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In this episode of the “Wine 101” podcast, VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers concludes his three-part exploration of American wine history. The 20th century was a tumultuous time for American wine, but that didn’t stop winemakers (and home enthusiasts) from pushing the nation towards recovery and innovation.
From the time of Prohibition to the 21st century, how did wine in the United States transform into the booming industry we know it as today? How did the loopholes in the temperance laws of the 1920s and ‘30s foster the recovery of California’s wine-growing regions? And who were some of the key players who shaped America’s premium wine market?
Tune in to learn more about the history of American wine in the final episode of this three-part series.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and did you guys know that the original red velvet cake was only red because the cocoa powder added to the batter oxidized in the oven, giving it a nice reddish, rusty color?
We’re going to wrap this up: American wine history. How do we get from Prohibition to here? This is going to be crazy. It’s about recovery. Let’s do this.
When we last spoke, things were going great — specifically for California. There were some problems over in the East. They weren’t doing so well. The hybrid situation was happening. It was producing results; not the kind of results that were happening in California. It was kind of crazy, a little bit messy, but extremely successful. California was nurturing a future winemaking region that would hopefully spread, through the sharing of information and technology throughout the United States, all the way to the East.
It would have been a wonderful connecting thing. But it didn’t happen. All the work that was done in California, and some of the work that was done in New York and in the Eastern states, came to a halt in 1919. That’s when the Volstead Act was passed, making it illegal to buy, sell, and consume alcohol above 0.5 percent ABV in this country. Even though Prohibition started in 1919, people saw it coming. It started in the late 19th century. There are a lot of factors here. There was post-Civil War trauma that was not diagnosed at all like it is today. There was the disappointment of the Gold Rush, which did not produce the kind of wealth they thought it was going to produce. These are factors I’m thinking of. The hard drinking culture of this country at the time was a problem.
There were groups that were popping up to help create what were called Temperance Movements, or movements that calmed down the drinking culture of the United States. A lot of these movements were supported by the church. The two most prominent ones were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — that was in 1874 — and then the Anti-Saloon League of 1895. This was built over time, and it got the attention of politicians who thought it would be a good idea to run on this. Instead of just making a Temperance Movement, why don’t we just put it in the Constitution and make it a law? It was getting national attention. By the time 1919 came around and the Volstead Act was signed into law, 33 of the current 48 states at the time were already dry. So it was already happening. That’s why politicians jumped on it and made it law in this country for a decade. It was initially thought that wine would be spared when they were talking about the law and negotiating the terms of the law. But when that 0.5 percent came out, it was like, everything’s illegal.
This basically destroyed the wine industry of the United States. Sure, we’ve heard a lot of stories of survival. There were winemakers that did survive because of a loophole in the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act was being amended for 10 years. It was so unpopular in this country that people kept going back and amending it here and amending it there. At some point, it became legal for the head of a household to legally manufacture up to 200 gallons of fruit juice a year. Somewhere in that law, there was a loophole that essentially said, “Hey, you can make your own wine at home.” There were home winemaking kits that you could buy and add water to with a warning saying, “Beware, if you add water to this, it could turn into alcohol.”
There’s a bunch of stories like that throughout Prohibition. But that particular loophole was important, because in California, as wineries were closing left and right and vineyards were being turned into other crops like walnuts, almonds, avocados, and stuff like that, the state started ramping up vine plantings again at a pretty intense clip. In 1919 in California, there were about 300,000 acres of land under vine. Because of this loophole and other factors, that number doubled by 1925 during the Prohibition era. At the time, that was unprecedented. There had never been so many vines in California than there was at the height of the Prohibition era. A lot of that was, again, home winemaking. There was also sacramental wine being made for religious purposes. That was a loophole. And of course, there was a black market. That’s great for California, actually not great for California. But it kind of helped California move and make money so that when this whole thing ended, they could be positioned well. They didn’t know that at the time, but that’s what was happening. Other wineries around the country tried to do the same. Even though vineyards doubled in size in California, that did not translate to the rest of the country. Just because vineyards increased in California doesn’t mean that new wineries are popping up in California.
The winery situation in the country was very bad. You can see that with the production numbers. In 1919, the U.S. produced 55 million gallons of wine. By 1935, it was just over 3.5 million gallons. It destroyed the industry. It was only the full realization of the impact of the Great Depression on economics that helped prove that Prohibition was not actually working. It’s a long, complicated story. The way it happens is, the Democratic Party sees an opportunity to run on repeal. One of their major campaign issues is the repealing of the Volstead Act, because it was initiated and brought into law by Republicans. It works, and the Volstead Act is repealed in 1933. In the last episode, we talked a lot about movement and how things were happening quickly, and it was complicated. The history of American wine after Prohibition is not that. It’s all about recovery. Exciting things happen, but it’s just trying to figure out how to get back to where we were, and in doing so, creating something completely new.
When the Volstead Act was repealed, we were still in the deepest depths of our economic depression. Even though this law destroyed a significant part of the wine industry, there was no government compensation to help people get back on track. So what you had was an industry picking up the pieces, and unfortunately, a lot of those pieces were around in 1919. This industry was nothing. California had a surplus of vines because of that loophole. But they weren’t variety-specific vineyards. These were blended, mixed fields of vines just to make money and survive. The industry was uninstructed and undercapitalized. They had no money. They had a bunch of old equipment, and nobody had any expertise in anything except for what they had before Prohibition. In addition to that, the government not only didn’t compensate any wineries or businesses that had gone under, but they also didn’t fund any research going forward. The government funded no research for wine in the industry at all. Therefore, the majority of the research that goes into wine is done by individual winemakers. Also, research was being done at the University of California, Davis and universities in New York, specifically in the Finger Lakes around Cornell.
Even though things were bad, no one stopped working. This is what’s great. The thing about this part of our story is that it’s not about individual dates so much as it’s about sections of time when things happen. Even though a lot of wineries were closed, there were still wineries around in the Eastern and Western states and some in the Midwest. During the 1930s, there were some sparks of hope, if you will. In the Eastern states, there was a guy named Philip Wagner. He was a newspaper editor in Baltimore, but a very avid home winemaker. And he loved hybrids. With experience in his hobby, he ended up writing a book in 1933 called “American Wines and How to Make Them.” He highly publicized hybrids that are still used to this day that do work. They work in the sense that they have a mass appeal to them. Hybrids with names of Baco, specifically Baco Noir, Seyval, and Seyval Blanc. He wrote another book in 1945 called “The Wine Growers Guide.” This guy is basically regarded as the one who changed the course of winemaking in the Eastern states. He gave the Eastern states a reason to continue using these hybrids that had helped the area survive since the beginning. Until the 1950s, and actually the 1980s, the Eastern states were basically a hybrid-growing wine industry. They did try vitis vinifera, but it never worked out like it did with the hybrids. But we’re going to get to that in a second.
The thing about the East is it didn’t have what the West had then. It suffered from an initial phase after the Prohibition era in that distilleries began to buy up defunct wineries just to have product to sell. Without the knowledge of the varieties they were making wine from, they were basically making bulk wine. They would call these wines Chablis, Burgundy, and Champagne, just so they could have some sort of familiarity as a brand or a name that people would buy. This wasn’t a longstanding thing for the distilleries. They ended up getting out of this whole winemaking business, and in the Eastern states, it had long-lasting damage. Ohio, which was a very important state for winemaking or trying to make wine in the early days, had 149 wineries in 1940. By 1960, it had 47.
In the 1930s over in the West, specifically California, this is where true innovation of the American wine industry really started to begin. Because let’s be honest, it all happened in California, primarily in the Central Valley and in the Napa Valley of California. After the repeal, you had a bunch of vines all over California. There was that loophole back during the home-growing era of Prohibition, where we doubled the acreage of land under vine. When repeal is done, there are vines everywhere. California survives on being a bulk market. In the Central Valley of California, the Napa Valley, and beyond even north of that, all of this is bulk wine. In Napa Valley specifically, there are certain winemakers that have survived the Prohibition era and are doing OK. Actually, after Prohibition, there were about 60 wineries in Napa Valley. But only a small group of them became major players in turning this thing around. Old wineries like Inglenook, Beaulieu, Larkmead, and Beringer start to define what Napa will become. It’s all a bulk market, but you have certain wineries like Beaulieu, which are about quantity. They wanted to make quantity. Then you had a winery like Inglenook, which was known for small production. So you already had this large production/small production thing happening in Northern California. There was this vibe there. In the 1930s, as these winemakers would gather and have meetings, one thing that became clear through pamphlets and newsletters and writings in the area is that the Napa Valley will only be able to compete with the wines of Europe — because the Eastern Coast was all about imports from Europe — if we had a premium wine market. And that’s what Napa should be.
So the focus of Napa, and this is a big hurdle here, is to make premium wine. Which means they had to completely rethink the way they make wine in Napa. And then they had to figure out how to promote it and get it into the minds of Americans and get them excited about it. That took a long time — about 30 years. Not only did they have to get Americans into their kind of wine, but they also had to convince the bulk market, which was doing just fine making the money they were making, to switch over to premium wine. It was a very, very tough thing to do. Through the ’30s, ’40s, and the ’50s, Napa Valley was trying to become a fine wine region in the United States. They were trying to convince people not to do bulk and to focus on varieties. A writer by the name of Frank Schoonmaker came out with a book in 1934 called, “The Complete Wine Book,” which became very popular in the area. His big thing was, “Guys, you want to make this thing work? You need to put the varietal on the label.” His idea is that it would distinguish themselves from the European imports. Which is a good idea, because as World War II became a reality, imports dried up from Europe. It gave California winemakers a moment to promote themselves.
Speaking of Europe, Beaulieu Vineyards owner, Georges de Latour, would go to France every year to take stock of what was going on in wine. He goes out there and meets a guy named André Tchelistcheff. He convinces him to come to California, and André Tchelistcheff becomes the Charles Krug of this era. He became the No. 1 wine consultant in the area. He develops a lab, actually starts to understand the science of wine and technology in this area, and helps people make better wine. The thing about making wine in America is that once you make wine, you have to sell it. There was really no holding onto wine. Sure, there were wineries that did so, but that’s not how money was made. Money was made by selling the wine you make.
Nobody was better at selling the wine you make than two brothers from the Central Valley, Ernest and Julio Gallo. These brothers came up during Prohibition where they would ship grapes. Their family had vineyards, and they had a grape shipping business. They would ship grapes to places around the country during Prohibition where home growing was allowed. At repeal, Ernest and Julio Gallo were running their father’s business. They had a house with some vineyards and a grape shipping business. This is a great American story. These two brothers decide they want to become a winery. They want to start making wine, but they have to be a bonded winery. Well, it just so happens that they have vineyards on their property and they have a grape shipping business, so they actually are able to become a bonded winery. They start with no money. They find a basement in a library in Modesto to start their business. They learn how to make wine from old pamphlets from the Prohibition era of University of California Davis. Ernest is on the winemaking side; Julio is on the marketing side. And Julio Gallo becomes the figure in American wine who teaches us how to market, promote, and distribute wine. When you walk into a store and you see a bunch of wineries and they’re all trying to market to you, you can thank Julio Gallo. The Gallos got bigger and bigger and bigger, and they eventually ended up buying a bunch of vineyard land up in the Northern Coast to help supply the Napa wineries. As Napa becomes big on promotion, they actually poach people from the Gallos to use in Napa for promotion. If it wasn’t for Ernest and Julio Gallo, I don’t know how this all would have happened.
Up in Napa, you had the Mondavi family. You had Peter and Robert Mondavi, sons of Cesare Mondavi, who were a big deal in Napa at the time. He had a co-op and was very connected in the community. But Robert Mondavi goes to school for business, and Peter Mondavi goes to school for wine. And that’s who they were. They were the Ernest and Julio of Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi is the guy who says, “Hey, let’s start bringing people up from San Francisco to this area.” He wasn’t the only one, but he was part of this whole movement of getting people from wealthier parts of San Francisco to the Napa Valley to see what was going on with the winemaking process.
By this point, things are doing pretty well. You had André Tschelistcheff and all of his acolytes helping people make good wine in the area. There were a lot of players in wine, like writers and winemakers in this era from the 1930s into the 1960s. But it was the Gallos and the Mondavis that brought each thing to the light. You had Ernest and Julio Gallo learning how to make commercial wine and getting wine out there to the country, helping the country understand that wine is something they can actually drink daily and enjoy. Then, you had Robert and Peter Mondavi up in Napa fighting to create America’s first fine wine region, trying to define what that even meant. They were getting closer and closer to focusing on varieties of wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, which had been winning awards at state fairs since the 1930s.
When soldiers came back from World War II, they had an idea of a European lifestyle. In the 1950s, they were trying to emulate that a little bit, but wine wasn’t really part of that. But in the 1960s, the baby boomers were coming of age. In the ’60s and ’70s, because of a bunch of factors, wine blew up. Not only did wine become more popular in the 1960s, but we started to see graduates of UC Davis going to other places than California to make wine.
In the early 1960s, some of these California winemakers were told, “You cannot make Pinot Noir in Oregon.” I’m going to talk about this in another episode. That’s when winemakers started making their way to what will be the Willamette Valley. In 1969, winemakers made their way into Washington State. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Napa started to talk about what it would be like to be an appellation. They start talking about varieties. They start talking about borders and where they want this appellation to be. The government starts talking about an appellation system, and in the ’70s, they start figuring out what that’s going to look like. What do we call it? How do we decide what this is going to be? Because wine is getting popular. There’s a lot of factors here, but wine blows up. In 1970, California had 240 wineries. In 1989, it had 770 wineries. You go to 2004, there were 1,700 wineries. By 2014, there were 3,800 wineries in California alone. But in the 1970s, it really started popping off.
There are things happening since the 1930s in California. It’s been a building and building and building. When 1976 comes around, and the Judgment of Paris happens, that is the boiling point and everything gets exciting from there. I mean, this is the thing. There were always these comparative French-California wine tastings in California. But it wasn’t until the Judgment of Paris happened, with its highly publicized article, that things got going. In 1978, when the AVAs were being formed, Napa became the first American Viticultural Area in California. It’s the second Viticultural Area in the United States. The first one went to Mount Pleasant, Mo., where, to this day, they thrive on one of the most successful hybrids in America, the Norton Grape. From 1981 until 1991 or 1992, over 100 AVAs were awarded to the United States.
This is the thing, wine lovers. This is what begins our wine industry, really, because California has been doing it for a long time. California was the place where climatically and geographically, vitis vinifera worked for a long time. Yes, phylloxera became a problem. But that’s where it worked. There were never the issues of climate, like on the East Coast. So California began it. That didn’t even start into the 1930s, and it didn’t even become an AVA until 1981. Two “Star Wars” films had already come out by that time!
Speaking of 1980, around that time, a man by the name of Jim Law moved from California to Virginia and started making wine there. He and a few other winemakers became the major players of creating a wine culture in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson would be like, “Finally!” If you listen to the New York episode I did, in the 1950s in New York State, they get Dr. Konstantin Frank. He helps revive the industry there by showing them how to grow Riesling. By the ’80s, he’s established and doing amazing things, basically getting the region ready for what we enjoy now.
What’s exciting to me about American wine is that we’re not done. There are places making great wine that we just don’t know. When Napa was trying to figure out how to distribute, and when the Central Valley was trying to figure out how to promote, they weren’t really well known. Now, we have little places like Contra Costa, which is a little AVA just outside of San Francisco. They’re making old, ancient Zinfandel. It’s a place that’s being overrun now by strip malls. You have a place called the Temecula Valley down in Southern California. No one talks about that wine, but there are some great things coming out of there. Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and I actually went to Pennsylvania and experienced a vineyard on a hill in the middle of a cornfield growing Nebbiolo that we drank, and it was delicious. I’ve had a great sparkling Albariño from Maryland. New Mexico makes some of the best domestic sparkling wine on the market at Gruet. That family is from Champagne. And if you hadn’t had wine from Texas, there are some amazing things happening right now. There’s great Tempranillo, great Mourvedre, awesome rosés. Texas has a significant history with wine in America.
I wanted to do this series because I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about how we have so much more to experience. Back in the day, the Mondavis and others were like, “Look, we have to bring people here to see it, they don’t even know it’s here, and we don’t make enough of it to bring everywhere, so they’ve got to come here.” That is the same thing happening with the smaller places in America. With Virginia, it’s hard to distribute. You’ve got to go to Virginia and drink their wines, and who wouldn’t want to go to Virginia? It’s absolutely beautiful. The Finger Lakes, yes, they have better distribution than before. But you have to go to the Finger Lakes to enjoy that. Texas, it’s best to go there because it’s hard for distribution. But at some point, if it works and the quality’s right, these places will grow, and more wine will be available in the United States. So it’s not just about California, but California is absolutely one of the most important players in our American wine history, along with New York, and, actually, Virginia.
I don’t know about you, wine lovers, but I get excited whenever I hear of a new place in the United States making wine. I want to rush to that place, try the wine, and I want to support it and say, keep going — just like Thomas Jefferson did when people were sending him wine from Wisconsin and the Ohio Valley. A really interesting thing about our history here is that, speaking of the Eastern states, the hybrid — the thing that saved us and the thing that we hated the most — is actually being worked with now in the Northeast. People are making wine from hybrid grapes, but we have the technology and knowledge now to make wine from these grapes that the people before us couldn’t. And they’re delicious.
Obviously, there’s more to say. And obviously there’s some things that I had to leave out. But I wanted to give you guys a three-part series of who we are and how we got to where we are. If you guys have any questions about something I may have left out, hit me up. My DMs are open at @VinePairKeith. Let’s talk.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.