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Toasting With Wine, Post-Prohibition

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 13

By Kenneth Friedenreich

What were they thinking?

When you sit by the grille peering over the water looking out to the blue sea, you may sigh with satisfaction as you sip your chardonnay enjoying the good life. You have leisure and the opportunity to savor it as the steak sizzles a few yards away.

Then you will pop a good red and enjoy the meal, your guests and the balmy air.

Now imagine that you were told by some scold, hair tied in a bun, which you could not sit by the sea and imbibe. A century ago the Anti Saloon League lobbied successfully to legislate the 18th amendment to the US Constitution. It outlawed the manufacture, distribution, and sale of beer, spirits and wine permitting only 200 gallons per family per year of viniculture for private purposes. A few distillers and wineries made the cut for medicinal and sacramental purposes.

We who enjoy and share wine forget that this great social engineering experiment, called “noble” was in fact a conundrum that foisted a Draconian code on a public less than willing to abide by its restrictions and placed enforcement not in the hands of the justice department but in the revenue department. We know well enough in less abstemious times both these federal arms have their limits, too. The new legislation proved a bribery bonanza at all levels of civil administration far more than it curtailed the demand for the hooch.

I am writing this column having read Eric Burns’ “The Spirits of America,” first published in 2004 by Temple University Press. It is a breezy overview of our besotted story from the Sumerians at the dawn of civilization to the taverns of the rebellious colonies that included whiskey smugglers like John Hancock and onto to the Civil War – whose greatest general was often marinated – and beyond explaining how a group of fanatics assembled to cause introduction of a coercive brake on private behavior. Acting to improve their fellows, they instead caused very deleterious consequences.

We can document, indeed, this Stalinist episode did assist in reducing the per capita consumption by perhaps 25 percent after repeal. This is a good thing. But we cannot ignore how Americans of all stripes simply thumbed their tumblers at the laws and in the process gave an interest free loan to a class of criminals who went Big Time. Furthermore, the revenues generated from the legal tender of beer, spirits and wine through excise and other taxes stripped millions from the federal coffers without another stream to replace it.

Burns makes a salient point that prohibition pitted some Yankee Brahmin and rural white heartland Americans against waves of urban, immigrant peoples whose culture included wine making and home brew as part of tradition. These immigrants did not flout their customs to show PC solidarity; they were happy to be Americans and were thirsty.

The relative youth of America’s wine industry, in particular, owes much to a series of shocks – phylloxera disease in the late 19th century, the outbreak of the Great War, then prohibition, then the Great Depression, then World War Two, and only after some decades of affluence, did good wine making practices become more widespread.

Back in the 20s the grape growers determined to survive the restriction on their livelihoods came up with things like Bacchus Bricks, a concentrate of grape juice perhaps the size of a four-stick butter pack.

The idea was to dissolve the brick in water and sip a little grape juice to get an impression of its taste. But the contents of this juice bowl, it was claimed, definitely ought not be poured into a jug, stopped with a cork, and hidden in a dark place for 21 days lest … oh my! became wine. And the place that sold the brick sold also the jug and stopper and all of the suggestions one could employ to skirt the law. Whet your hat.

Chat, Carrie Nation!

The anti-drink crowd promoted temperance, although that did not mean reasonable use of enjoyable substance. It meant NEVER. And that was its lie, and thank goodness our national sense of what is right and free woke up from this national scourge of righteous hypocrisy with or without a hangover so that you on this sunny weekend afternoon can get to your guests, slice the steak and pop that cork!

One nation, not totally under the influence; but enjoying the vines of the bountiful land!