When Prohibition clobbered Napa’s wine industry

Federal ban on alcohol sales created civil disobedience
2014-01-18T20:57:00Z 2014-01-18T21:07:28Z When Prohibition clobbered Napa’s wine industrySASHA PAULSEN Napa Valley Register
January 18, 2014 8:57 pm  • 

Today the United States and its people are divided, so it seems, into the Reds and the Blues. A hundred years ago, it was the Drys versus the Wets, and the brief triumph of the former resulted in a 13-year-long national experiment that would have a devastating effect on the Napa Valley.

Across the nation, Prohibition, banning the production, sale and transportation of alcohol, turned ordinary citizens into criminals, spawned the rise of Al Capone and organized crime, of illegal speakeasies, millionaire bootleggers and federal agents trying to catch them all.

Before Prohibition became law Jan. 16, 1920, the growing wine industry in the Napa Valley had survived a phylloxera epidemic in the 1880s, financial upheavals in the 1890s and even the San Francisco earthquake that destroyed warehouses full of wine. But none of these would compare to Prohibition.

During the year before Prohibition went into effect, the stories on Page 1 of the Register covered the passage of the Volstead Act, which would implement Prohibition, its veto by President Wilson and the subsequent override by Congress. “Wets start the fight” against the new law, it reported, and noted that these “Wets” were predominantly Democrats.

It reported, with a dateline of New York City, the “first of many conversions of saloons into soft-drink emporiums” as the Salvation Army Servicemen’s hotel began serving buttermilk and other soft drinks.

As for the wine industry, a March 1 headline reported “San Joaquin Grape Men Appeal to Wilson,” while Assemblyman Bismarck Bruck of Napa was pushing for a commission to determine what losses the “grape men” would suffer as a result of Prohibition.

The answer would come from the UC Division of Viticulture: “Grape Loss by Bone Dry Measure Total” reported estimates that the “one-half million tons of grapes valued at $9,000,000, represents the loss to grape growers of California if the National Bone Dry Amendment goes into effect. The loss will be total. … Only one solution can, to any extent, save the calamity. That is the manufacture of grape syrup.”

A local item noted that sales were brisk and prices up “in Napa’s thirst emporiums” with wine selling at 10 cents a glass. Beer was 15 cents a pint, whiskey 20 cents straight or in a highball, and a gin fizz was 35 cents.

As 1919 ended, the paper reported on Dec. 17: “The end of booze is in sight. According to the federal reports, current supplies of alcoholic beverages will only last another two or three years.”

Wine as medicine

The Napa paper was also diligent in reporting the exceptions to the Prohibition laws. “Wine can be made for medicine as well as for sacramental purposes,” the paper reported on Feb. 13, 1919. The story included a caveat: “About 250 patent medicines are known to the Internal Revenue authorities to be ‘booze’ in disguise, the percentage of alcohol in them running to 20 to 25 percent. Makers of this class of medicines will not be able to get any spirits.”

An update on March 11, 1921, noted, “According to doctors, two classes of persons will get prescriptions for beer: new mothers and those in a ‘run down’ condition who need a tonic.”

So popular did medicinal booze prove to be that when the paper reported that 200 Sonoma County men had applied for wine permits for medicinal wine purposes, a separate story included a warning from Prohibition administrator Williams G. Walker that “three-quarters of the manufacturers of wine tonic in Northern California will shortly go out of business unless they can prove that their products are actually to be distributed for medical purposes.”

The first year

According to historians, during the early years of Prohibition, grape growing and winemaking continued in the valley, but on this subject the paper is remarkably quiet.

When the first arrests began, these stories, too, were tiny items. “Joe Ponza and Steve Guona were arrested for transporting wine,” a 1920 story reported, but “the truck and cases of tomatoes which made up part of the cargo were returned.”

The stories that got the bigger headlines were national ones: “Breweries closed in Pennsylvania”; “Federal agents report booze bombs filled with whiskey were being shot from Canada across the Detroit River.”

As the first year of Prohibition ended, the paper reported, “Bootleggers cleaned up a cool billion, based on Internal Revenue Bureau reports,” and on Jan. 21, 1921, “Unless the Federal prohibition law is repealed, a revolution in the United States is probable, Federal Judge Pollack of Kansas City declared here today.”

Home winemakers

The paper also noted that home winemaking was legal as long as the wine wasn’t sold, as was making juice and cider, and “federal agents (are) warned not to interfere with making fruit juices, and must have warrants before breaking into homes. Shipments of grapes, grape juice and concentrates are within the law.”

A burst of interest in this new hobby led grapegrowers to begin shipping grapes east by train, but California growers got a stern warning from a federal inspector who went to Fresno to tell them “they should use care to see that the grapes were only sold to persons who intended, in good faith, to put them to legal home use.”

On July 21, 1921, a headline read: “Sudden Death, Emmet Delgazie Drank of Home Made Alcoholic Concoction; Proves Fatal.”

Delgazie, an immigrant from Italy, had left his Napa home “in the best of health and spirits” on a Sunday afternoon. He came home feeling unwell, and “despite expert attention” from a physician, he died Tuesday night. Dr. C.H. Bulson, who performed the autopsy, “stated death was due to drinking a home-made concoction made of apricot pits.”

Enforcement intensifies

By 1923, enforcement of Prohibition was ramping up, as reports of raids and arrests increased, such as: “Two resorts on Highway Down in Soscol Were Visited Unexpectedly by Federal Officials” and “Booze seized: 265 cases and 61 sacks of booze seized from a ship arriving in SF.”

As Prohibition ground on, the headlines grew larger, but most often the subjects were not from Napa. “Sonoma County Wineries May Be Seized,” a story reported. “Federal Officers have taken the first step towards cutting off part of San Francisco’s supply of wine when, in a sensational ambush, they this morning seized three truck loads of wine and arrested five San Francisco men believed to be members of an alleged Bay Area ‘wine ring.’”

Another story reported, “10 men, including three SF police officers, were arrested, unloading six truckloads of liquor from a mystery schooner lying off Point Reyes.”

A larger story on Aug. 16, 1923, reported that Napa County had been “enriched by $7,100 in bootleg fines from raids conducted in one day in American Junction, St. Helena, Calistoga and other points in the valley under the direction of Sheriff Joseph Harris.”

Chaos and confusion

As the decade went on, stories became more violent. Much was made of the accidental killing of a man in Texas by a Prohibition agent but a local story got a banner headline: “Booze car wrecked near Napa; 1 dies; driver flees.”

An “expensive roadster” carrying 17 five-gallon cans of red wine was wrecked in a ditch near Oakville, the story reported. “Faustino Abbati, a passenger in the car, was crushed and died, but the driver feigned illness as he was being driven to the coroner’s office and when the car stopped for him, he jumped out and ran away and disappeared into an orchard. The roadster was register(ed) to Mary Maddocks at a San Francisco address, but investigation found no one had lived at that address for two years.”

The most violent encounter in the Napa Valley was yet to come: On Dec. 30, 1929, the Napa Daily Register reported, “John South, Wife, Jailed in Shooting of U.S. Dry officer. Federal agent badly wounded in raid on home in Yountville.”

Two agents, Robert D. Freeman and Henry Jones, had arrived at the Souths’ Yountville home. “South, 58, well-known resident of Yountville, listed as a shoemaker, was charged with violation of the National Prohibition Act by unlawful possession of wine, whiskey and beer; sold on Dec. 9 to William Philip.

“When South was perceived attempting to pour something down a drain, a fierce struggle had ensued, between Freeman and South.”

Jones, attempting to assist Freeman, pulled out a blackjack, only to be confronted by Mrs. South who “poked a shotgun in his back and said, ‘If you hit him, I’ll shoot you.’” It was Freeman, however, who was shot by John South.

South was charged with murder, the paper reported, but in May, both South and his wife stood trial for assault and resisting arrest. South was convicted, although the jury acquitted his wife.

Though jurors recommended leniency, Judge Harold Louderback imposed a 10-year prison term. “No more serious crime has come before me,” the paper reported the judge saying. “No matter what we think about the Prohibition question, this federal officer was interfered with in the discharge of his duty.”

As 1929 concluded, the paper reported the lowest grape harvest in five years in California, where prunes brought $19,776,000 while “juice grapes” brought $14,560,000.

The revolution begins

By 1930, as the paper reported in a small item, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was celebrating the 10th anniversary of dry law, a more prominent story announced that “the plight of grape growers may be one of the first problems for the Federal Farm Board to tackle in DC.”

As Gov. Franklin Roosevelt of New York was openly calling for reform of the Volstead Act, the paper reported “Dry Law Reform Starts in State … liberals are actively working for a ballot initiative … to repeal the 18th amendment.”

President Hoover, however, “was digging in” and calling for increased enforcement. “Hoover Prohibition Commission Keeps Mum on rumors of dissent,” the story read, adding that the president was appealing to “people who disagree with it to support the law.”

As raids continued, the debate was out in the open. One story reported motorcyclists taken into custody and fined $200 for finding a “source of whoopie” in Calistoga.

Another, on April 16, 1930, recounted “Federals seize huge still, alcohol in Napa Redwoods. … Napa man, 9 others arrested by Dry Raiders (who) declared they had smashed what they declared was the headquarters of a state-wide liquor ring at the Henry Brandlin ranch in Mt. Veeder.”

The Register reported that U.S. Sen. Blaine of Wisconsin had called for the end to Prohibition, saying that federal enforcement in 10 years had cost taxpayers $264,475,384, and 250 people had been killed, including 68 agents. “Even staunch prohibitionists admit today there is still plenty of liquor available.”

And testifying before the House of Representatives, New York lawyer Frederick Coudert announced “he has always drunk wine and planned to continue. ‘I don’t believe the 18th amendment represents a law,’ he said. ‘A real law expresses the life and customs of a people.’”

The fight for repeal had begun.

Roosevelt and Repeal

In November 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, promising “Four Rs — Relief, Recovery, Reform and Repeal.” He won solidly in Napa County.

On Nov. 21 came the first winery news: “Beringer’s Winery is ready for dry repeal” the headline read. “Acting on the likelihood that the 18th Amendment will be repealed or modified by Congress before very long, the famous Beringer Winery at St. Helena reported that it is making 50,000 gallons of the new vintage.”

“The repeal of the 18th Amendment is inevitable,” a Register editorial read. “(It is) hoped that Roosevelt would call a special session after he is inaugurated next March to give congress a chance to comply with the overwhelming demand for repeal.”

By Feb. 22, the paper was reporting “House Approves Repeal, 289-121,” noting that “wild cheering greets announcement sending the 18th amendment back to states for ratification or rejection of repeal. 36 of 48 states have to approve the new amendment. Anti-prohibitionists realize they are embarking on a bitter struggle: Just 13 states can block ratification by unfavorable vote or failure to act.”

Again the Register weighed in with an editorial on March 3. “Our grape growers are no longer concealing the fact that they have carried on during the devastation of prohibition as long as has been possible and are now on the very brink of ruin with vineyards taxed beyond power to pay and no income from the lands they have tilled and toiled while prohibition’s hold has been upon the country. Relief is in sight. But will it come in time?”

On March 4 Roosevelt was inaugurated and on March 13, the paper reported, “Roosevelt startled even his cabinet members in carrying out one of his foremost pledges to the nation, by asking for 3.2 percent alcohol beer to be legalized.” Taxes, he had pointed out, would provide much-needed revenue for the government.

In swift response, the paper reported that “200,000 Italian-Americans from California sent telegrams asking Roosevelt to include light wines.” This sparked an intense debate when the Senate Finance Committee suggested a 3.2 percent wine.

California grapegrowers refused to accept the offer, contending that such wine would be “non-existent sop, worse than nothing at all,” according to Sophus Federspiel, president of the grapegrowers. “There is no such wine possible of manufacture.”

Yet another editorial chimed in on this debate: “There is no such thing as a 3.2 percent wine. Beer people are getting real beer; wine makers should be allowed real wine. 3.2 wine would be a fraud. The only legislation that will help the wine grape growers of this or any other State will be permission to make and sell wine of natural strength. That means wine of 10 percent or more alcoholic content. That is the way nature makes wine in California.”

Meanwhile, beer was for sale again in Napa, and the April 7, 1932, edition reported, “Parched Napans lost no time in sampling real honest-to-goodness beer after 13 years of aridity.” The price was 10 cents a glass; 15 cents a bottle with a 5 cent deposit.

“Beer makers can’t keep pace with drinkers,” the story reported. A week later, it reported that beer had brought $3 million “to Treasury in one week.”

Not to be outdone, however, on May 4, the paper reported “California sends first shipment of 4 percent alcohol wine to President Roosevelt” and “Miss Jane Barrett is seen drinking a toast before the assortment of Mont Rouge wines was shipped east by the Affiliated Wine Companies of California.”

It would still be six more months, however, before the necessary number of states had ratified the repeal of the 18th Amendment. The paper followed each vote closely, finally announcing on Dec. 1: “The first alcoholic drink after liquor is legalized will slip down an American throat between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. EST on December 5, the Association against American Prohibition reported today. At 2 p.m. EST the Utah convention would be called to order. When the gavel brings the meeting to a close, the dry law is officially dead.”

This was followed on Dec. 4: “Utah Ratification (at 2:22 1/2) Signals Finals of 14 Year Thirst Era. Old John Barleycorn, buried back in 1920, will be brought back to life legally in 20 states tomorrow.

On Dec. 6, headlines read: “Roosevelt Proclaims Repeal. President pleads U.S. be Temperate as Dry Era Ends.” Also, “Steep Prices Prevent Wild Repeal Fiesta in California.”

“It will be a big thing for the State to get the wine-making industry going again,” the paper noted.

It would be decades, however, before the wine industry in the Napa Valley would recover.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. Crosscountrykid
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    Crosscountrykid - January 19, 2014 6:16 am
    The parallels between aspects of Prohibition and the controversies around legalizing pot are interesting, to say the least. In both instances an exemption was allowed for medicinal purposes. An individual could get a prescription from a doctor and go to what was literally called a 'drug' store back then to fill their prescription filled. Alcoholic beverages could be made at home for personal use. The law was flagrantly ignored or abused, and the government lost millions in revenue. History repeats itself.
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