Wine bricks

Never underestimate the ingenuity of those who make wine and those who enjoy wine.

When America’s recklessly ill-considered experiment in banning booze went into effect in 1920, grape farmers and winemakers had to decide whether to tear out vines and plant different crops or keep the vines—which in places such Napa already had earned a reputation for being world-class.

Dilemma: What happens when America comes to its senses? It would take years for the new, non-grape crops to grow into production. When Prohibition inevitability was repealed, it could take decades for replanted vineyards to return to their existing levels of excellence.

Some took the bitter Prohibition pill and planted different crops. Others found clever ways to continue to make a living off wine grapes.

Production of sacramental wine used in religious services was one avenue. Production and consumption of “church wine” soared during Prohibition, even as people observed no dramatic increase in church attendance.

The Volstead Act stipulated grape growers could continue to grow and sell wine grapes. They just could not turn the juice into wine. Grape growers, however, could sell concentrated grape juice in what was known as a “wine brick.”

Wine brick producers carefully printed instructions on what not to do with their product: do not leave your gallon jug of concentrated grape juice and water in a cool, dark place for 21 days or it will turn into wine. Wink. Wink.

The Volstead Act allowed personal consumption of up to 200 gallons of homemade wine in the home. Wine brick makers also carefully informed customers of this loophole.

Wine bricks made growers who did not pull their vines rich. Wine grape prices soared almost 4,000 percent during Prohibition. Beringer Vineyards was the most successful. A Minnesota grocer, Cesare Mondavi, saw the opportunity and moved to Napa to make wine bricks. His sons would change the wine world.

The sad part of this story is most wine bricks were made with inferior, high-production grapes. The bricks did not make good wine, but they made wine. Prohibition ended in 1933, but it took four decades for the American wine industry to fully recover from the madness of the fatally flawed law.

Last round: I am not one of those extremists on the right or the left. I am drinking my third glass of wine, and will have more, because of those people.

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