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American Wine Industry and the Rise of Illegal Winemaking

American Wine history

The fall of the American Wine Industry and Rise of Illegal Winemaking

American wine country’s history cannot be complete without mentioning the early 20th-century Prohibition. December 5th, popularly known as Repeal Day, is the most loved and famous day among wine lovers. It was the date in 1933 when the 21st Amendment was ratified, getting rid of the 18th Amendment that had banned the transportation, sale, and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages[1].

The law, therefore, ended Prohibition bringing major transformations in the industry. The newspaper headlines included statements such as, “Prohibition Ends at Last,” while people from all cultural backgrounds poured onto the streets, toasting their favorite drinks.

Prohibition did not affect the beer and spirit sectors in the same way it affected the wine industry. A complex network of speakeasies and bootleggers maintained the spirit and beer business, while a lack of interest in the wine sector almost killed wine culture. Today, it is almost impossible to come across a winery older than 1933, which indicates that Repeal Day marked the beginning of a new era in the American wine Country[2].

Most wineries established before Prohibition were largely affected by the 18th Amendment, leaving vines to weather and die while shutting their doors and dumping their barrels. The few that survived Prohibition reemerged with different names afterward.

Shaping the wine industry

On January 16th, 1919, the US Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the transportation, production, and sale of intoxicating drinks, including wines. However, possession and consumption remained legal. The actual ban began in January the following year, and it would stay in place until December 15th, 1933, when the 21st Amendment took effect. In addition to the 18th Amendment, another act was introduced[3].

The National Prohibition Act provided the public with the necessary information and the proper education to understand the legal changes. Throughout this period, there were some exceptions, permitting fuel, research, and industries that needed alcohol in their major operations, together with those that required it for religious and medicinal purposes, to carry on with their businesses[4].

To ensure that wineries followed the law, those that did not get the license to produce wine for religious or medicinal uses were forced to destroy their vineyards and abandon the business entirely. It was a devastating experience, given that most vintners had invested heavily in the trade. The small number of wineries that received permits to continue producing small amounts of wines played critical roles in preserving the wine culture.

The secret wine production

Not only the beer and spirit trades were conducted secretly, but some wineries also managed to continue producing and selling wine in violation of the law. They generated a system of code words to enable them to transact with different players within the industry. As time passed, a careless societal attitude towards the laws and regulations grew even more robust. Dealers provided safe places for people to consume wines and other alcoholic beverages, and despite the challenge, the spirit of wine lives on today.

On This Day

January 16th, 1919: US Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the transportation, production, and sale of intoxicating drinks, including wines.

December 5th, 1933: On this day, the 21st Amendment to the constitution marked the end of Prohibition, giving the American people another chance to enjoy their wine.

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[1] Pinney, Thomas. A history of wine in America, volume 2: From prohibition to the present (Univ of California Press, July 5, 2005), p. 34.

[2] Ibid 35.

[3] Beliveau, Barbara C., and M. Elizabeth Rouse, “Prohibition and repeal: A short history of the wine industry’s regulation in the United States,” Journal of Wine Economics 5, no. 1 (2010) p. 53-68.

[4] Garr, John D, “A Survey of American Wine Laws,” Food Drug Cosm. LJ 16 (1961), p.335.




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