Liquor going down a sewer in NYC. Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Right on the heels of California Wine Month and the beginning of grape harvest, comes Ken Burns’ latest documentary, Prohibition. The six hour series, which airs on PBS stations October 2nd, takes us back to an infamous thirteen year time period in our nation’s history when the commercial production and sale of alcohol was banned. For those not glued to the prohibition era TV series Board Walk Empire, the 18th Amendment was passed in 1920 at the urging of the temperance movement.
California’s wine industry, which had recently rebounded from a major pest infestation and was poised for great things, was devastated by Prohibition. Vineyards were ripped up and a majority of the more than six hundred wineries in the state were shuttered. The few that remained in business did so by producing wine for religious purposes. Beaulieu Vineyard was one of them. Founder Georges de Latour, a Catholic, was a friend of the archbishop of San Francisco. Latour cut a deal to sell wine to all the priests in the diocese.
Prohibition was supposed to curb alcohol consumption, but instead the party went underground, giving rise to a thriving criminal economy run by bootleggers and gangsters. Port cities, like San Francisco, managed to stay pretty wet during those dry years, thanks to illegal liquor brought ashore in the dead of night, carried on ships from Canada. The roaring twenties saw the rise of a new breed of young women, known as “flappers,” and while beer, wine and spirits—some bootlegged, some made in basement stills flowed in hundreds of backroom speakeasies.
After years of lawlessness, the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933. You can still visit remnants of the Prohibition era throughout the Bay Area. Some former San Francisco speakeasies remain and dozens of wineries survived Prohibition.
Called “Ghost Wineries” some have become homes, others used as barns or shopping complexes in Yountville and St. Helena. A handful of wineries have been restored and now have a second life including Freemark Abbey, Far Niente, Hall Wines and Storybook Mountain Vineyards in Calistoga.
We’ve come along way since the dry days of Prohibition. In seventy-five years, the state’s award winning wine industry has built itself up to be a world leader, with more than 3,300 bonded wineries. But a new threat looms — this one from Mother Nature. Research shows that California’s prime wine-producing areas could shrink dramatically over the next three decades, due to climate change.
Find out much more about the past and future of California wines at the California Academy of Sciences Prohibition NightLife this Thursday evening. You can purchase tickets online for the event or buy them at the door. KQED’s science and environment series, QUEST, will be screening the segment on wine and climate change featured below and serving up wines for warmer temps. Cal Academy will be leading mixology classes and screening a sneak peak of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new documentary on Prohibition. Can you think of a better way to commemorate the end of the 18th Amendment than with a cocktail party and wine tasting?