Sippin’ Through History: The Wild Ride of Prohibition and Wineries
December 04, 2023

Picture this: December 5th, 1933 – a date that would go down in history as Repeal Day. It’s the day when the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, ending the wild and wacky ride of Prohibition. Today we celebrate the repeal of Prohibition, so grab a glass of your favorite vino and read on for enticing tale.

What lead to Prohibition?

Let’s take travel back to a time when the wine glasses were empty, the barrels were locked up, and the party was underground. It’s the era of Prohibition. This was the era that made jazz, flapper dresses, and secret speakeasies all the rage. But what exactly was Prohibition, and why did it happen in the first place?

Whiskey consumption was on the rise after the American Revolution, and people started noticing. Doctors saw more patients with the shakes from alcohol withdrawal, nightmares, and psychoses on the loose. And binge-drinking until you passed out? Yep, that was a popular passtime. Before Prohibition, pretty much anyone above the age of 15 could enjoy a stiff drink. 

The National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, went into effect in October of 1920. Then came the nationwide ban on alcoholic beverages. Why, you ask? Most folks said it was to protect families, women, and children from the perils of alcohol abuse. But oh boy, did that lead to some unexpected consequences!

Some Prohibition supporters, like Charles Stelzle, believed it would eventually save money by reducing taxes. After all, drinking “produced half the business” for places funded by tax dollars, like courts, jails, and hospitals.

How Americans and Winemakers reacted

When the Volstead Act came into play, many folks felt a bit hoodwinked. They thought Prohibition was only about banning the hard stuff, not their beloved beer and wine. 

As Prohibition drew near, the public went on a buying spree to stock up before the law hit. And home winemaking skyrocketed by a whopping 9 times during Prohibition. Grape growers got crafty, selling “wine bricks” directly to customers. And let’s not forget the drugstores, who suddenly became very interested in medicinal alcohol.

Let’s talk wineries. Most felt the pinch when the 18th Amendment kicked in. Doors closed, barrels were abandoned, and vines were left to fend for themselves. Some farmers got creative, planting prunes, pears, and peaches, but they kept a few acres of grape vineyards for good measure.

One standout survivor was the Hudson Valley’s own Brotherhood Winery, who began producing medicinal and sacramental wines as allowed by law. Nestled in Washingtonville, New York. They proudly claim the title of “America’s Oldest Winery.” French Huguenot Jean Jaques dug their first underground cellars back in 1839, and they’re still putting those cellars to good use today.

Surprisingly, California’s grape sales got a boost during Prohibition. The Volstead Act allowed the legal production of “fruit juices” (read: wine) at home, sparking a demand for fresh grapes nationwide. 

Cheers Brighter Days and Livelier Nights: Prohibition is Repealed

Then came the sweet sound of Repeal! The Cullen–Harrison Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, ushered in a new era of legal beer and wine sales, putting an end to Prohibition. The 18th Amendment, once the fastest to be both created and repealed, was now history. Unfortunately most wineries never recovered.

As much as Prohibition had its quirks and quibbles, it left a mark on America’s taste for wine and drinks. The post-Prohibition years saw industrial wineries meet the demand of a thirsty nation.

So here’s to the roaring twenties, the underground parties, and the resilient wineries that made it through Prohibition – a wild chapter in American history that we’ll raise a glass to any day! 🍷🥂

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