Dismantling a still in San Francisco. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-12143.

Prohibition is the period from January 17, 1920 to December 5, 1933, during which there was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, the importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was the result of almost 100 years of growth in the temperance movement which began in the 1820s and 1830s when religious revivalism swept through the United States. Women played a major role in this movement as hard liquor was seen as a destructive force among men in the workplace, families, and marriages. Evangelical preachers of various Christian denominations attacked the saloon culture as “ungodly.” Employers supported prohibition to increase productivity and reduce accidents in the workplace. The Eighteenth Amendment was submitted to the states during December 1917 and adopted in January 1919.

Many states enacted their own prohibition laws before 1920, but California did not. In 1912, a local option statue was passed in California that allowed local communities to establish their own level of prohibition if they chose to do so. In Southern California, several wine-producing districts chose to limit alcohol production and therefore became known as “dry districts.”

The California Wine Industry appeared to “dry up” as well, but there was much activity beneath the surface. The Eighteenth Amendment allowed the sale of wine grapes to heads of households who could convert grape juice into wine as long they did not produce over 200 gallons of wine per household per year.

Congress allowed wineries to produce sacramental wines for religious purposes and wine for medicinal use. This allowed many wineries, including Beaulieu, Beringer, and Wente who produced sacramental wines, and most commercial vineyards to stay in business. In fact, vineyard acreage in California increased to levels not matched again until the 1970s.

The demand was for red grapes: Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mourvedre. The focus was on grapes that shipped well by truck or by rail. Other varietals, including the fine red varietals, disappeared from production as did the high-quality white wine varietals during the 1920s. Vines were removed and replaced with the heartier varietals above.

Thousands of carloads of red wine grapes were shipped to the East Coast each year at harvest time. The huge demand rose as “Home Wine Making” became the rage across the United States. Books and winemaking kits were sold in every city. The San Francisco Bay area used at least 2,000 train carloads of grapes for home winemaking each year during Prohibition.

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. Many citizens spent time in local jails, arrested by agents of the Treasury Department, for selling their local wines to customers. Additionally, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo were known for their speakeasies.  

By 1932 wineries all through California began to renew their bonds and make wine again. It has been said that the quality of these wines was usually not good.

Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act on March 22, 1933. In April, Congress legalized the production of beer and wine, with a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol. York Brothers Winery made Zinfandel wine for Paderewski which won gold medals at the California State Fair the following year. The passage of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933 voided the Eighteenth Amendment which ended prohibition but gave the right to each state to continue prohibition or revise the laws relating to the sale and production of alcohol. Some states continued prohibition; other states developed their own state controls of the alcohol and wine industry. Today the laws vary from state to state.

Watch for exhibits on Prohibition in SLO County by the Wine History Project in 2019.