Just in time for Halloween, I have a truly terrifying story for you.
It’s 1920. The United States recently enacted the 18th Amendment, which prohibits the production, consumption, importation and sales of alcoholic beverages nationwide.
The end. Scary, right?!
This era in our nation’s history was dark. We had just endured World War I—and then the country was hit with the Spanish flu pandemic. Life was hard, and a devastating toll had been taken on Americans. Not only were we broken mentally from the atrocities of war, and physically broken from an undiscriminating illness with no cure; we were also on the verge of total economic devastation.
What’s the solution? Eliminate the booze, naturally!
We all have become familiar with the stories of bootlegging gangsters, corrupt politicians and keystone cops who were central figures during this time. But there’s a Prohibition story that remains largely untold: the saga of the wineries that avoided becoming ghosts.
When Prohibition went into effect, there were more than 700 flourishing wine businesses here in California. The influx of immigrants searching for gold in them there hills during the mid-1800s not only created a population boom; these thirsty newcomers also brought with them their winemaking know-how and vine-cuttings from their homelands. When the gold boom turned into a bust, at least there was wine. But not for long.
What followed was a series of devastating blows for the California wine industry.
Around 1890, word was spreading in the viticulture industry around the world of a little bug that was eating the roots of vines at an incredible rate, decimating entire vineyards. There was no stopping this louse infestation, and before long, it reached California.
In 1906, San Francisco suffered the Great Earthquake, which resulted in entire warehouses full of wine to smash to the ground. Inventory plummeted; vintages were lost forever.
The final blow came with the passing of the Volstead Act of 1919. When the act was finally repealed 14 years later, only 40 of the 700 wine businesses were still alive.
But how did those 40 wineries come out of this scourge?
There were a couple of exceptions to the Volstead Act that allowed for limited or privileged production. Because this was largely a religious movement, the church was allowed to continue consuming wine for sacramental purposes. No one was about to mess with the blood of Christ, after all. This gave entrepreneurial winemakers some hope: They could continue making wine for local churches. Unfortunately, there were only so many churches per community, and the need was quickly met by those wineries that jumped on that bandwagon early.
Doctors were allowed to prescribe medicinal alcohol for their patients, and pharmacies were booming as a result. In fact, it’s thought that Charles Walgreen created the pharmacy mega-giant that we know today as a result of the sales of medicinal alcohol during Prohibition.
The other loophole was the provision that allowed each home to make 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating” wine per year. The definition of “non-intoxicating” was that the juice needed to be below 0.5 percent. Well, we know there’s no point in drinking wine if it’s just grape juice, so clever winemakers would barrel their unfermented juice with a giant warning on the top that read: “Warning! The addition of yeast may cause alcoholic fermentation.” So, here’s your juice and your packet of yeast … now run along.
Other winemakers came up with creative ways of avoiding getting caught, which led to covert conversations over party-line phones, trap doors and hidden production facilities. Some wineries turned their cellars into dairies and milking operations. Just don’t go upstairs, and never you mind what that loose plank in the floorboard is.
Other wineries, like Robert Biale, created code names for their illegal hooch. The now famous Black Chicken zinfandel was created by Aldo Biale, who, with his now-widowed mother, took over the farm and wine operations from his late father. Knowing that anyone could listen in on their party line and uncover his illicit dealings, he created a secret code word for his wine. The orders flooded in for two dozen eggs, walnuts, prunes and a gallo nero—or black chicken, the code for a jug of his bootleg zinfandel.
Most wineries were not so lucky. Some of these beautiful and historic structures became ghosts, never to wake from the dead. Some stayed in their cold, abandoned state until the wine industry resurged in Napa in the 1960s and 1970s. When Jim Barrett purchased Chateau Montelena in 1968, he said “it was just ghosts and spiders.”
These wineries, constructed before Prohibition and built to withstand the test of time, are an amazing testament to our wine history, tenacity and an enduring spirit. While some of these wineries may indeed have otherworldly entities roaming the caves or wandering around the tasting room, the real ghosts are the buildings themselves and the pioneering people who built them.
Now, here we are, 100 years later. We still have wars, pandemics and natural disasters. But at least this time around, we still have wine.