Prohibition hit every alcohol industry hard, and they all had an empire to rebuild once it was lifted. The American wine industry was in a similar boat, but like other bootlegged alcohol products during that period, they leveraged their resources and found smart ways to keep themselves relevant even during the Prohibition Era. And now, almost 80 years after Prohibition was lifted, the American wine industry is in an amazing place and continues to grow.
Wine production found many creative ways to continue production to avoid having to rip up vines of grapes that were seasoned and producing top quality fruit. A lot of vineyards were forced to start planting new things, and this hit the Midwestern vineyards the hardest. Some scattered vineyards were able to keep up their operations and ones in the Napa Valley, California did the best at staying in business throughout the Prohibition.
The Catholic Church
One of the ways that many vineyards continued to produce wine and make a profit was by producing sacramental wine for the Catholic Church. When the Volstead Act was passed in 1919, it banned all alcohol consumption which would have included wine for sacramental ceremonies. In 1922, however, this ban was lifted from the church, and they were able to continue to use wine in their services. The ban lift led to a few things. Some wineries began to become more successful than before prohibition by providing wine to the church. This increase is in part due to the ability to sell wine to the church at all but also because various clergymen would provide wine to others through the guise of “sacramental usage.”
Another incredibly creative way that some wineries avoided pulling up their mature vines to plant something else is by continuing to put the grapes to good use. They would make what was called “wine bricks.” These concentrated grape juice bricks were meant to be used to make juice by dissolving the brick in a gallon of water. The labels were clever; however by telling people that they should not leave the juice in a cool cabinet for 21 days or else it would become wine. As you can probably expect, they were used to make wine.
The final way that wineries were able to produce and sell their wine in a way that was legal under Prohibition was by creating Wine Tonics. This medicinal form of wine had an alcohol content of 22% and would be sold in pharmacies. Like the wine bricks, however, they featured a warning label that told the consumer to refrain from chilling the tonic because that would turn it into drinking wine, which was illegal.
While, like the other alcohol industries, wineries took a significant hit during the Prohibition, the industry did survive, and America has grown to become one of the top five wine producers in the world. Studying the wine industry during prohibition shows us that even with constraints, this industry was meant to survive and they were able to find creative ways to do so.