Gold dust, red dirt: How the Prohibition, Depression changed the local wine industry
March 1, 2005
Third of three parts
National Prohibition officially began on Jan. 16, 1920, but the American Temperance Movement had been alive and powerful since the 19th century.
The state of Maine passed a law forbidding the manufacture and sale of all intoxicating beverages in 1851. Over the next four years, 12 other states and territories followed Maine’s lead. There was much debate on both sides. At the time, there were not that many choices of beverages. There was no reliable refrigeration. Coffee was expensive. Water was likely to make you ill. Whiskey got you drunk but didn’t make you sick. Wine, by some, was seen as the solution – a healthful beverage of moderation.
The “drys” wanted no part of that discussion and demanded abstinence. The national showdown took place in October 1853 in Ohio, then the country’s leading wine-producing state. When the dust settled, the drys lost. By 1860, only three of the original states to go dry remained dry.
Down but not out. National Prohibition started in earnest on Jan. 16, 1920, after the passage of the 18th amendment in 1919. I had always assumed that Prohibition was the nail that finally killed wine in Nevada County. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Prohibition prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol but didn’t specifically make consumption illegal. Nor did it make the growing or shipping of grapes illegal. In fact, as head of household, you could produce up to 200 gallons of fruit juice or cider to make a “nonintoxicating” beverage. The law read nonintoxicating, not nonalcoholic, and the Feds were too busy with bootleg gin and jack whiskey to track what happened in private homes.
Prohibition was bad for wineries but good for grape growers. Grape acreage doubled in California during Prohibition. Grape prices went from $10 per ton to over $100 per ton. It was no different in Nevada County.
Everybody knows somebody who has a story about an uncle or grandfather who made wine in the basement.
Locally, everyone recognized that production of alcohol was illegal, but Nevada County never really endorsed prohibition. While it was never good to boast, there were few secrets. There was a distinction drawn between the illegal bootleggers who brought liquor out of Sacramento and local people who continued to make wine for personal consumption and maybe offer some to their friends. Adolfo Locatelli often had people stop by his cellar in Chicago Park in the afternoon, just to visit. One day he received a tip that the Feds were coming. Now that was bad news. He took all the 50-gallon barrels out of the cellar and scattered them in the fields. But he couldn’t budge the larger storage tanks full of wine. When the Feds arrived, they smashed the storage tanks, flooding his cellar 3 feet deep in wine.
Bill Tamblyn is another local with stories to tell. Born in 1914, he remembers walking to grammar school on Main and Cottage streets in Nevada City and seeing the sheriffs smash barrels of wine in the streets. He remembers Pine and Commercial streets flowing red with wine as it flooded downhill. He told me his Italian friends thought of wine as food. Nobody thought themselves outlaws because they drank a glass of wine with dinner.
M.W. Chick Cicogni was born in Gaston, Nevada County in 1913. His family moved to Boston Ravine, where The Swiss House Restaurant is today, in 1918. His dad planted Zinfandel grapes and made wine. He sold it to his friends for 50 cents a gallon, filling jugs right out of the barrel. Deputy Sheriff George Carter heard Charles Cicogni one day clanging away, tightening the hoops on the wine barrels he kept in his cellar. Sheriff Carter was routinely making busts at the local bars, arresting people, confiscating whiskey and wine. When he saw Mr. Cicogni on Mill Street the next day, all Carter said was to keep the noise down.
Prohibition was repealed Dec. 5, 1933. The great social experiment that was Prohibition came, failed and went with little fanfare but with huge devastation to the wine industry. The grape-growing boom of the early 1920s had led to over supply and the grape market crashed in the second half of the decade. The only thing worse was the Great Depression of the 1930s. Because of gold, Nevada County fared better than most places, but not everybody could get a job in the mines. Adolfo Locatelli operated a dairy during Prohibition but lost it during the Depression. With the repeal of Prohibition, he opened a winery. In 1934, Adolfo opened the Locatelli bonded winery #4063 on Orchard Springs Road in Chicago Park. He bought three 600-gallon oak oval barrels from the Old Brewery in Nevada City that he put in his cellar. He grew Zinfandel and Mataro grapes for red wine and Muscat and Malaga for whites, selling them for 90 cents a gallon. Remnants of the vineyard Adolfo planted in the 1930s are still visible today.
Andrew Personeni had been growing grapes and making wine for years on Jones Bar Road. In 1933 he opened Personeni Winery. Louis Pardini operated a winery on Bitney Springs Road. Wine historian Charles Sullivan credits Nevada County with five wineries in the years following prohibition.
It was World War II that finally did Adolfo Locatelli in. It was difficult enough scraping out a meager living. Times were changing. In the years following Prohibition, huge producers and co-operatives that were increasingly driving the price down dominated winemaking in California. Nobody cared about quality. But what really upset Adolfo was that American boys could go off to fight a war overseas, but he couldn’t sell them a bottle of wine. In disgust and despair, he closed his winery in 1944.
Winemaking in Nevada County had flourished during the Gold Rush, escaped phylloxera, survived Prohibition and rekindled during the Depression. But it couldn’t survive the war. The world had changed. That original wave of immigrants that arrived at the turn of the century was getting old. They didn’t have the energy to tend the vines or make the wines. All materials had gone to the war effort. Everything had been neglected and was in disrepair. The mines were closed. After the war, California was in a re-building boom. Staying home to tend the old family vineyard seemed less appealing.
Ted Blum’s grandmother sold her property after the war. The new ownerlet the vines go, too much work. Ernie Bierwagon ripped out his vineyard in ’46 and planted peaches. Personeni sold his property after the war. It was easier and cheaper to buy a gallon jug of Petri, Gallo or Italian Swiss Colony. By the mid-1950s, all that remained were a few old gnarled vines standing as reminders to a bygone era.
But the red dirt of Nevada County still holds gold, and it’s still good for grapes. The modern era was born in 1974 when John Callendar planted seven acres of grapes on Perimeter Road in the south county. Nevada City Winery opened in 1980, 100 years after initially opening, and it was time to start all over again.
One final note: I would like to thank Adolf Locatelli, Paul Lake, Chick Cicogni, Lawrence Personeni, Larry Flier, Chris Dabis, Max Roberts and, in memoriam, Ted Blum and Ernie Bierwagon for their help with this story. If you have a story or a picture to share, please contact me. For a recap of the modern era of wine in Nevada County, go to http://www.theunion.com and search for Wine By The Numbers.
Rod Byers is director of marketing at Nevada City Winery, is a certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California state certified wine judge. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 530-913-3703.