They can laugh and joke about it now, 70 years after the fact. But Prohibition, which outlawed winemaking and was in effect from 1920 through 1933, nearly wiped out California's vintners. Those who survived those perilous times know how devastating it was to their businesses.
Looking back on that era last week, a handful of wine industry members with first-hand recollections of Prohibition met for a luncheon in San Francisco on Feb. 20. The event, sponsored by the Wine Institute, celebrated the 70th anniversary of Congress voting to repeal Prohibition. (The states ratified the 21st Amendment, which undid the 18th Amendment, in December 1933.)
Some of the elderly speakers were moved -- sometimes to the point of tears in their eyes -- as they shared bootlegging legends handed down as part of their family history. There were many anecdotes of smuggling: of wine and brandy transported in hollowed-out cars or disguised as infants in baby carriages, of trap doors to hidden stashes and of wine being served in soda bottles.
Eighty-year old Al Cribari, a third-generation winemaker for Cribari & Sons Winery, explained how his family would ship grape-juice concentrate in a barrel with a wink of a warning not to add water as "this product is likely to ferment."
Wine historian and author Charles Sullivan was on hand to give perspective to the politics of Prohibition, which he termed a "bad joke." Many of the issues the wine industry currently faces are rooted in the aftermath of the repeal. The 21st Amendment gives states the right to regulate alcohol sales within their borders as they see fit -- which has led to, among other things, the often-bewildering variety of laws banning or restricting direct shipments from wineries to consumers.
Sullivan summed up Prohibition and its repeal by stressing that the real issues were not about drinking, but about personal freedom and the power of states' rights. But Sullivan also pointed out that Americans never completely let go of some of the shame of Prohibition. "We didn't stop feeling apologetic for enjoying wine," Sullivan said, adding that Prohibition "warped the American attitudes towards drinking."
Wine Institute president and CEO John De Luca also spoke, explaining that the organization will be commemorating Prohibition's repeal in other ways throughout the year. De Luca praised the California wine industry for its achievements since Prohibition, but he also took the opportunity to mention some of the industry's current challenges, such as direct shipping and the debates over wine and health. He reminded the audience: "To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been."
The microphone was passed around the room as first-, second-, and third-hand accounts of Prohibition were shared. Eugene Pio Seghesio, 84, recalled that wine dumped in a creek resulted in a river full of dead trout days later. Eric Wente shared his grandfather's advice: "Never let go of the cattle business -- you never know when the government might change their mind again." And Louis Foppiano Sr., 92, admitted jokingly, "I don't know much about Prohibition; I was busy looking for young girls back then."
But perhaps most touching were the remarks of viticulture researcher Dr. Harold Olmo, 94, professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis. When De Luca reminded the audience that much of the post-Prohibition progress in California's wine industry was due to the research by Olmo and others at UC Davis, Olmo quipped, "I'm still working on it."
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