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Wine and the American Dream

Almost a century ago, the United States decided to counter a wave of immigrants by passing Prohibition. It didn't work.
Photo by: iStock
Supporters of Prohibition disliked old New York taverns, such as McSorley's, because they served as a gathering spot for immigrants.

Posted: Feb 9, 2017 1:00pm ET

By Mitch Frank

One hundred years ago, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced into the Senate. In case you're not familiar with that one, it says, "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States ... for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited." The measure was ratified by the states two years later, and in 1920 America's "noble experiment" began.

How did Prohibition pass? It took decades of political organizing and lobbying by the "Drys," as anti-alcohol crusaders were known. It also took a lot of fear.

America had always been a drinking nation. The pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Rock (partially) because the Mayflower was running out of beer. The Founding Fathers were devotees of rum and Madeira.

But when the temperance movement began gathering steam in the latter half of the 19th century, the Drys in groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) looked around their country and decided they didn't like who was drinking. In the South, whites eager to take away the freedoms of Reconstruction argued that African Americans couldn't handle the vote—or a drink. "The grogshop is the Negro's center of power," argued WCTU leader Frances Willard. "Better whiskey and more of it is the rallying cry of great dark-faced mobs."

Willard believed another group couldn't handle alcohol: "the infidel foreign population of our country." She was speaking of the millions of Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants who arrived mid-century. Soon afterward, Italians and Eastern Europeans joined them. More than 20 million people emigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920. And many of them, once they arrived, wanted a stiff drink. America's brewing industry was built by German families. Italians and others established many of the country's early wineries. Jewish immigrants helped build the liquor industry.

Americans who had been here longer—conservatives and progressives alike—decided that the new arrivals were too foreign to ever adopt American values. They were too exotic, too Catholic, too Jewish. But perhaps they would be less dangerous if they weren't drinking so much.

As we know today, Prohibition did not work out so well. Thankfully, in the years after Repeal, immigrants and their children—people with names like Gallo, Mondavi and Sebastiani—built the foundation of today's thriving wine culture, proving quite capable of embracing the American dream and running with it. Later arrivals like André Tchelistcheff, Konstantin Frank, Abdallah Simon and Ulises Valdez enriched the industry. Workers who toil in the sun to pick grapes today know that someday they might be vineyard owners, or perhaps their children will be. That is the opportunity this country offers that so many others don't.

Peter Hellman
NYC —  February 11, 2017 8:19pm ET
Well said, Mitch. Actually, I believe Mayflower WASPS are just as vulnerable to drinking problems as any newcomer, white or black. If you doubt, just read a couple of John Cheever short stories!
Colangelo & Partners Pr
NYC —  February 14, 2017 1:20pm ET
Bravo Mitch, thank you for shining a light on the xenophobias and sins of our past.

Stephen Schmitz
Ronald Metzger
New York —  February 20, 2017 12:33pm ET
What a ridiculous article !
As Mr. Hellman points out " Mayflower WASPS are just as vulnerable to drinking problems as any newcomer...". In the early history of America people drank heavily, as they did in Britain where our earliest settlers came from.
Heavy drinking and alcohol abuse was a real problem then. They thought Prohibition was the answer, but obviously it was not.
I seriously doubt that stopping immigration was their motivation, and not this serious problem of excessive drinking .
This type of article belongs in the NY Times, not the Wine Spectator. Let the NY Times re-write history, not the Wine Spectator.

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