Jazz Age America, to famously say, “There are no second actions on the stage in American life.” It took a half century before proving him right, but American drinking of wine was back to pre-Prohibition levels in 1975. In 1975, California was full of vintners who reemphasized quality over just quantity. The now famous “Judgment of Paris” was held a year later. In it, the underrated and unappreciated American wines were compared in a blind tasting with their respected French counterparts. A single American wine was the winner, astonishing all of the world, and making one of the most memorable second acts in American drinking history.