Two true stories took place in parallel between the early 1930s and the 2000 millennium. One was my personal story in wine; the other was a series of events that shaped the California wine industry between Prohibition and the modern era of wine quality worship. The stories remained intimately intertwined throughout the time period, each one affecting the other in significant ways so that, by 2000, each one owed a part of its success and even a little of its personality to the other.This is the surprising story of some of the changes, mistakes and successes of both.
The American wine industry was reduced to a shadow of its former self by the alcohol prohibition experiment of 1921 – 1933. By the time Prohibition was repealed, civilized enjoyment of table wine with food in America was essentially dead. Against all expectations, the total banning of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. had led to a culture of alcohol worship rather than the expected denial. People who had enjoyed fine table wine with food prior to 1920 joined the throngs which went to any and all extremes to make and consume alcohol in greater and greater quantities. No longer were great wines recognized, searched for or given a passing thought. Drinkers no longer cared how a wine tasted, what it looked like in a glass or whether the drinker might also be consuming food. It was simply, “Beverage Alcohol, Baby,” and the more the better – all the time winking at the law, which was powerless to stop or even slow its progress.
Prohibition was repealed, not because of the damage it was doing to the American culture, health or economy, but to bring an end to the explosion of violent crime that followed the production, sale and consumption of illegal alcohol, wherever it existed. Moreover, it existed everywhere; no part of America was safe, but big cities were especially dangerous, as illegal alcohol came in from legal producers in Canada and other countries. Illegal importation joined the illegal U.S. production of wine, beer and spirits distilled in homemade machinery, often constructed of poisonous metals soldered together by even more poisonous molten lead. Bootleggers used private trucks, autos, boats, wagons, trains and even occasional pack animals, to deliver their valuable cargo to the speakeasies and ‘private’ clubs where sales at high prices were a foregone conclusion. Changing from the culture and terror of unlawful alcohol to one of licensing and control would not be easy and there were those in 1933 who did not believe it could be done at all.
Fast forward a few decades to the Napa Valley Vintners high end public wine auctions of the 1980s, 90s and beyond. Each auction brought, and continues to bring multimillion dollar sums into Napa Valley for distribution to hospitals, educational institutions and other needy organizations. Wine appreciation groups abound, each seeking to enjoy the ultimate in superb table wines, judged by worldwide standards and served with the ‘ne plus ultra’ of fine foods at exquisite events. Wow! What a fantastic change, and all in a few short decades. These are the stories behind some of those changes, as seen through the eyes of one of the intimately involved winemakers of the time. But, to fully understand the who’s, what’s and why’s, we have to start at the storyteller’s very beginning…
© 2015 Richard G. Peterson. All Rights Reserved.