Let’s All Raise a…Brick? Wine-making During Prohibition

If you went to a grocery store or a pharmacy during Prohibition, you might see one of these sitting out on the display counter:

Sold only at a shop on at 277th 5th Ave in New York City, apparently...

That tiny label says: “To prevent fermentation, add 1/10% Benzoute of Soda.” Just in case.

And if you took it home and opened it up, it would look like this inside:

Taken from Time Life's "This Fabulous Century," Vol. 3

Taken from Time Life’s “This Fabulous Century,” Vol. 3.  Mmm “sherry.” Looks tasty, doesn’t it? 😉

What is it, you say?  Why, it’s a “grape” or “Bacchus” brick—a solid block of grape concentrate, made from pressed wine grapes.  These little bricks were capable of something amazing, however.  When broken down and combined with a gallon of water, they produced a healthy, wholesome grape juice that was the perfect refreshment for a hot summer’s day that the whole family could enjoy!

But if you were to, say, take all that wonderful sugary grape juice and decant it into a jug, add in a little yeast, stick a cork in it, and then shove it into a closet for 21 days far away from any sunlight…something the shop girl at the counter would tell you to NEVER, EVER do…but if you did, then, well…

…you might end up with this!

GASP!  And it came in multiple flavors, too: Port, Torkay, Muscatel, Claret, Riesling, Burgundy...the list goes on and on!

And in multiple flavors, too: Port, Torkay, Muscatel, Claret, Riesling, Burgundy…the list goes on and on!

But wait a second, you might say to the shop girl.  Stop right there.  Doesn’t selling these bricks violates the Volstead Act–you know, that law Congress put into place in 1918 to prohibit the sale of alcohol?  Doesn’t that make what I’m buying–gasp–illegal???

Turns out, not so much!

Like many alcohol producers of the time, grape growers in California reacted pretty badly to the idea of Prohibition ham-stringing their livelihood.  Farmers didn’t want to lose money by having to destroy their harvests, or rip out their fields and replant them with something new.  So instead a group of California wineries lobbied Congress to be allowed to produce and sell grapes and grape bricks as a law-abiding way to keep their businesses. And it worked like a charm, thanks to a loophole in the law known as Section 29, which claimed that up to 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating cider and fruit juices” were legal to own and create as long as they were used exclusively in the user’s home and never sold to others.1

Because of this nifty little loophole, California wine growers actually managed to expand their farms during Prohibition, growing from 97,000 acres in 1919 to 681,000 in 1926.2 The fresh grapes alone sold like crazy, with prices shooting up from $10 to $100 a ton and shipments growing by 125%.3  This massive increase in grape sales was partly thanks to the rather blatant marketing campaign of companies like Vine-Glo, which took out a number of full-page ads in national newspapers, like this one from the Chicago Tribune in 1930:

A display ad from the Chicago Tribune archives

This ad includes lines like “Order from your neighborhood druggist who displays this sign–or telephone Roosevelt 5616 and we will give you the name of your nearest dealer.” Kind of like other things that come in a brick. Not very subtle, are they? 😉

According to Eric Burns in his book The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, stores even had pretty, fresh-faced young saleswomen around to demonstrate the bricks to eager crowds with a wink and a nudge, always taking care to warn folks about how NOT to use their product.4  Companies like Vine-Glo went even farther: they’d send “salesmen” and “service men” to the customer’s home to do “things to the purchased juice in the buyer’s home to make it misbehave.”5 And just to make sure no one got the wrong idea–wink, wink–companies stuck these helpful little warning labels on their bricks, like this mock-up I found all over the Internet:

There are t-shirts of this at http://www.bricksofwine.com

There are t-shirts of this at http://www.bricksofwine.com, apparently

Since lawmakers and Prohibition agents couldn’t directly PROVE that people weren’t just purchasing wholesome grape juice in the form of a brick, they were forced to let sales continue.  And continue they did.  One Tribune article describes a typical store as “jammed with eager purchasers,” with “crowds lin[ing] the sidewalk outside, clutter[ing] the streets and [holding] up traffic”—but the Prohibition agents standing at the doors wouldn’t “so much as sniff at the packages” of the buyers as they streamed in and out, no matter that they knew full well what was going to happen to all of that “juice.”6

With everybody making things so easy, it’s not surprising that millions of people around the country took up a new hobby: wine-making.  Chicago alone made a pretty fair share. Tribune columnist Arthur Evans estimated in 1923 that Chicagoans produced about 12,500,000 gallons of home-made wine that year, which came to “about twenty gallons for every family in Chicago, or about four and one-half gallons for every man, woman and child.”7 A year later that had increased to an estimated 13,400,000 gallons—and that was just based on the amount of grapes brought in by train, not including truck shipments from Michigan and other nearby states.8 By this point, Evans said, wine-making was “a household art,” with more grapes than ever “pressed into homemade fruit juices into which nature has been invited, or may we say, dared to place a kick.”9 And that was just the documented sales by new “hobbyists.” Immigrants from wine-making countries like Italy had never stopped making wine—and the Volstead Act backed them up. According to the law, as long as wine production was below 200 gallons and everything was consumed in the home and NOT sold for profit, it was considered legal to make wine in the comfort of your own home.10 Wine for religious purposes was exempt as well. Thanks to Section 6 of Title II, wine could be obtained by priests, rabbis, and other religious officials. Jewish bootleggers were known to abuse this religious loophole in particular, with many posing as rabbis and having wine sent to nonexistent synagogues around the city.11

However, while all of this wine production helped to “more than double wine consumption from 70 million gallons of wine per year in 1917 to 150 million gallons by 1925” it came with a price: a major drop in wine quality.12 Like its Prohibition alcoholic brethren, wine suffered considerably thanks to producers who were looking for cheap ways to cut corners. Growers discovered that one way to produce a lot of grapes quickly was to rip out their current crop and replace them with Alicante Bouschet, a kind of fast-growing, thick-skinned grape which blog Serious Eats ranks as “slightly above ragweed” in terms of pedigree.13 Blogger Chris Kerns of Forgotten Grapes describes the wine made from it as a “hearty dark red…with a strong tannic bite,” with an emphasis on the tannin.14 Since it could be pressed twice thanks to its thick skin—and thus make double the wine than other grape varieties—many growers used it to get more bang for their buck.15 California growers planted hundreds of fields full of inferior grapes like the Bouchet, until it accounted for nearly one third of all wine production in the United States. People just couldn’t get enough of it.

The death of California wines

A drawing of Alicante Bouschet, the most popular wine grape of Prohibition

Once Prohibition ended, however, Alicante Bouschet became a tremendous problem for the American wine industry. While it was easy for other alcohol like beer and hard liquor to return to previous high quality levels after 1933, wine took time. Fields were full of inferior grapes that made harsh wines. Americans with more discerning palettes were forced to look for quality wine in other countries. The reputation of America’s wine–and California’s in particular–would take almost sixty years to recover. Even by 1961 there were only 800 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the entire United States, with 600 acres for Pinot Noir, 450 for Riesling, and 300 for Chardonnay—terribly small numbers compared to the 424,000 acres available at the time.16 The American wine industry wouldn’t truly recover until 1976, when a California wine finally out-performed its French counterpart in a blind taste test in Paris.17


Works Cited:
1. Hanson, David J. “The Volstead Act.” 1997-2015. Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. http://www2.potsdam.edu/alcohol/Controversies/Volstead-Act.html#.VMKzMkfF-So.
2. Time-Life Books. 1969. This fabulous century, volume III: 1920-1930. New York: Time-Life.
3. Pinney, Thomas. 1989. A history of wine in America: from the beginnings to prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
4. Burns, Eric. 2004. The spirits of America: a social history of alcohol. Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press.
5. WINE BRICK AND JUICE SALE TEST CASE IS PLANNED. (1931, Aug 07). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/181242993?accountid=3688.
6. SELL WINE BRICKS LIKE HOT CAKES IN N. Y. STORE. (1931, Aug 04). Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/181291847?accountid=3688.
7. Evans, Arthur. (1923, Nov 23). FIGURES SHOW CHICAGO IS FOND OF WINE’S “KICK”. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/180528308?accountid=3688
8. Evans, Arthur. “WINE DRINKING GROWING FAST, EXPERTS ASSERT.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 19, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180645063?accountid=3688.
9. Evans, Arthur. “WINE DRINKING GROWING FAST, EXPERTS ASSERT.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 19, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180645063?accountid=3688.
10. Mitenbuler, Reid. “Prohibition and Wine’s Darkest Hour.” Serious Eats (blog). http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/05/wine-and-prohibition-wine-bricks-american-wine-consumption-history.html
11. Garel-Frantzen, Alex. 2013. Gangsters and organized crime in Jewish Chicago. Charleston, SC : The History Press.
12. Mitenbuler, Reid. “Prohibition and Wine’s Darkest Hour.” Serious Eats (blog). http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/05/wine-and-prohibition-wine-bricks-american-wine-consumption-history.html
13. Mitenbuler, Reid. “Prohibition and Wine’s Darkest Hour.” Serious Eats (blog). http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/05/wine-and-prohibition-wine-bricks-american-wine-consumption-history.html
14. Pinney, Thomas. 1989. A history of wine in America: from the beginnings to prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
14. Kerns, Chris. “Alicante Bouschet: The Knott’s Berry Farm of Forgotten Grapes.” Forgotten Grapes (blog). http://www.forgottengrapes.com/alicante-bouschet
15. Mitenbuler, Reid. “Prohibition and Wine’s Darkest Hour.” Serious Eats (blog). http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2013/05/wine-and-prohibition-wine-bricks-american-wine-consumption-history.html
15. Pinney, Thomas. 1989. A history of wine in America: from the beginnings to prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
16. Wikipedia contributors, “Judgment of Paris (wine),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Judgment_of_Paris_(wine)&oldid=642614348

Photo Credits:
> Vino Sano brick found here: https://prezi.com/mk2vl7pnofdi/some-stuff-about-prohibition/
> Open “sherry” brick from This fabulous century, volume III: 1920-1930.
> Stock photo of wine glasses found here: http://i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article193224.ece/alternates/s615/wine-glass-pic-pa-425608694.jpg
> Vine-Glo Ad is from the Chicago Tribune archives. “Display Ad 19 — No Title.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963). Dec 8, 1930. pg. 20.
> Fake wine brick label: this guy
> The grape drawing is from the magic of Wikipedia

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About lupachi1927

My name's Megan. I'm a writer with an interest in history. While I might not be a real historian, I'm a very thorough researcher! :) This blog is my place to post about all the interesting historical tidbits I find that can't use in the novel I'm working on, which takes place in Chicago in 1927.
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3 Responses to Let’s All Raise a…Brick? Wine-making During Prohibition

  1. jazzfeathers says:

    Well, I wish I had found an article like this when I was reserching Prohibition. Instead I had to piece the info together from many books.
    This is excellet resouce. Thanks so much for the links too 🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: Wine Bricks Revisited: Interview for Grape Collective | A Smile And A Gun

  3. Pingback: February 7: Viognier and Blend, Drones Help California Winemakers, and the Perils of Prohibition – Sip it or Skip it!

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