Prohibition may have failed in the U.S. but it’s far reaching effect was to replace the wine glass with a shot glass..
The effects of Prohibition on America’s drinking habits are so significant, that I wanted to point out a few reasons that Americans have only come up on the radar as a wine consuming country since the 1970’s. American’s love affair with booze goes back in history to the early part of our country when Rum was traded as major commodity and George Washington set up his commercial still operation in Mount Vernon. Over time, wine drinking actually caught on when Americans figured out a way to make American grapes (vitus lambrusco, no relation to Italian Lambrusco) palatable as drinking wines, thus putting Missouri and Ohio on the map of top wine producing areas.
When Prohibition raised it’s ugly head in 1919 through the Volstead Act which essentially made alcohol illegal in most forms (you were allowed to produce a limited amount of wine at home, and Near Beer with a maximum alcohol level of .5% by volume remained legal) and completed it’s devastation by 1933, America was in the middle of the big Depression. America’s taste for “soft” alcoholic beverages like wine and beer had been hardened into a love of gin and other cheap spirits which were readily available during Prohibition in illegal drinking establishment known as Speakeasies. Since the Mafia was in charge of providing illegal beverages to these undercover establishments, booze became king: it was easy to transport, relatively easy to make or bring over the border from Canada, and it had plenty of alcohol by volume both satisfying the thrill seekers of the era: if you were going to risk going to jail for breaking the law, why not drink the hard stuff – booze!
The other major effect of Prohibition (excluding the major number of deaths by people who mistakenly consumed cheap ethanol substitutes like wood alcohol which killed them) was the destruction of over 90% of the existing vineyards and the loss of a major number of breweries. Since investment dollars were hard to come by during the financial Depression, and it takes a long lead time to grow quality grapes and produce quality wine, the wine industry took many years to reappear. Even if a winery was opened, the shortage of talent and skilled labor to produce quality wines was almost non-existent.
America’s tastes changed to spirits such as gin, vodka and whiskey which was most evident during the 50’s and 60’s with the burgeoning cocktail culture and the prevalence of cheap, poorly made wine produces like wine coolers – I remember Bartles and James commercials on TV, do You? Cocktails and the associated cocktail parties were the rage in this era, and wine was still either cheap and sweet or hard to come by unless you were willing search it out and spend relatively a lot of money for the time. And each state had different alcohol laws and controls, for example, in my state of Pennsylvania there were an extremely limited availability of quality wines, and you were more likely to find Riunite, Blue Nun or Mateus as the closest substitute to a fine wine. Since fine wine was relatively expensive and hard to come by, it had a snooty reputation and was perceived as “highfalutin”—something only the rich or Europeans drank, or something saved only for special occasions like sparkling wine for the Holidays.
Conclusion: Prohibition slowed down America’s interest in wine and repositioned booze as the alcoholic drink of choice. Other signs of this fact include American’s sweet tooth in beverages from cocktails to soft drinks and the difficulty many people have adjusting to “dry” wines with food. Two historical moments significantly effected American’s tastes in wine: 1) The Paris Tasting of 1976 when California wines one against French wines in both the red and white wine categories, and 2) 60 Minutes episode on the “French Paradox” in 1991 which suggested that the reason the French have such low heart disease even though they ate ridiculously high levels of saturated fat in their diet, was due to their consumption of a few glasses of red wine per day. Add American’s relative wealth, travel to foreign countries, increased interest in gourmet food and fine cuisine and last but not least the movie Sideways, and it becomes clear why America is now the number one consumer of wine by total volume a year – Cheers!
Charlie “I Drink On the Job” Adler