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The Fall of the American Wine Industry

American Wine history

The Fall of the American Wine Industry

American wine history cannot be mentioned without discussing the early 20th-century Prohibition.

December 5th, also known as Repeal Day, should be a celebrated day among American wine lovers. On this date in 1933 the 21st Amendment was ratified, ending the 18th Amendment that had banned the transportation, sale, and manufacturing of alcoholic beverages[1].

The 21st Amendment ended Prohibition and brought about 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 with 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 the American 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 industry[2]. Most wineries established before Prohibition were forced to shut down and rip up their vineyards to plant more profitable crops. The few that survived Prohibition reemerged with different names afterward.

Did You Know? While most wineries had to shut down during Prohibition, there were a few that managed to make money through illegal means.

Shaping the American 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 of 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.

Secret Wine Production

Not only were beer and spirits produced, sold, and bought 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 communicate 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 wine and other alcoholic beverages, and despite the challenge, the spirit of wine lives on today.

On This Day

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

December 5th, 1933: The 21st Amendment to the constitution marked the end of Prohibition, giving the American people a chance to enjoy wine again.

Want to read more on Prohibition? Try out these books!

Last Call- The Rise and Fall of Prohibition A History of Wine in America, Volume 1- From the Beginnings to Prohibition


[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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