Wine industry: then and now |

Wine industry: then and now

A partial repeal of Prohibition came on a dark, rainy afternoon in 1933 at 321/2 minutes past two o’clock (PST), Dec. 5, 69 years ago, ending 14 dry years… years which could have spelled the end of the California wine industry.

True to his campaign promises, President Franklin D. Roosevelt steered a bill through Congress permitting light wines and beers, with a maximum alcohol content of 3.5 percent to be produced and sold.

This ruling brought forth some of the strangest wine combinations ever concocted. No one in the wine industry was ready for such a development, and so wines of every color and taste, packed in bottles of every size and shape, came flooding onto the market.

Fortunately, this situation only lasted a year – until the full repeal of the Volstead Act took place. Then the wine industry had to begin the long and arduous task of weaning back its lost consuming public.

To add to the problem, many of the California vineyards were growing the wrong grapes for making the finest wines, having shifted to those varieties that shipped best. And, many of the winemakers had left the profession and were too well established in their new roles to make changes back at the wineries.

Even as the public returned to drinking wine, the most popular wines were dessert or fortified wines – ports, sherries, muscatels – wines with 20 percent alcohol and 6 to 8 percent sugar.

The dry wines were relegated to the Italian and French portions of the population, many of whom had been making their own family wines all during Prohibition and simply continued to create the wines that suited their palates. But the average American considered the dry wines to be sour and undrinkable.

It took almost 30 years to educate them to the enjoyment of California’s fine table wines. And education was badly needed, since Mother Nature, in what almost appeared to be compensation for the woeful Prohibition, outdid herself with five years of fabulous grape yields.

The continuing task of this educational thrust was and is supplied to this very day by the Wine Institute; which, through necessity, came into being in the mid-1930s.

It’s story is a fascinating one and, perhaps, in another article will come some of the tales of those early days.

Slowly but steadily, the sale of dry wines grew. From a total production of about 33 million gallons in 1934, consumption of table wines increased every year to an unbroken string of growth records.

Gradually, the sales figures of dry wine overtook those of dessert wines until in 1967 both classes of wines were even, at a consumption rate of about 75 million gallons each. From that time on, there was no contest – the dry wines gained in popularity every single year.

In 2002, dry wines surpassed the 504,000,000-gallon mark. While the dessert wines stopped growing and, in fact, lost sales, hovering around the 34,000,000-gallon mark in annual consumption.

In the world-ranking of wine, the U. S. continues to be a major consumer and producer; although it is only 34th in per capita consumption at 2.01 gallons with France ranking first at 15 gallons.

California accounts for more than 90 percent of U.S. wine production and vineyard averages, with 849 wineries…and more on the horizon.

Norman E. Gates is a Lake of the Pines wine connoisseur. He can be reached at

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