How Prohibition Shaped American Wine Country

If Prohibition never happened, could Missouri have been Napa? We take an in-depth look at how the 18th amendment changed wine in the U.S., who survived, and how.
San Pedro police dumping more than 4,000 gallons of confiscated alcohol down the drain on a Prohibition "pouring day" / Photo courtesy San Antonio Winery

December 5, also known as Repeal Day, gets a lot of love in the bar and spirits community. It commemorates the date in 1933 when the 21st amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the 18th amendment that banned the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, effectively ending Prohibition.

You’ve seen the images. Well-dressed folks toasting their beer mugs and cocktails under newspaper headlines that scream “Prohibition Ends at Last!” But while the beer and spirits industries continued to thrive during Prohibition thanks to a detailed network of bootleggers and speakeasies, Prohibition had a markedly different and damaging effect on the wine industry.

These days, it’s hard to find a winery in the U.S. that’s older than 1933. Most that existed before Prohibition were hit hard once the 18th amendment took effect, shutting their doors, dumping their barrels and leaving vines to wither and die. Ironically, although the temperance movement across the U.S. prior to Prohibition was very strong, there were also thriving wine industries in unexpected states throughout the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

So what would “American Wine Country” look like if had Prohibition never occurred?

The original cellars of Brotherhood Winery, still in use today / Photo by John Kidd
The original cellars of Brotherhood Winery, dug in 1839 and still in use today / Photo by John Kidd

America’s diverse 19th century wine regions

New York

Today, California has a firm grasp on the American wine industry and has been a significant winemaking force as far back as the 1870s. But back then, it was still a fairly remote location to the majority of the American population. From 1870 to 1880, New York hovered around seventh in wine production behind California, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia and New Mexico. By 1890, the Empire State had moved to second place, where it stayed until Prohibition.

Brotherhood Winery survived Prohibition selling wine for religious ceremonies. The clergy population in the area grew substantially during those 14 years.

New York even claims to be the home of “America’s Oldest Winery” with Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, New York. Still operating today, French Huguenot, Jean Jaques, dug his first underground cellars (and fermented his first vintage) in 1839, and those cellars are still in use today.

Old photo of the main building of Brotherhood Winery, still active to date / Photo courtesy Brotherhood Winery

The winery survived Prohibition under the ownership of Louis Farrell, who purchased the facility and its stock of sacramental wine in 1921, and continued to sell wine for religious ceremonies. The recorded history of Brotherhood Winery hilariously notes that the clergy population in the area grew substantially during those 14 years.

New Jersey

Another winemaking powerhouse on the East Coast was New Jersey, where 220,000 gallons of wine were produced from eleven wineries in 1900. In South Jersey, vineyards were centered around the towns of Vineland and Egg Harbor City, the latter being home to Renault Winery, one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in the country.

The use of a special permit introduced Renault Wine Tonic, a pharmaceutical product with an alcoholic content of 22%, sold in drug stores. Careful not to skirt the law, the tonic’s label warned consumers “not to chill the tonic, as it would turn into wine, which is illegal.”

Purchased in 1864 by Louis Nicholas Renault and selling New Jersey “Champagne” by 1870, Renault Winery became the largest distributor of sparkling wine in the United States. In 1919, the winery was purchased by the D’Agostino family and continued to operate during Prohibition by government permit allowing the production of sacramental wine and medicinal wine.

The use of this permit introduced Renault Wine Tonic, a pharmaceutical product with an alcoholic content of 22%, sold in drug stores throughout the nation. Careful not to skirt the law, the tonic’s label warned consumers “not to chill the tonic, as it would turn into wine, which is illegal.”

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Harvest time among Baxter's vines / Photo courtesy Baxter’s Vineyards
Harvest time among Baxter’s vines / Photo courtesy Baxter’s Vineyards

The Midwest

Arguably, the wine regions of the country that were most devastated by Prohibition were those of the Midwest. The average wine drinker today probably isn’t aware that competitive vintages are still produced in the area, and it’s safe to say most wine connoisseurs don’t give the Midwestern wine industry the respect it deserves.

In the 1870s, Stone Hill Winery in Missouri (est. 1847) produced more than one million gallons of wine per year, making it the second largest winery in the country.

The reality is that winemaking history here has depth and breadth, with the two most favored regions for grape growing found along the great valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, as far north as Wisconsin and west to Nebraska. Vines also spread through the prairies of Illinois, the black lands of central Iowa, the bluffs of eastern Kansas and the hilly Ozarks.

In the 1870s, Stone Hill Winery in Missouri (est. 1847) produced more than one million gallons of wine per year, making it the second largest winery in the country. Unfortunately the momentum of Missouri’s wine industry halted with the onset of Prohibition, particularly at Stone Hill, where their extensive arched underground cellars harvested mushrooms instead of wine until 1965.

Fortunately, there were a few wineries in this region that survived. Family-owned Baxter’s Vineyards, the oldest winery in Illinois, has operated out of the small town of Nauvoo since 1857. A booming wine business included medals from the Illinois State Board of Agriculture in 1876, 1877 and 1879. Formerly known as Baxter Brothers (and Emile Baxter and Sons prior to 1895), they were able to maintain their vineyard during Prohibition by shipping more than 120 railroad cars of grapes to northern markets like Chicago, while wine making was limited to family consumption.

Meier’s Wine Cellars in Cincinnati played both sides of the grape, so to speak. Opened in 1895 as a small grape juice business, Meier’s didn’t start making and selling wine until closer to 1900 after a land purchase in Silverton, Ohio. Once Prohibition came along, they reverted back to juice, earning special recognition for their sparkling Catawba grape juice (that still sells today), then reintroduced wine in 1933.

A 1920s order form for what was, at the time, known as the J. C. Meier Grape Juice Co. / Photo courtesy Meier’s Wine Cellars
A 1920s order form for what was, at the time, known as the J. C. Meier Grape Juice Co. / Photo courtesy Meier’s Wine Cellars

Texas and The South

Further south, only a handful of 19th century wineries still exist in what were once vibrant wine locales.  Fifth generation-run Post Familie Vineyards in Altus, Arkansas has been around since 1880 and is rumored to have survived Prohibition thanks to founder Jacob Post’s daughter-in-law Katherine, who served wine with meals at popular restaurants during Prohibition.

In Del Rio, Texas, Val Verde Winery has grown grapes and crafted wine since 1883. Founded by Italian immigrants, the Qualia family relied on their heritage and relationship with the Catholic church to continue their business throughout Prohibition by selling grapes and getting a permit to make sacramental wine.

North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and notably, Virginia, which was home to Monticello Wine Company in Charlottesville (at one point the largest winery in the South) all had flourishing wine industries that were effectively destroyed by Prohibition. One can only imagine what these wine regions would look like today had they not been stifled.

The Wente Family with their barrels in 1895 / Photo courtesy Wente Vineyards
The Wente Family with their barrels in 1895 / Photo courtesy Wente Vineyards

California

This brings us to California. Perhaps unsurprisingly, California is where the most pre-Prohibition wineries still exist.

Oddly, Prohibition seemed to serve California well, at least in regard to grape sales. Growers in the state clung to the provision of the Volstead Act that allowed the legal production of “fruit juices” (a k a wine) in the home, which led to a demand for fresh grapes across the country. Just before the start of Prohibition in 1919, California had about 300,000 acres of vineyard, but by 1927, the acreage had almost doubled and shipments of grapes grew by 125%. While the demand for grapes helped keep vineyards afloat, California wineries had to get creative in order to stay profitable during the dark days of Prohibition.

Beringer kept profits flowing through the sale of “wine bricks” of concentrated grape juice that consumers could dissolve in water and ferment by simply following the instructions printed on the packaging that masqueraded as a warning of what not to do to prevent the product from turning into wine.

Wente Vineyards in Livermore, California, established in 1883, maintained its bonded status during Prohibition by selling their Saunternes-style white wine to another California winery, Beaulieu Vineyard (est. 1900) in Rutherford. Beaulieu had a history of romancing the Catholic church, so unlike other California wineries that perished during Prohibition, Bealieu’s business increased fourfold through the sale of sacramental wine.

A bottle of Wente Bros. Pinot Chardonnay, 1936 vintage / Photo courtesy Wente Vineyards
A bottle of Wente Bros. Pinot Chardonnay, 1936 vintage / Photo courtesy Wente Vineyards

While also jumping on the sacramental wine trend, Beringer (est. 1876) kept profits flowing through the sale of “wine bricks.” These were legal bricks of concentrated grape juice that consumers could dissolve in water and ferment by simply following the instructions printed on the packaging that masqueraded as a warning of what not to do to prevent the product from turning into wine.

Concannon Vineyard (est. 1883), Bernardo Winery in San Diego (est. 1889) and San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles (est. 1917) all survived thanks to sacramental wine sales as well. However, San Antonio Winery seems to be the only winery that received special permission from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to produce wine for ceremonial purposes and continues to produce sacramental wine today.

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However, the most legendary tale goes to Pope Valley Winery. Founded in 1897 as the Burgundy Winery & Olive Oil Factory by Swiss farmer, Ed Haus, Ed’s son Sam befriended a young man from Chicago while in the military in the early 1900s. Through the Chicago connection, the Haus family began to sell and transport wine on a horse cart down to Napa where it boarded a train to Chicago to be served in Al Capone’s speakeasies and brothels during the height of Prohibition. The illicit sales were kept under wraps, and the winery appeared to have ceased production during Prohibition and no one questioned why they were able to “reopen” so quickly after its repeal.

Published on December 5, 2018
Topics: Wine History



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