Book Review: “When the Rivers Ran Red” by Vivienne Sosnowski

As an American and an avid wine enthusiast, the Prohibition Era will always fascinate me: I find it incredible, for one thing, that the Temperance movement could gather enough momentum to actually change the U.S. Constitution. Beyond that, I’m also amazed that Prohibition lasted nearly 14 years, and furthermore, I’m amazed that the Noble Experiment occurred within the last century. As someone who was born in the 1970s, it’s odd to consider that I only missed the Prohibition Era by about 50 years, or slightly less than two generations. As I’ve grown older, Prohibition somehow seems much less “distant” to me than it used to be. After all, if Prohibition still retains some living witnesses, then it really couldn’t have happened that long ago, right?

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In Vivienne Sosnowski’s 2009 book, “When the Rivers Ran Red,” the Prohibition Era is examined through the lens of Napa and Sonoma Counties, with several anecdotes from the children, now in their 90s, who witnessed Prohibition first-hand. With surnames such as Foppiano, Cuneo, and Domenichelli, these were the early pioneers who first established a nation-wide market for wine in America, thanks in large part to the Transcontinental Railroad, which connected the East and West Coasts in 1869. For those who might be unfamiliar with California’s early wine-making history, the statistics may seem surprisingly robust: At the California wine industry’s height in 1920, the same year that Prohibition went into effect, the state boasted more than 700 total wineries, with 256 in Sonoma County and 120 in Napa County (I’ve always found it interesting that Sonma wineries outnumbered Napa wineries by more than 2-to-1 before Prohibition).

Although Prohibition itself may have seemed liked a devastating turn of events, according to Sosnowski, only six California wineries closed within the first two years of legislation. As it turns out, the fallout from Prohibition wouldn’t be immediate, since the Volstead Act permitted up to 200 gallons of homemade wine per household per year. In an strange twist, Prohibition actually created a new market for fresh wine grapes, which allowed many Napa and Sonoma wineries to stay afloat for several years. Unfortunately, this early silver lining wouldn’t last: A string of tough vintages, the logistics of shipping perishable fruit, in-state competition from Central Valley grape growers, and (of course) the Great Depression were some of the key factors that proved insurmountable for most Napa and Sonoma wineries.

Among the wineries that successfully weathered the 13 years of Prohibition, those that actually prospered, such as Beaulieu Vineyards, held lucrative contracts to produce “sacramental” wine for the Catholoic Church. Meanwhile, many smaller and less-connected wineries simply bootlegged to the eager and thirsty population of San Francisco, only 50 miles away. It may not be surprising that the enforcement of Prohibition was neither effective nor well-thought out, and thus fostered an ideal environment for organized crime. As the laws were rushed into place, Prohibition agents were hired quickly and without discretion, meaning that many were crooked, while many others were simply inept (Sosnowski reports that when the Department of Prohibition was required to take civil service examinations in 1927, a woeful 59% of its employees failed).

With a terrible track record and organized crime on the rise, Prohibition lost support from all but the most ardent Drys, as the Wets also seized a new opportunity for Repeal with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Just over one month into his presidency, FDR finally established the groundwork for change on April 7, 1933, by allowing the manufacture and sale of beverages with 3.2% alcohol or less. Although some wineries marketed spritzers in order to capitalize in the short term, the ban on all alcohol would be lifted by December, and the Bureau of Prohibition would be officially dissolved on June 30, 1933. After 14 years of attrition, the Noble Experiment was ultimately put to rest.

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