Monday, December 5, 2016

California Vintage: Wine and Spirits in the Golden State
December 5, 1933: Prohibition Ends!

Trucks at San Francisco Civic Center en route to returning Tipo Chianti Italian Swiss Colony wine to retail shelves and restaurants, marking the end of prohibition, December 1933
California Historical Society
In the image above, a procession of trucks returns wine to San Francisco for sale. The formality of the scene masks what certainly was a sigh of relief to the city, state, and nation brought by the end of Prohibition, the constitutional ban on producing, importing, transporting, and selling alcohol that was in effect from 1920 to 1933. It was, however, only the first leg in a journey to reestablish California as the wine-making giant it had been.

Winemaking in California is considered as old as the mid to late 1700s, when the Spanish missions were established along the Pacific coast region (1769–1833). Mission grapes were cultivated for the production of both sacramental and table wine.

Hannah Millard, Mission Grape, 1872
Courtesy Special Collections, UCLA Library
Photograph of Ferdinand Deppe’s 1832 painting of Mission San Gabriel, the leading wine producer among the California missions, 
c. 1900 
California Historical Society Collections at the University of Southern California
In the nineteenth century, grapes were the major agricultural product of Los Angeles, called the “city of vines” by the 1870s. By the end of the century, 45 of the state’s 52 counties were producing wine.

Topographical Map of California Showing Vineyard Districts in green . . . Total Production of Wine in 1902 40,000,000 gallons (California Wine Association, 1903) 
Courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps
Fast forward to 2015, when the annual impact of California’s wine industry on the state and world economies was $57.6 billion and $114.1 billion, respectively, and California was publicized as both the nation’s number one wine state and the world’s fourth largest wine producer.

Grape-pickers on Hastings Ranch, Pasadena, California, c. 1898 
California Historical Society Collections at the University of Southern California

But California winemakers didn’t always enjoy such economic success. Nor did their sister producers of alcoholic beverages, the distilleries and breweries. With passage of the 18th Amendment legalizing Prohibition, these industries faced near ruin, and in the hard times of the Great Depression they struggled even more. As wine historian Thomas Pinney observes, in Los Angeles County—once the wine capital of the state—the number of wineries dropped from 97 in 1935 to 35 in 1939, and those wineries that did exist made wine only irregularly.

In this blog series, we look at some aspects of the wine and spirits industries in the Golden State during these two challenging periods. We begin with Prohibition, which on this day in 1933, finally ended with ratification of the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th. After nearly 14 years, the nation was no longer “dry”!

Crowd outside the Belmont Grill celebrating the return of beer to Los Angeles, 1933 
Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection


Imported Chinese rice wine destroyed under court order, 1928
Los Angeles Public Library, Herald-Examiner Collection
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the temperance movement—as the “dry” movement was called—had been gathering strength in state legislatures. By 1916, there were 26 dry states in the nation. By 1908 in California, sixty California towns had passed anti-liquor ordinances. Although Californians voted against statewide prohibition in 1914 and 1917, the vote was carried primarily by northern California voters.

One such voter was Andrea Sbarboro, founder of the Italian Swiss Colony winery in Asti, Sonoma County, who was actively anti-Prohibitionist. As wine historian Thomas Pinney explains, “A native Italian, he found it incredible that people concerned with temperance should be opposed to wine, and he labored hard to persuade the infidels.” In 1908, Sbarboro had founded the California Grape Protective Association and worked tirelessly to prevent passage of the 18th Amendment legalizing Prohibition, but, as Pinney writes, “All was in vain. The national mood was in favor of prohibition.”

Detail of a page from “How Prohibition Would Affect California,” 1916 

(San Francisco, CA: California Grape Protective Association)
“If Prohibition carries, thousands of acres of hillside vineyards will be rendered useless, as this land is suited only for wine growing,” Sbarboro’s marketer Horatio Stoll warned in his brochure How Prohibition Would Affect California.

The 18th Amendment was ratified in January 1919 and went into effect a year later. Exclusions in the Amendment, however, kept grape growers busy during its enforcement, including wine for religious and medicinal purposes and the production of up to 200 gallons of non-intoxicating cider or homemade fruit juice each year.

Advertisement, Washington Post, September 7, 1921 

These loopholes paved the way for a lucrative trade with home winemaking businesses and eastern markets. The grape-growing industry was saved!

Prohibition-era L. M. Martini Grape Products Company, producing sacramental and medicinal wine and grape concentrate (“Forbidden Fruit”) for legal home winemaking, Kingsburg, Central Valley, California, c. 1922
Most vintners, however, became unemployed. Scientific training in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis—in existence since 1880—was discontinued, providing a shortage of trained vintners in the years after Prohibition. By the time the 18th Amendment was finally repealed in 1933, vintners faced a new challenge: the Great Depression.

Watch for the next blog in our series California Vintage: Wine and Spirits in the Golden State on December 12.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Thomas Pinney, City of Vines: The History of Wine in Los Angeles (Berkeley: Heyday Books/California Historical Society, forthcoming September 2017)

Frona Eunice Wait, Wines and Vines of California (San Francisco: The Bancroft Company, 1889)

Love California Wine and Spirits? Don’t Miss These CHS Events!

December 10, 2016
California Historical Society, 678 Mission, San Francisco

CHS opens its new exhibition, Vintage: Wine, Beer, and Spirits Labels from the Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing, December 10, 2016–April 16, 2017

December 13, 6:30 pm
California Historical Society, 678 Mission, San Francisco

The California Historical Society’s annual holiday party
Craft cocktails, legendary California wine, innovative brews, and live entertainment
Learn more



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