The history of wine consumption in America has been frought with starts, stops, and inconsistencies. The American population has always had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. Historic prohibitionist attitudes amongst much of the American population have blurred the line between moderate Douro wine consumption and detrimental alcoholism. As a result, regular, moderate consumption of wine by the American public continues to face ideological and legal impediments.
Since its origins, the history of wine consumption in America has been both encouraged and despised by different demographic groups. Spanish missionaries produced the earliest New World wine during the early 17th Century. Shortly thereafter, French immigrants began to cultivate grapes in the Hudson River Valley. They made wine, juice, and preserves.
The early history of wine consumption in America was dominated by immigrants whom were primarily Catholic, and of Central or Southern European descent. The bulk of wine-drinking immigrants came from the wine loving nations of France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. They descended from cultural traditions that valued social wine consumption with the evening meal.
The aforementioned wine drinkers were counterbalanced by immigrants from Northern Europe. Many held Puritan belief systems that discouraged or banned alcohol consumption of any kind. The nativist movements of the early 18th Century cast suspician on immigrant groups that retained Old World customs and did not entirely assimilate into American society.
Wine consumption was a lightning rod for these discriminatory points of view. Although not accurate, alcoholism was seen as a problem only associated with certain ethnic groups that enjoyed wine. Whiskey and beer was the actual source of vast majority of problematic inebriation. Nonetheless, early prohibitionist forces were very effective at linking wine to the ills of American society.
In the 1830s, Americans consumed massive amounts of whiskey and beer. Alcoholism was extremely widespread and was affecting the stability of the American family. Husbands spent time in the saloons instead of with their families, and rampant drunkedness increased instances of philandering and crime.
Ironically, as Prohibitionist fervor gained national momentum in the nineteenth century, the American wine industry boomed. From 1860-1880, Phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France. California wine production greatly increased to fill the international void. Huge tracts of vineyards were planted in Southern California to satisfy the international demand for wine. However, most of this production was exported and it did not have a major impact on the history of wine consumption in America.
By the mid-1880s, European wine production rebounded, causing a glut of American wine. To make matters worse, Pierce’s Disease and Phylloxera simultaneously struck Southern California’s vineyards. Rising population and real estate values in the Los Angeles Basin was the last nail in the coffin of extensive viticulture in the region. With Prohibitionist attitudes constantly gaining momentum, American demand for wine was insufficient to make up for the loss of the much larger European market.
In response to the massive outcry of many Americans against alcohol consumption, Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1917. It banned the commercial production and sale of alcohol in America. The Volstead Act was ratified in 1920 and expounded on the actual implementation of Prohibition. It also mandated several loopholes in alcohol production and consumption. Physicians could prescribe alcohol and it could be consumed for religious purposes. Additionally, a head of household was legally allowed to produce 200 gallons of wine a year for personal use. This was largely a concession to the significant Italian-American electorate.
Because of the Volstead Act, American wine consumption actually increased during Prohibition. The traditional American alcoholic beverages of beer and distilled spirits were illegal to produce and sell from 1920-1933. As a result, regions like Lodi saw a massive increase in demand for grapes used for home winemaking.
Prohibition did not curtail the American apetite for alcohol, it merely destroyed the legal framework that governed alcohol sales. Due to the inaccessibility of alcohol, the use of other drugs, including cocaine and marijauna greatly increased. Additionally, the government lost a major source of revenue from taxing alcohol as organize crime took over the means of production and distribution. The American public became increasingly dissolutioned with the government’s stubborn attempt to attain the impossible.
After a decade of the “noble experiment”, Congress passed the 21st Amendment. It ended national Prohibition and transferred the authority to allow or ban production and sale of alcohol to individual states. Many states relegated this authority to the county level. Counties in some states prohibit alcohol to this day. The history of wine production and sales since the repeal of Prohibition has been governed by the 21st Amendment, not the free trade mandates of the U.S. Constitution.
Because every state has the power to make their own laws regarding wine sales, it has effectively made commercial wine distribution a convoluted mess. Marketing wine in the U.S. continues to be a difficult and frustrating task, especially for smaller wineries. The effects of the 21st Amendment have had a major impact on the history of wine consumption in the U.S. during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Its legacy is a tangle of state and county laws that regulate the production and sale of wine.
Immediately after the repeal of Prohibition, wine consumption dropped as Americans had renewed access to spirits and beer. From the repeal of Prohibition to the late 1950s, high-alcohol dessert and fortified wines dominated the market. These were the darkest days of the history of wine production and consumption. Many fortified wines were produced and sold extremely cheaply, and catered to the “misery market”. “Winos” drank these overly alcoholic concoctions becauses they were the cheapest way to get drunk. In the quest for short-term profits, unscrupulous producers stamped a black mark on the history of wine in America.
From 1934 to the early 1950s, immigrant families consumed the majority of table wines. Unfortunately, many of their offspring did not follow their parents traditional drink choices and began consuming beer and cocktails as they assimilated into American society. Table wine was a mysterious beverage to most Americans and was associated with high-society and recent arrivals from Southern and Central Europe.