Journey to Harvest . . . and Beyond!

Monthly postings by Squire Fridell

The history of wine part 8 of ? (Not Cliffs Notes, but Squire’s Notes)

"Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.” – Mark Twain

The Repeal of Prohibition!

Prohibition was America’s social experiment that went awry. Virtually every part of our U.S. Constitution focused on expanding freedoms for our people, but Prohibition was the only amendment that limited that freedom, and it was doomed for failure from the onset. It took almost fourteen long years for Congress to discover the error of its ways, but it finally passed the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. This Amendment to render invalid the 19th abomination seemed like it would be a long-awaited boon for the wine industry, correct? Nope.

Post-Prohibition’s Negative Effects on Wine

Even though Prohibition had been repealed and it was now legal to manufacture, sell, and distribute wine in America, those 14 years of commercial shutdown produced unforeseen problems for the wine industry.

Almost 95% of the wineries did not endure the slings and arrows of Prohibition. Before 1920 roughly 700 wineries were operating in California; when the law was finally repealed, only about 40 of those wineries had survived. Wineries had simply closed their doors forever. An equally devastating blow to the industry was that our most accomplished and gifted winemakers had left the wine industry without passing on their knowledge. We had lost an army of skilled and future winemakers.

A major long-term problem was that Americans had simply lost their taste for quality wine. The practice of enjoying wine with the evening meal had become almost nonexistent. Americans continued to drink alcohol during Prohibition, but their choice had become hard alcohol. Good wine had not been available, and most of the wine that had been (legally) made in homes was simply not very tasty. “Uncle Carlo’s” wine was, for the most part, made from inferior grape varieties chosen not for quality but for the ability to travel with little spoilage. (My blue-collar parents grew up during Prohibition and wine was never once on our family dinner table, even for holidays. They drank alcohol, but it was the evening’s “high-ball” for “cocktail hour”.)

An even longer-lasting effect of Repeal was the overregulation that followed and still exists. Before Prohibition, many states had already passed laws that allowed a county or township the option to be “dry.” When Prohibition was finally repealed, the new law continued to allow each state to have that option. To this day, there are still dozens of “dry” geographical areas (mostly in the South) that absolutely control (or even outlaw) alcoholic beverages. Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee are still officially “dry by default,” where the manufacture, distribution, importation, and sale of alcohol is either illegal or extremely restricted. (“Dry by default” simply means that the state may be dry, but a county in that state may apply for an exemption.) Seventeen states currently are “Control States” where the state administers the sale of any alcohol. Six states make it illegal to buy alcohol on Sunday (“blue laws”), and some will not allow spirits, beer, or wine to be sold in a grocery store. Because the restrictions and rules are different for various locations, each winery in the U.S. must abide by those individual restrictions. Direct shipping of wine to consumers in some states (Utah is one) can be prosecuted as a felony. If there are 50 states, there are 50 sets of regulations that change so erratically, they make shipping wine outside of California a nightmare! (Ask Daughter Lexy who handles all the out-of-state shipping for GlenLyon’s 1000+ wine club members!)



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Three wine list choices: White, Pink or Red Photo by Squire Fridell


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It’s finally over. Source: Squire Fridell

Recovery was slow…

After the Repeal of Prohibition, a small amount of commercial wine production began but on a very reduced scale. Wineries had shut their doors, winemakers had disappeared, and many vineyards had been re-planted to other crops or inferior grape varieties better suited for shipping. For those folks that drank “Uncle Carlo’s” home wine, their palates had grown less discriminating. Some enterprising folks, seeing a business opportunity, decided to cater to the less discerning wine palate in America. Unfortunately, profit (not wine quality) became the moving force. “Jug wines” made from inexpensive grapes were produced and sold. Instead of “more bang for the buck” (referring to spirits rather than wine), it was “more wine for the buck.” (Ask your parents or grandparents what wine, if any, they drank in the 60’s or early 70’s and what they remember about the wine. “It was cheap” is usually the reply.)

The Brothers Gallo

The same year that Prohibition was repealed, two second generation Italian brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo, made 177,847 gallons of wine in a warehouse in Modesto, CA. According to legend, they had read a pamphlet in their local library about how to make wine. In actuality (according to Ellen Hawkes’s biography BLOOD & WINE) the brothers had worked during Prohibition for their immigrant father, Joseph Gallo, who made a fortune making and selling illegal wine. In any event, after their parents had passed away “under questionable circumstances” (read the book) the brothers went into the wine business. Julio was put in charge of wine production and Ernest was in charge of selling the wine. Ernest, a marketing genius, set out to make their wines “the Campbell Soup of the wine industry.” By the late 1960’s Gallo had accomplished that goal, and Gallo was (and still is) the largest wine producer in America. Many low-end brands were produced by Gallo, including André, Boone’s Farm, Carlo Rossi, Cribari, and a cheap fortified wine called Thunderbird. Early on, Gallo also began to release its “Hearty Burgundy” (very clever title), which was very successful. It was an inexpensive jug wine made from less-expensive Central Valley grapes with a simple goal: to make a relatively good jug wine that was fairly consistent from year to year. Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy became very popular and, as sales increased, better grapes were used. It is still quite inexpensive… less than $8 for a 1.5L jug. The wine even began to be praised by wine critics who usually turned up their noses at jug wine. The wine yesterday (and today) may be a far cry from a French Grand Cru Burgundy, but at $8 for two bottles worth of wine, it certainly costs a lot less.



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Photo by Melania Mahoney

When Did Quality Start to Become Important?

Once again, I’m out of space. In my next article we’ll chat about the importance of California’s wine as a major player on the world stage!

“Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.” – Pope John XXIII Squire Fridell Winemaker, Vineyard Manager, CEO, CFO, COO, EIEIO, Wino & Janitor GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery Two Amigos Wines

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It takes a long time to grow an old friend.