Next month marks the eightieth anniversary of what back then was simply termed “repeal,” the passage of the Twenty-first amendment to the United States Constitution and the end of National Prohibition. Eighty years is a long time, but American wine lovers today still live in Prohibition’s shadow. What we buy and drink, and how we drink it, are still very much part of the so-called Noble Experiment’s legacy.
Prohibition ended on December 5th, 1933, when a specially called state convention in Utah voted for repeal. Utah’s was the thirty-second such vote, giving the amendment (the first and only one to overturn an earlier one) the necessary two-thirds majority. People across the country rejoiced. Buying and selling beverage alcohol was no longer a crime.
The political movement for repeal succeeded, however, only because states, and in some cases local municipalities, were given the right to regulate (and tax) alcohol sales within their borders. A few did so by themselves, with state employees in cumbersome bureaucracies working in state liquor stores. Most, though, licensed private companies, many of which were run by the same people who had controlled the illegal sale and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition, to take care of sales within their borders.
These companies had little interest in wine. Back then, wine was a distant third in terms of alcohol consumption, with many more people choosing to wet their whistles with beer and hard spirits. Moreover, the most popular type of wine was cheap, sweet, and fortified, the sort of stuff hidden in paper bags and guzzled on skid row by alcoholic vagrants, who frequently were called “winos.” Not until the mid-1960s did sales of table wines surpass those of muscatel and other fortifieds, and not until the 1970s did an interest in wine begin to grow precipitously among the populace at large.
The companies in charge of alcohol were called distributors. They purchased their products from producers, whether distillers, brewers, or vintners, and then sold them to bars, restaurants, and retail stores. This was the start of the famous (or infamous) “three tier” system, which was guaranteed to make money for the states as each tier was required to pay tax.
Though logic suggests that the distributors were (and are) the weakest of the three tiers, being simply conduits with warehouses and trucks, they quickly became the most powerful. Until the passage of various farm bills in different states that allowed wineries and some breweries to sell directly to consumers within the states, all alcohol had to move through the distribution tier, giving the men and occasionally women who ran these companies complete control over which products consumers could buy. And since any successful distributor’s product “book” was dominated by liquor and beer, wine inevitably became categorized as just another type of booze--something worth drinking for little reason save its alcohol.
Back before Prohibition, table wine had enjoyed a somewhat different cultural status. Though never all that popular outside of immigrant communities, especially German and Italian ones, it was more a mealtime than a party beverage, a foodstuff rather than a mere means of inebriation. European immigrants brought that distinction with them when they came to America, and along with the gilded age’s aristocracy, which drank primarily imported wines with dinner in their New York brownstones and Newport “cottages,” they cemented the common association of wine and food. That association was challenged first by the wide-scale emergence of cheap fortified wines in the decades before the First World War, and then second by Prohibition itself. And it was shattered for good by the distribution system, which by law, practice, and inclination treated wine the same way it treated whiskey.
While no one today seriously advocates a return to Prohibition, and while wine in many places has become a coveted object of desire with cultural capital all its own, the notion of wine as booze remains so widespread as to be largely unchallenged.
The American wine revolution of the past forty years has been led less by the perception of wine as a mealtime drink than by the popularity of wine as a cocktail beverage. The idea of drinking wine, particularly red wine, on its own, without food, as a way to wind down, relax, and yes, feel an alcoholic buzz, is a distinctly American one. And as a glance at any fashionable bar or club in just about any American city makes clear, it has become widely accepted and put into common practice.
This particularly American notion of wine’s cultural role, which continually is being reinforced nowadays by both Hollywood and Madison Avenue, also has influenced the kind of wine we drink. As has been pointed out on this website and in various other venues, the alcohol content of the wines sold in America (not just those made here) has risen dramatically over the past twenty years or so. Many factors have led to this rise, including the influence of certain critics, global warming, and changes in both viticulture and oenology. Yet as important as any of these is that fact that a great many Americans drink a great deal of wine in the same contexts in which an earlier generation drank whiskey or gin. No wonder so many of us are so happy with high levels of alcohol. Whether we say so publicly or not, how we spend our money indicates that we like wines that pack a punch.
Drinks packing punches were what the flappers and their escorts downed in Prohibition-era speakeasies, as well as what the distributors that dominated the alcohol business made their fortunes selling afterwards. That wine today is just such a drink reveals that the legacy of that era lingers on, and that it in fact shows no real sign of fading away any time soon.