In the 13 years it was in effect, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution could have killed the wine industry in the Napa Valley. Instead of collapsing under the pressure of the new law, a few industrious business people decided to make the best of the hand they were dealt and found loopholes in the law.
On Jan. 16, 1920, the amendment went into effect. America banned the production, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.
Prohibition grew out of the temperance movement, which had been around since the inception of the country and was born of the puritan values of some of the first settlers.
As the movement gathered steam proponents used both religious and scientific reasons to back the ban, and prohibition became a signature cause of politically active women of the era.
In October 1919 the amendment, along with a companion piece of legislation known as the Volstead Act — named for the conservative senator from Minnesota who championed the cause — was approved in Congress. Prohibition was set to take effect at the beginning of the new year.
In the months between the passing of the act and its instatement, some vineyard owners tore out their vines and replaced them with orchards. Others, however, recognized the continuing marketability of grapes, since the sale and transport of fresh or dried grapes was not banned under the new amendment — although the law explicitly stated that if the shipper knew that the final buyer was going to use the grapes for making wine then both buyer and seller could be charged with conspiracy.
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Nonetheless, growers were confident that grapes to be used in wine would pass through the hands of a sufficient number of wholesalers and buyers that charges would be difficult to raise or prove. The sale of Napa County grapes proved to be an incredibly lucrative endeavor during Prohibition, reaching buyers as far away as New York.
Dried grapes were marketed in a different manner. Beringer Vineyards, for example, sold what were called raisin cakes for use in the making of grape juice.
Distributors and retailers warned consumers not to let the juice ferment, but in reality they were drawing attention to the wine-making potential of the cakes. For example, these representatives told consumers not to let the juice sit aside in a jug for 21 days, because that would cause fermentation to occur, and that using a cork was unnecessary for non-alcoholic beverages. Each brick was also sold with a warning label that stated that the juice could ferment into wine.
Another loophole allowed production of sacramental wines if the winery could get a permit through the government. One of the wineries that took advantage of this was Beaulieu Vineyard. Founder Georges de Latour was a practicing Catholic and a friend of the archbishop of San Francisco. He used this connection to his advantage and secured an exclusive deal to sell wine to all the priests in the diocese. Other wineries established similar deals with rabbis.
With the amount and types of wine that the priests and rabbis were buying it is probable that they were acting as bootleggers for their congregations, and their titles effectively shielded them from prosecution.
Bootlegging was the common but less-than-legal way to keep wineries open and making money. The Volstead Act allowed individuals to buy a household permit to have 200 gallons of wine a year for personal use. Some permit holders would make wine, drive it to Sausalito and ferry it over into the bars of San Francisco. They would also bottle new wine and switch it out with bottles in their cellars, which were locked and routinely inspected by the government to make sure bottles did not go missing.
These pathways around Prohibition allowed a select few businesses to boom in the days that looked dire for both vineyards and wineries. In fact, between 1920 and 1933, grape production actually increased and the savvy business people who figured out how to work the system became exceedingly wealthy. In an era when the economy of the Napa Valley could have been severely crippled, it survived and many thrived.
Burnham is a Napa County Historical Society intern. Research for this article was conducted at the Napa County Historical Society, in the historic Goodman Library Building. The society is open Tuesday-Saturday from 12-4 p.m. and the Society’s Research Library is open Tuesday-Thursday, 12-4 p.m. The society houses an extensive research library, changing exhibition space and presents a variety of programs and events. The Society is a non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization. For more information or become a member visit www.napahistory.org or call 224-1739.