Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
September 30, 2011
Ken Burns is back.
The prodigious chronicler of the life and times of our nation debuts a new five and a half-hour and three-part series this evening on PBS. So why is that fodder for a wine column? Well the subject focuses on one of the strangest episodes in American history and one that is frequently misunderstood: Prohibition. Directed in association with his long time partner Lynn Novick, the film has been getting solid reviews and a look at the trailer and clips on PBS show promise.
Once upon a time in America citizens were, by constitutional decree, stymied in their attempts to pour themselves a drink. In 1919, 46 of the 48 states (Connecticut and Rhode Island deferred) ratified the 18th Amendment that expressly forbid “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”
Notice that the amendment does not expressly forbid the consumption of alcohol, rather, it just made it illegal to get a hold of a bottle of “intoxicating” liquor. Typical Washington obfuscation, but a clear example of how the system can be used by special interests with fuzzy objectives.
Burns’ story is about more flappers, bootleggers and the images of the Roaring Twenties as depicted in the media that we have all been exposed to over the years. Rather, he notes, that Prohibition is an example of one of the great cultural conflicts in our history. A cautionary tale of struggle between those who wish to use the law and the government to restrict others from participating in actions that they deem to be immoral at worst or just plain objectionable at best.
To help clarify the murkiness of the 18th Amendment Congress also passed a piece of legislation called The National Prohibition Act which became known as The Volstead Act. Vetoed by President Wilson, the Volstead Act became Federal law after the House and Senate overrode the veto. Included in the Act were a number of provisions and exceptions including one that allowed the “sacramental wines” to be allowed to continue production. This loophole in the law, as well as Section 29 of the Act, which allowed the production of fermented fruit juices, were saviors for the California wine industry which was gutted by the 18th amendment.
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Basically, the Volstead Act allowed California wineries to continue to grow grapes and ferment wines for use in religious ceremonies. Seminal Napa wineries like Martini Brothers, Beaulieu and Beringer stayed alive while others failed and replanted their vineyards to fruits other than grapes.
Beaulieu in particular profited mightily from the loophole. Owned by Frenchman and Catholic George LeTour, he turned the winery into a veritable factory for wine to be used in the Catholic mass. Or not. In 1925, a study by the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ showed that there had been an increase in demand for sacramental wines of over 800,000 cases between 1923 and 1925. It seems that many folks got religion after the passage of the Act. It also helped to make LaTour a fortune by finding a way to sell wine in a troubled time.
Beringer also took advantage of the loopholes to make a profit. They would sell “raisin cakes,” a product with dried grapes that would begin to ferment if it was placed with water in a jug. Other wineries would market a jelly called “Vine-go” which would also ferment when mixed with water.
Thirteen years after its passage, the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act were repealed when the 21st Amendment was passed. It marks the only time in US history that a constitutional Amendment was repealed by a second Amendment and marked the end of a stunningly confrontational era in our history.
Burns’s documentary serves as a cautionary tale to those who think that amending the constitution is the right thing to do with a given issue. It also tells a story of a time in our history when we were willing to allow those with an agenda to change the course of events and impose their will.
Tonight’s episode has a nice companion piece in the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire which also has its season debut. Settle down with a cocktail for a pair of good watches.