Monday, December 12, 2016

California Vintage: Wine and Spirits in the Golden State
The Great Depression

Maxine Albro, Grape Harvesting Scene, (detail) California Agriculture, 1934
Public Works of Art Project (PWAP)

“Wine is a habit, an industry, and an art,” wrote the editors Fortune Magazine in 1934 as the Great Depression (1929–39) ravaged the country. It was a statement the public had not heard very often during the prior decade under Prohibition, but nevertheless it hinted at the industry’s possibilities.

The fresco painter Maxine Albro saw the industry’s importance to the Golden State. Her 1934 mural California Agriculture joined 26 others by Bay Area artists commissioned to adorn the walls of San Francisco’s Coit Tower—the first and largest New Deal federal recovery program for artists.

The winemaking scene in Albo’s 42-foot mural, which she based on her visit to Sonoma County’s wineries, celebrates an industry historically considered California’s most prosperous.

 “We Want Wine,” 1933

Though California had been making the majority of the country’s wine, the industry took many years to recover from Prohibition (1920–33). Obstacles included legal restrictions (wine was legal in only 26 in 1934) as well as costly repairs to reopened wineries and lack of knowledge by new winemakers. As Paul Garrett, considered the dean of American Wine Growers, wondered in 1934, “if wine were properly presented to the American people might they not accept it for what it is—a wholesome, health-giving accompaniment of good food?”

Dorothea Lange, The White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, 1933
Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

It was also hoped that Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 would help solve the devastating unemployment following the 1929 stock market crash. As Garrett proposed, “The development of a wine industry in this country comparable to that in France would wipe out unemployment and provide a shortage of labor able to absorb further technological unemployment for a generation to come.”

But during Prohibition, Americans had become used to drinking sweet, high-alcohol wines. The “art of wine”—and the idea of wine as a daily beverage—had yet to reemerge after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933.

Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Company Label, Baronet Apple Wine Label, 1930s
California Historical Society, Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing

Wine historian Thomas Pinney explains further:
There was some uncertainty about, and some variety in, the sorts of wine offered immediately after Repeal. It is interesting to note that some Prohibition wine was advertised—that is, wine that had been made during the Prohibition years but that could not then be sold. Perhaps most of that wine was of doubtful character, being “pricked,” or on its way to vinegar. But some was put out for sale. 
Then there were novelty wines: carbonated “champagne” was one. Around 1936 there was a flurry of interest in orange wine, an alcoholic beverage fermented from oranges and then fortified with spirits distilled from the resulting “wine.” I suppose that the attraction for the winemakers was a glut of oranges to be had cheaply, the sort of abundance in the midst of want that so often occurred in the Depression years. 
Advertisement, Puma’s Orange Wine, 1937
Collection of Thomas Pinney

Nevertheless, there was hope for the diminished wine industry. It came with the growth of industrial methodology, the establishment of the Wine Institute (1934) and the Wine Advisory Board (1938), and the California Agricultural Marketing Act of 1937, which under the agricultural umbrella of the state gave new status to winemakers as “winegrowers.”

Victor W. Geraci, University of California, Berkeley food and wine historian, explains:
For an industry just emerging from the repression of Prohibition, this agricultural status was important in relaxing a “crazy-quilt” of local, regional, and state laws restricting growing, making, and distribution of wine. Eventually, over two hundred fifty wineries and ten thousand growers (nearly 90 percent of all the state’s industry) took advantage of the 1937 California Agricultural Marketing Act that allowed agricultural specialty groups to form a Marketing Order for Wine. The wine industry now had a uniform voice.

Ruth Taylor White, Wine Map of California, 1935
Published by the Wine Advisory Board, San Francisco
Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection;

In 1934, only about 11 million cases of wine—most of them dessert wine—were sold. The policies originated during the Depression slowly achieved results, and with the victory of California in the 1976 Paris wine tasting, the industry would never be the same.

Watch for the next blog in our series California Vintage: Wine and Spirits in the Golden State on December 19.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Editors, “Can wine become an American habit?” Fortune Magazine (1934);

Victor W. Geraci, “Fermenting a Twenty-First Century California Wine Industry,” Agricultural History 78, no. 4 (Autumn 2004): 438–65

Oral history interview with Maxine Albro and Parker Hall, 1964 July 27, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution;

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

Wine Institute, Milestones in California Wine, 1934–2009;

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

December 10, 2016–April 16, 2017
California Historical Society, 678 Mission, San Francisco

CHS’ new exhibition, Vintage: Wine, Beer, and Spirits Labels from the Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing

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

Read more


Thomas Pinney’s City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles is the winner of the 2016 California Historical Society Book Award. Read more about the Award 

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