Note: This was my column published in the Vacaville Reporter on 11/6/12 and the Vallejo Times Herald November 11/7/12.
No one enjoys the guilty pleasure of a season's worth of TV consumed over a weekend as much as I do. I was halfway through the first season of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series about Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson, when a genuine artifact from Prohibition arrived in my mail.
It was a book, "The Complete Wine Book," by Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, that had once belonged to my grandfather. He died before I knew him, so this connection in the form of a wine book is a treasure. A personal treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed. It gives the reader a firsthand account of what it was like to be a wine lover at a time when drinking wine was not allowed. Maybe I should say that, legally, it was not allowed, there were loopholes.
People who made wine at home, either because of old-world tradition or new-found necessity, were permitted to make up to 2,000 gallons a year. During Prohibition, the amount of California acreage planted to wine grapes actually increased in order to supply these home winemakers. Yet Schoonmaker and Marvel bemoan the state of domestic viticulture at that time.
The problem was that in order to stay in business during Prohibition, grape growers were forced to uproot their tastier varieties, which were thin-skinned and didn't travel well, for heartier grapes that made inferior wine, which, according to the authors, were the alicante bouschet, zinfandel and petite sirah. I strenuously disagree with their condemnation of zinfandel and petite sirah, but I digress.
It takes about four years for a grapevine to produce a marketable crop, and even longer to age a wine. After repeal, even if grape growers had immediately replanted the better varieties, Americans would have to wait years for good domestic wine.
"To expect of American vineyards any real quantity of fine wine before 1940 or 1945 would be to expect a large-scale repetition of the Miracle of Cana," wrote Schoonmaker and Marvel.
They were also upset with grape growers appropriating the names of French localities such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne for California wines.
"There is no indication that California wine would ever be considered as good as European wine. To attempt to maintain, as Mr. William R. Hearst, a loyal Californian, does with laudable, if mistaken, patriotism, that under these conditions the wines of California are 'just as good as those of France, if not better,' is even more ridiculous."
However, the authors were optimistic about the future of California wine, recognizing the ingenuity of California grape growers.
As evidence, they cite a product that may be the most inventive packaged good of the 20th century, the grape block. It was a brick of dried grapes, seeds and pulp, for making "juice," with explicit instructions of what not to do. Don't add sugar or yeast or keep in a dark place, otherwise your juice might ferment and turn to wine, cautions the grape brick label. This marvel of marketing speaks volumes about the eventual demise of Prohibition and ultimate success of California wine, something on which I'm sure my grandfather, Schoonmaker and Marvel and Nucky Thompson could all agree.