Left to Right: Dr. Victor Geraci, Libbie Agran, Carla De Luca, Mary Orlin, at the Monday Club, 2020.

America’s Wine Film Screening at the Pioneer Museum in Paso Robles, 2020.

America’s Wine Film Screening: Keith Pellemeier, local volunteer bartender, 2020.

2020 is the one-hundredth anniversary of the enactment of the Volstead Act and the enforcement of Prohibition. The Wine History Project screened the film, America’s Wine, in January at the Pioneer Museum in Paso Robles and at the Monday Club in San Luis Obispo to commemorate the occasion. This was the first showing of this remarkable film in San Luis Obispo County.

America’s Wine examines the impact of National Prohibition on the wine industry and on the lives of Americans who lived through the years 1920 to 1933 when the selling and transporting of alcoholic beverages were illegal. Prohibition and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States decimated the American wine industry and created an era of lawlessness, organized crime, moral corruption, and economic hardship. California farmers and winemakers considered wine a food product, rather than an alcoholic beverage. The once thriving California wine industry was not prepared for wine to be outlawed along with alcoholic spirits. California was the largest producer of wine in the country and yet was not able to mobilize the industry to organize an effective fight against Prohibition.

The film tells the story of the California grape growers and winemakers who struggled to survive and rebuild the wine industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Filmmaker Carla De Luca, an Emmy award-winning television and documentary producer, wrote, directed and produced the film with live interviews of the legends of the California winemakers including Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers Winery, and Zelma Long. Historians Thomas Pinney, Kevin Starr and Charles Sullivan told the story that spans a century very eloquently. These are the people who had never spoken in public about the impact of Prohibition on their lives and their industry before this film was made.

During the first five years from 1920 to 1925, vineyard acreage almost doubled in size; grape production was driven by the demand for grapes for home winemaking. Grapes grown in California were shipped all over the United States. In 1926, the price of grapes fell dramatically as the supply exceeded the demand. Vineyards were abandoned as the price continued to decline and the United States slipped into the Great Depression after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Ultimately, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President and he vowed to end Prohibition. He worked with Congress to repeal the 18th Amendment; Utah cast the deciding vote. The impact of Prohibition resonates with us today. On the positive side, The Wine Institute was established to rebuild the wine industry with standards of quality that have made California wines famous world-wide. However, the legacy of Prohibition has also left a confusing tapestry of state laws that control the transportation and sales of wines, which are difficult to navigate. Each state has the power to control the movement and sales of wine, beer and distilled spirits within their borders.

The film includes remarkable film clips and photographs of the Prohibition era, including speakeasies, bootleggers, arrests of locals and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of gallons of wine, barrels and equipment as never seen before. The soundtrack of lively music of the 1920s era adds to the drama and excitement.

The panel members Dr. Victor Geraci, food and wine historian and author of numerous books including The Story of the Santa Barbara Wine Industry and Mary Orlin, the James Beard and Emmy award-winning wine journalist, sommelier, wine educator and the Sip, Sip Hooray! wine podcast joined Carla De Luca and Libbie Agran in a lively discussion of the ongoing issues of temperance, immigrants, saloons, bars and the history of the Prohibition movement in America which still thrive today.

The film is a collaboration between the Oral History Center and the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley and Carla De Luca. Carla De Luca and Dr. Victor Geraci worked closely on the film for 10 years to bring the film to the public. They reminisced on the challenges they faced and the excitement of working with the legendary winemakers of California. The film has won a number of awards and is a landmark in wine history.

The Wine History Project is proud to bring the film to San Luis Obispo County; we will screen it again in May 2020 at the Octagon Barn in partnership with the Land Conservancy. The Wine History Project has also established a series of exhibits on the Prohibition movement; see  Exhibitions for further details.