In the first two decades of the 20th century, most California winemakers were in denial about the possibility of Prohibition becoming the law of the land, even as the Eighteenth Amendment was being ratified state by state. An intoxicating liquor was defined as 0.5 alcohol content. Many had thought whiskey and spirits might be banned, but not wine; grapes and wine were viewed as food products, particularly by the European immigrant groups who drank wine with every meal. Much of the early wine history in California had been dominated by the Italians. In 1919 the California Legislature did finally ratify both the National Prohibition Enforcement Act and the Harris Act.
Remember that Section 1 of the Eighteenth Amendment stated:
After one year from the ratification of this article 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 is hereby prohibited.
The National Prohibition Enforcement Act, or Volstead Act, passed nine months later provided for the enforcement of prohibition. This Act had three distinct purposes: to prohibit intoxicating beverages; to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of spirits for other than beverage purposes; and, to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries.
The inclusion of banning beer and wine in the Eighteenth Amendment necessitated the Volstead Act to actually define an extremely low limit on allowed alcohol content. This definition took many around the country by surprise, even Prohibition supporters; because it defined the term “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage containing 0.5% or more alcohol by volume. An important word in the Act said that this superseded all existing prohibition laws in effect in states that had such legislation prior to this Act.
The National Prohibition Enforcement Act, or Volstead Act, then created four important loopholes:
- California allowed the sale of grapes.
- It did not prohibit the process of converting juice into wine.
- It was not illegal to drink intoxicating liquors, beer, and wine.
- Home winemakers were allowed to produce 200 gallons per household for their own consumption.
Prohibition gave rise to a new hobby, home winemaking. It quickly spread across the United States. Home winemaking kits were manufactured and promoted throughout the country during Prohibition. Books, wine bricks, grape concentrate, and raisin cakes were sold in every city. The San Francisco Bay area used at least 2,000 carloads of grapes for home winemaking each year during Prohibition. As the demand for grapes increased and home winemaking became the rage in the Prohibition era, vineyard acreage increased in San Luis Obispo County.
According to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan, families of French, German, Italian, and central European origin used as much as five percent of the state’s wine grape crops to make wine at home prior to Prohibition. As immigrants settled in cities across the nation in the early twentieth century, wine grapes were shipped to cities for sale for home winemaking. In 1913, hundreds of carloads were shipped from California; by 1917 the number had risen to 4,000 carloads. Sullivan continues with facts of reports that the number escalated to 55,000 carloads leaving California in 1923.
The demand for red grapes was very important because of home winemaking: Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mourvedre. These hardy grapes were preferred for shipping by truck or by rail. The consequences would be felt for decades; many fine varieties, both red and white, disappeared from production during the 1920s.
York Brothers winery and vineyards.
The York Family
In 1906, Andrew, and his sons Walter, and Silas decided to increase the size of York & Sons winery. They purchased additional land and planted new Zinfandel vineyards on eight acres. Small plantings of Grenache, Carignane, and Alicante Bouchet were added.
Andrew York died on December 1, 1913. As their father’s health had declined in 1911, Walter and Silas took control of the winery and grew the production of wine to over 100,000 gallons annually. Walter York and Silas York purchased their interest from their father’s estate and changed the name to York Brothers. The winery had passed to the second generation. The York Brothers winery became the largest winery in San Luis Obispo County. The future looked bright and prosperous.
Unlike most California wineries during Prohibition, the York Brothers winery found a market for their Zinfandel grapes. The winery never closed during these years. The demand was fueled by two factors: first, the growing illegal market for wine controlled to a great extent by organized crime; and, second, the rise of the home winemaking industry. The York brothers focused on the local markets and continued to sell and press grapes on-site and in the vineyards for the Swiss-Italian dairy families and the Basque ranching populations throughout coastal and central California. They also pressed grapes for local winemakers including the famous Polish pianist and statesman, Ignacy Paderewski.
Because of ambiguity in the Eighteenth Amendment, the York Brothers winery was allowed to sell wine for both sacramental uses in religious services and also for prescription medicines. In fact, physicians were allowed to write up to 50 prescriptions of alcohol per month for acute or chronic illnesses.
Mel Casteel’s wine cave dug by the Casteel Family. Mel Casteel is standing. Steve Goldman is sitting on the floor.
The Casteel Family
John Wesley Casteel moved his family to Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County to farm beans after seeing the project to establish a city patterned after Salt Lake City by his Mormon congregation fail on San Bernardino Ranch in Southern California. The project ended as Mormons were asked to return to Salt Lake to deal with legal challenges from the United States government. In 1887 John’s family moved to Dover Canyon, west of Paso Robles. The family were cattle ranchers and dairy farmers but most importantly, they became known for growing Zinfandel grapes.
Clarence Casteel (1879-1953), John Wesley Casteel’s son, bought a 160-acre ranch on Jensen Road in 1912. There was a vineyard with old Mission grapes planted on the property. Clarence was intrigued with the vineyard and planted 30 additional acres with two new varieties, Muscat grapes and Zinfandel grapes. It is thought to be one of the oldest Zinfandel clones in California.
During Prohibition, Clarence planted additional table and wine grapes on seven acres in 1927; he increased his vineyard acreage each year during the Prohibition era. He sold his grapes to local stores and customers. Clarence’s grapes attracted a famous customer, media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst wanted the very best table grapes grown in San Luis Obispo County to serve to his guests at his ranch, then known as La Cuesta Encantada, high on the hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean above San Simeon. Today we know this property as the famous Hearst Castle. Clarence’s children “delighted in watching their father pour the silver into a dishpan for counting” which Clarence brought home in buckskin bags from the now famous Hearst Castle. William Randolph Hearst did not indulge in home winemaking. His wine cellar was well stocked prior to the onset of Prohibition.
Ignacy Paderewski, Composer, Pianist, and Viticulturist
A celebrity arrived in Paso Robles in January 1914, a propitious event for the York Brothers Winery. He was a world-famous pianist, composer and Polish patriot living in Switzerland who suffered pain and stiffness in his hands during a California concert tour. Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941) was advised to postpone his tour and “take the healing waters in Paso Robles” as a cure. He resided at the famous El Paso de Robles Hotel (now the Paso Robles Inn) and sought treatment with the mineral hot springs.
Paderewski’s doctor, who also sold real estate, pressured Paderewski to purchase a 2,500-acre ranch in the Adelaida District, west of town, which he did by March 1914. He hired a Polish patriot to manage the ranch; planting orchards of fruit and nut trees at his San Ignacio Ranch. Paderewski resumed his concert tour and also continually lobbied for the Polish people wherever he traveled. He worked with Allied leaders to ensure Poland’s independence in 1919 and served as the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Poland.
Paderewski returned to the El Paso de Robles Hotel in 1922 during the now enforced Prohibition era. Paderewski had been famously known for the luscious large table grapes he grew in greenhouses on his estate in Switzerland. Paderewski knew both the demand and price of grapes were rising during the 1920s. He decided to plant Zinfandel, after consulting with two professors from UC Davis, F. T. Bioletti, and Horatio Stoll. In 1923, his ranch manager, J. Gnierciah, cleared 200 acres and planted Zinfandel vines purchased from a nursery in Riverside with small amounts of Béclan and Petite Sirah, all planted on their own roots. The first harvest was in 1926; the grapes were sold to locals and to the Swiss-Italian dairymen in the Salinas Valley throughout the Prohibition era.
Paderewski hired York Brothers winery to press his grapes and make his wine at the end of Prohibition. Paderewski entered his wines in the 1934 competitions at the California State Fair, winning gold medals and bringing fame to York Brothers winery and Paso Robles.
Vino-Sano Grape Brick Label
On July 24, 1920, the Internal Revenue Bureau issued a statement that homemade wine and cider could have more than 0.5 percent alcohol as long as it was consumed at home and “non-intoxicating.” Home winemaking was now legal up to 200 gallons per year—or the equivalent of about one thousand 750ml bottles. Dried grape bricks were an ingenious idea for vintners to continue to sell their grapes. University of California, Davis began working on perfecting the process for making bricks in the summer of 1919. Their goal was to evaporate away the water content while keeping the grape’s color and flavor and not drying them to the point of becoming raisins. These grape concentrate products were marketed for making non-intoxicating juice, but carried a clever warning to customers not to allow their product to ferment too long else they ran the risk of making an intoxicating wine in the process. The warning was actually the instruction on how to home brew, “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty-one days, because then it then would turn to wine.”
Wine Haven Fruit Concentrate
This rare container of blended California grapes concentrate from the growers and vintners of the Fruit Industries, Ltd. still has the concentrate in the package. A 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article entitled, “Now New York Homes Can Enjoy Vine-Glo,” discusses how to place an order from any druggist or grocer displaying the Vine-Glo sign for a five-gallon keg at $16.50, a ten-gallon keg for $29.50, or a twenty-five gallon keg for $65.00. Vine-Glo is described as, “pure juice of California wine-grapes being produced as an outlet for the annual surplus of wine-grapes in California by Fruit Industries, Ltd.” The article continues, “Vine Glo is not an experiment. It is an established success…enjoy the full, matchless flavor and bouquet of the juice of California’s finest wine-grapes in the full knowledge that you are not a lawbreaker.”
The German and the Italian Families
In the Geneseo district located east of Paso Robles, the Klintworth and Ernst families along with their German neighbors who had settled the area in the 1870 and 1880s, closed their wineries during Prohibition. They continued growing grapes and selling their harvests.
Many Italian families arrived in San Luis Obispo County between 1900 and 1926, settling in the Templeton area. Many were hired to clear the trees on York Mountain and in the Santa Lucia Mountains. They also worked in the charcoal industry, which was crucial for gunpowder and fuel. Each family saved their wages and purchased land in the Tempelton area to farm, often planting grains, fruits, vegetables and tending dairy animals and chickens. After Prohibition was enacted they added Zinfandel vineyards, sold their grapes to home winemakers and made wine to sell to local customers. Amedeo Martinelli, Lorenzo Nerelli, Joe and Clement Rotta, Giovan Busi, and Sylvester Dusi made their wines and fermented them in redwood barrels hidden in the vineyards, barns, and basements. Some sold wine to the church but the majority of the wine was sold to local customers, delivered in a variety of surreptitious ways. There were raids, arrests, intrigue, jail time to be served and fines to be paid but nothing stopped local wine production. As soon as Prohibition ended, Frank Pesenti, the York Brothers, Clement Rotta, Amedeo Martinelli, Lorenzo Nerelli, Sylvester Dusi, the Dellagamma, and the Brunetti families submitted new applications to become bonded as wineries. They were back in business. Most of the Italian families and their vineyards became famous for their legendary Zinfandel grapes. The vineyards continue to produce premium grapes to the present, although ownership has changed with the exception of the Dusi vineyards.
Law Enforcement in San Luis Obispo County During Prohibition
Local law enforcement in San Luis Obispo County was vigilant, harsh, and terrifying. People were arrested, jailed, and paid large fines for making more than 200 gallons per household, transporting and selling wine. In San Luis Obispo County, federal agents were assigned to work with local law enforcement.
Local law enforcement began in 1921 with raids and arrests. Sylvester Dusi pleaded guilty to handling illicit liquor as did Clifford E. Robinson, proprietor of the Estrella store located east of Paso Robles, in December in 1921. The sentences for such crimes were levied as a choice between jail time or paying fines. These fines were utilized to supplement local government revenues in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. The typical bail for illegal possession of alcohol was $300 in cash; illegal sale was $500.
Federal dry enforcement agents arrived in Paso Robles at the end of February 1922 to conduct surprise raids on eight businesses and residences. These locations were identified by a “government spotter” who had seen liquor purchased illegally on the premises. These spotters were often members of the local Anti-Saloon League, an interdenominational Protestant organization and the leading pressure group which had lobbied for Prohibition in the early twentieth century.
Arrests made headlines in Paso Robles on December 13th, 1923 when Sheriff Ray Evans and federal officers arrested Joe Rotta. They raided his farm and found 1000 gallons of wine, although Joe claimed it was grape juice. They sealed it up for testing and Joe was taken to jail in the city of San Luis Obispo.
Lorenzo Dusi faced charges of destroying government evidence, unlawful sale, manufacture and possession according to federal prohibition agent John H. Vail, who arrested Lorenzo on February 1, 1924, during a raid of the Dusi Ranch on York Mountain. 1,600 gallons of wine were found in large barrels in the cellar of the ranch house. The federal and county officials sealed the barrels and left them in the cellar because of the difficulty in moving them. The agents obtained a court order to destroy the wine at the site on February 26th and found that all of the barrels were missing except for a few large barrels which were empty. Although the evidence was missing, Lorenzo was returned to the county jail and turned over to federal authorities.
Distillery equipment, or ‘stills’, were found everywhere in the county from York Mountain to the Carrizo Plain. Barrels of wine were buried in vineyards between rows of Zinfandel vines. Sylvester Dusi had wine buried beneath his chicken coop; he delivered gallons to the local hardware store when he received the phone call ordering “two hens and a rooster.”
Jim Vail, brother of John H. Vail, the prohibition officer of the Central California District, owned the largest speakeasy in San Luis Obispo County. It was known as the Log Cabin Roadhouse, located among cottages on Edna Valley Road in San Luis Obispo.
Amedeo Martinelli told stories of federal agents axing his barrels of sour wine while posing for a photograph. After the press had gone, the agents would sit with Amedeo enjoying his fine Zinfandel in his winery.
In San Luis Obispo County, York Brothers winery sold grapes to local Swiss Italians on the Central Coast and to the Basque populations from Bakersfield to Santa Barbara who made their own wine. Local home winemakers enjoyed their own vintages and a number of stills were hidden in the mountains between San Luis Obispo and Bradley, California. Local wine was often stored and aged in redwood barrels buried in the vineyards. The Volstead Act charged the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in the Treasury Department with enforcing Prohibition and a Prohibition Unit was founded within the IRS. As a result, many citizens spent time in local jails, having been arrested for selling their wines to local customers. By 1929, the shift in federal enforcement moved from the IRS to the Department of Justice, with a Bureau of Prohibition. Both Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo were known for their speakeasies during these years.
The Central Coast dairy ranchers conspired with “rum runners” to protect those who transported the liquor delivered by ship up and down the Pacific Coast to small coves in Avila, Cambria, Cayucos. Morro Bay and Spooners Cove. The dairy farmers hid the waiting trucks and drivers who were hired to transport the cargo to Los Angeles. The farmers would gather and party on the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean and when spotted by the feds, the farmers often used diversionary tactics. They would take off in their truck that looked like they were loaded with booze. They encouraged local law enforcement to follow them on wild chases, allowing bootleggers to escape detection and drive the real cargo of booze to Los Angeles. Dairy farmers and bootleggers split the profits from the liquor sales and also enjoyed outfoxing the revenue agents.
The End of Prohibition was in Sight
The enforcement of the Prohibition laws began to ease in the early 1930s. Prohibition clearly was not producing abstinence. By 1932, wineries all through California began to prepare their applications to renew their bonds and make wine again. In March 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act which amended the Volstead Act and permitted the manufacturing and sale of low-alcohol beer and wines with a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol.
Movements favoring the Repeal, which required a new amendment to the Constitution of the United States, lobbied Congress and were soon successful in supporting the new legislation which was ratified by the individual states. The Twenty-first Amendment was passed on December 5, 1933; it voided the Eighteenth Amendment which ended Prohibition but gave the right to each state to continue forbidding or revising the laws relating to the sale, transportation and production of alcohol. Some states continued disallowing alcohol; other states developed their own state controls of the alcohol and wine industry.
Because of this legislation, the laws concerning the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol vary from state to state. This is one of the legacies of Prohibition that continues to make the sale of California wines to restaurants, wine shops, market chains and individuals located in each of 49 other states so challenging. Each state has its own unique application and record keeping requirements.
In most cases, the quality of the wine produced in California after Prohibition ended was very poor. The majority of wineries had been closed for 14 years. The equipment was not functional and the barrels and tanks were in disrepair. A generation of winemakers disappeared, and were not present to make quality wines or to mentor new winemakers. Many varieties of grapes and their vineyards were removed and replaced with the hardy grapes such as Zinfandel that could be shipped by rail to the East Coast to home winemakers. It would take over 40 years for the wine industry to recover in California.
There are still active movements in the United States to limit the production, sale and transportation of alcohol.