BY ANY OBVIOUS STANDARD, Horatio F. Stoll chose an unpropitious time to start a magazine for the California wine industry. Long before launching California Grape Grower in December 1919, Stoll had been an indefatigable publicist for the growers and winemakers, starting out before the dark cloud of the Eighteenth Amendment had even begun to form on the horizon. He worked in a Napa County vineyard, he wrote about wine for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Argonaut, and he helped popularize the raffia-wrapped chianti of California’s first large-scale winery, Italian Swiss Colony. In 1910 he turned his attention from trying to promote the industry to trying to save it. As chief propagandist for the California Grape Protective Association, Stoll spent the decade leading up to the Eighteenth Amendment—and the seemingly perverse start-up of his magazine—as the voice of the growers and vintners.
That voice was a blend of hand-wringing and hucksterism. The signs he posted along wine country roadways were characteristic: “This vineyard gone after Prohibition.” So was a brochure entitled “How Prohibition Would Affect California,” an unmistakable example of Stoll’s high-stepping jauntiness. There wasn’t a single teetotaler “among the world’s really great men,” Stoll wrote; on the contrary, he said, the roster of wine-loving giants ran from Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Columbus, Dickens, Lincoln, and Bismarck, not to mention Verdi, Wagner, and Admiral Dewey. How he knew what he claimed to know about the drinking habits of his Hall of Fame was unclear, but it set up the punch line: “What names can the prohibitionists show to compare with those above?” the brochure asked. “Has there ever been a prohibitionist who was a really great man . . . unless it be Mohammed, the first prohibitionist?”
For all his ebullient flackery, Horatio Stoll could not claim sole credit for the California wine industry’s notable victories. The successive defeat of four separate ballot initiatives that would have established statewide Prohibition could also be credited to the heavily Italian and Irish population of San Francisco, until 1920 the state’s largest city. The industry’s place in California’s culture was no small factor, either. Winemaking may not have been fully appreciated elsewhere in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century (broadly speaking, only immigrants and the wealthy drank wine), but some ninety thousand acres of California soil planted in wine grapes, and an annual crop valued at seventy-five million dollars, made it central to the state’s economy.
This posture of strength blinded the winemakers to what was coming across the Sierras from Washington. Even as late as the winter of 1918, with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment well under way and rolling downhill, the prominent Sonoma County winemaker Sam Sebastiani could remain convinced that national Prohibition was a dead letter. Returning from a trip to New York, Sebastiani confidently told the Sonoma Index-Tribune about a “consensus of opinion” that had formed in the East: “After the war, the future of wine will be even more wonderful.” The cause for this jolly consensus, Sebastiani said, was the anticipated return to American shores of more than a million wine lovers. At that moment these potential customers were enduring the trenches of the Western Front, but Sebastiani was convinced that a few months in France would also lead them to discover the wonders of wine—“by observation,” the Index-Tribune hastened to add.
When Horatio Stoll published the first issue of California Grape Grower in December 1919, just one month before the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act were scheduled to bring California’s wine trade to its knees, he was betting his future on an industry that did not appear to have one. On a fact-finding tour of the state’s wine regions four months earlier, Stoll had found the growers every bit as clueless as Sebastiani. Everywhere he traveled the vines were heavy with fruit and the disposition of the growers was as sunny as the California skies. He had been “amazed” to find the industry “making absolutely no preparations for the disposal of their crop,” Stoll wrote in his premier issue. “Lulled into a sense of false security . . . ,” Stoll explained, “the grape growers announced they were going to make wine, because the ban would surely be lifted before the crop was ready to be harvested.” They somehow believed that sixty years of agitation, culminating in the capitulation of both Congress and the state legislatures, would magically unravel in less than two months.
That was about as likely as Sam Sebastiani’s addled vision. But not too many years later a grape grower writing in a popular magazine suggested that if they had only known, his associates in the California wine industry would have spent those fifty years “donat[ing] large sums to the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” Growers who had ripped out their vines and replaced them with prunes or apricots or apples soon regretted following what had appeared to be a prudent path. It turned out that the last pre-Prohibition harvest, in 1919, was accompanied, wrote Stoll, by “the unexpected demand for fresh wine grapes from Eastern cities and buyers . . . offering from $25 to $30 per ton. Before the season was over, $65 per ton was gladly paid.”
“Unexpected” was understatement. Over the previous decade California wine grapes had brought as little as $9.50 per ton, and never more than $30. But after that glorious fall of 1919, the unexpected became the norm. In 1921 the price reached $82, then $105, and at one giddy moment in 1924 it spiked to a shocking $375. Defying the laws of economic gravity, volume increased as well. At the same time that the California growers were filling boxcars with their harvest, grape imports from Argentina and Chile jumped from 18,000 pounds in all of 1921 to nearly half a million in just the first four months of 1922. And all those buyers weren’t paying those startling new prices because they intended to make grape juice.
THE ENGINE THAT drove the California Grape Rush of the 1920s was the fruit juice clause of the Volstead Act. This was the language Wayne Wheeler inserted into the act ostensibly to allow farmers’ wives to “conserve their fruit,” but really to mollify rural voters who wanted their hard cider. The clause gave small-scale apple growers a tiny bonanza of their own: “On pleasant autumn days,” a University of Kansas official wrote, “the highroads in the apple districts are dotted every mile or two with little ‘stands’ where home-made cider is offered for sale to the thirsty wayfarer.”
But if it was wine you were after, you didn’t need to do any wayfaring, at least not if you lived anywhere with a large population of southern or eastern European immigrants. Though it hadn’t been spelled out in the Volstead Act, regulations soon established that the head of a household was allowed to produce two hundred gallons a year of fermented fruit juice for his family’s use. As this worked out to nearly three bottles a day, only a very large family—or an exceedingly bibulous small one—was likely to consume this much on its own. For any self-respecting bootlegger, there wasn’t enough money to be made peddling wine; a quart of industrial gin at 50 proof packed as much of an alcoholic punch as six bottles of the typical homemade wine, and it was a lot easier to transport. But to the home vintner in Boston or Baltimore, in Helena or Hibbing, red wine took on the color of money.
“Grapes are so valuable this year that they are being stolen,” the St. Helena Star told its readers during the Napa Valley’s first Prohibition harvest, in 1920. The next year a state agriculture official announced that the acreage in grapes was “increasing by leaps and bounds since the enactment of the Federal Prohibition Law.” The year after that, vineyard land that had sold for $100 an acre in 1919 was bringing more than $500. As expensive as this was, if you wanted to buy land in the California wine country, all you had to do was pledge next year’s crop as collateral. For someone like Conrad Viano, an Italian immigrant who fell in love with a forty-year-old vineyard in Contra Costa County that reminded him of his native Piemonte, there was nothing to it: he took out a mortgage to buy the land and had it virtually paid off with the proceeds from his first harvest.
Those growers who had ripped out their vines and planted fruit trees rushed to get back into grapes—after a fashion. Where Semillon and zinfandel and other respectable varietals had once reigned, the new king was a ragamuffin called alicante bouschet. In the town of Escalon, ten miles north of Modesto, Joseph Gallo jump-started his grape-growing business by planting ten of his twenty acres in alicante; his teenaged sons Ernest and Julio stenciled the family symbol, a rooster, onto the shipping crates. In the Livermore Valley, where everyone but the Wente brothers seemed to have uprooted their grapes in favor of prunes and apricots and apples, old vineyards burst into new life, their vines thick with alicante. From Sonoma to Fresno, established vineyardists grafted their cabernets and Rieslings onto this unappealing subspecies—“a grape so deplorable,” wrote the epicurean journalist/novelist Idwal Jones, “it ranks somewhat below the gooseberry.”
Alicante made truly lousy wine, but the alchemy of Prohibition turned its deficiencies into money. Its large clusters produced a bountiful crop. Its thick, tough skin enabled it to survive the indignities of shipping. Better still, alicante’s uncommonly dark red flesh produced something that not only looked like decent wine but managed to maintain that deception after two or three pressings, or god knows how many dilutions. During the 1921 harvest, Horatio Stoll reported, “buyers by the hundreds are wiring for Alicantes, for everywhere the Italian is willing to pay from 50¢ to $1.00 more” for a box of this outcast grape than for any other varietal. After his magazine had been blessed with ten alicante-endowed years of prosperity, Stoll explained the phenomenon in 1929 with one telling set of numbers: on the standard scale used to measure color in grapes, anything that scored over 150 had “more than three times the color usually necessary for wine or juice.” Zinfandel scored a pale 38, cabernet sauvignon a respectable 86. Alicante weighed in at a bruising 204.
For the home winemaker wishing to supplement his income by selling some of his two hundred allotted gallons (or an additional several hundred unallotted gallons) to his neighbors, alicante was more than worth its outlandishly inflated price. In 1926 an American Federation of Labor official told a Senate committee that not only did 90 percent of workingmen make some sort of alcoholic beverage at home, “they even make wine out of parsnips.” Relative to parsnips (or dandelions, elderberries, chokecherries, or other unprepossessing candidates), alicante was a premier cru. Add some sugar to it during the fermentation process, and a ton of alicante could produce five or six hundred gallons of something that may not have tasted much like wine but at least looked like it, and definitely acted like it. For the Slovenian coal miners of Bearcreek, Montana, this fecundity meant that the annual boxcar of grapes that arrived from California would yield nearly ten thousand gallons of wine (if you could call it that), “second wine” (made from the sugar-supplemented dregs), and distilled moonshine (made from the dregs of the dregs). Thirsty people will believe almost anything; the Bearcreek miners thought they were getting zinfandel.*
By the time the growers had retooled their operations to meet the clamorous demand, a robust, elaborate, and entirely legal distribution system had developed. You could find the command center—the San Francisco railyards at Front Street and Broadway—by following what Sunset magazine described as “the sour fumes of wine” enveloping the place. No wonder. Over here, several odd-looking trucks with crushing machines and eight-hundred-gallon tanks mounted on their beds are pulled up next to freight cars; they’re in competition with the operators in the abandoned warehouses nearby, where signs read “Grapes Crushed While You Wait.” Over there, a man explains his business: he mashes to order, and once the grapes have been turned into juice it’s out of his hands. “What happens to it after you take it away ain’t our business,” he tells an interviewer from Sunset. Some of the crushers deliver. Wine industry historian Leon Adams, who was a newspaper reporter in San Francisco in the 1920s, said, “One would select his grapes from trucks or from freight cars and then have the truck with the crusher go alongside, pour the grapes into the crusher, and the crusher truck would then go to the individual’s home address and through the pipe send the [juice] down into the cellar or wherever the wine was going to be fermented. This was quite a San Francisco institution.”
But all that was strictly for the local market. The big-time operators could be found elsewhere in the freight yard, bidding against each other for the contents of single carloads, or a whole train’s worth, bound for points east. In a matter of minutes a shipment could be sold and resold and sold once again before it left the yard, its destination changing with each transaction. In 1919 some 9,300 carloads of grapes left California for New York alone; by 1928 the number had more than tripled. Another 40,000 carloads headed for other eastern markets. In one frustrating season, Napa growers were unable to ship much of their crop because the railroads were already running at capacity; the county horticultural commissioner said “it would have taken three times the number of refrigerated cars available” to get their grapes to market. Looking, as newspapers will, for a vivid way to illustrate the deluge, the Fresno Republican did some musing, some measuring, and some multiplication, and calculated that the 1,265 stacked-to-the-brim freight cars that left California on a single glorious day during the 1925 harvest carried 8,635,365,375 grapes—more or less. During the harvest, wrote a reporter for Business Week describing the rail traffic, “all minor commodities must stand aside”—the grapes were too valuable.
On the other side of the country, the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded its Jersey City freight terminal strictly to accommodate the thousands upon thousands of grape-laden boxcars. Here another round of trackside auctions ensued, local distributors taking the handoff from the shippers and in turn selling their goods to the next link in this vast supply chain: to the retailers in city produce markets, like the seven-block-long Paddy’s Market on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, whose stalls were a wall of purple every October; to those described by California Grape Grower as “the army of pushcart vendors who cover every part of the metropolis when grapes are arriving in great quantities”; or to the “block buyers,” designated purchasers who negotiated directly on behalf of the residents of their particular city block. Versions of the same system existed in Boston and Philadelphia, in Syracuse and Erie, in Paterson and Altoona and Canton—in the hundreds of cities and towns where immigrant populations were large and sympathy for Volsteadism small. In 1926 the chief investigator for the Prohibition Bureau described what he called the “twilight zone” of Prohibition: in tenement neighborhoods, he wrote, “you will see grapes everywhere—on pushcarts, in groceries, in fruit and produce stores, on carts and wagons and trucks . . . Wine grapes in crates, by the truckload, and by the carload.” Like the spent ammunition left behind on a deserted battlefield, telltale evidence would linger long after the grapes had disappeared. You could tell you were in a wine-consuming neighborhood, a California grower said, “by the large quantities of grape pomace or waste in the streets.”
How large? In 1917, when wine was legal, Americans consumed 70 million gallons—imported, domestic, and homemade. By 1925 Americans were drinking 150 million gallons of just the homemade stuff, all of it also legal in its own peculiar way. Back when Congress was debating Richmond Hobson’s constitutional amendment in 1913, Representative Richard Bartholdt of St. Louis, a leading wet, said the measure would turn “every house in the country . . . into a distillery.” A more appropriate word would have been “winery,” but he was on the right track.
THE ALICANTE BOOM could not last. Easy money got too easy, and before long overplanting outstripped even the ravening demand. Growers tried the usual tactics employed by cartels. By 1926 members of the California Vineyardists’ Association had agreed to let half their grapes die on the vine. The next year the association urged its members to cut back on shipping. Some growers attempted to fix prices. But even as prices dropped to forty dollars a ton, the growers had little to complain about. Some even argued against any liberalization of the Volstead Act that would have allowed the manufacture and sale of light wines. The growers had learned to love the grape-shipping business too well. In Fresno, a member of a winemaking family remembered, you could tell who the growers were by their silk shirts and Cadillacs.
It was different for the growers’ former customers, the California vintners. As rewarding as alicante was for the growers, it was worse than an insult to the vintners. If you were in the wine business, you could only look on sourly as the craft you had mastered was ceded to unschooled immigrants adding sugar to grape residue in basement washtubs. Long-established winemakers went into the canning business. The University of California’s celebrated department of viticulture and enology closed its doors. Someone had a harebrained notion to build a “floating winery” aboard a ship that would load up with grapes on the San Francisco docks, then take to the sea. The winemaking would begin at the three-mile limit, the product aging nicely as the ship chugged across the Pacific toward the Japanese market. (“What is there to stop a fleet of wineries, staining with purple most all the seven seas?” asked a wishful writer for the San Francisco Examiner.) Boat-borne winemaking was only slightly less likely than the notion pushed by the California Grape Grower, which made the case for production of such items as grape butter, grape catsup, and that perennial favorite, grape fudge.
In one notable instance, though, a grower and a winemaker, working in concert, found a way not merely to make it across the dry river of Prohibition but, with the protection of the law, to turn it into a fountain of cash. The Wente brothers, in the Livermore Valley, never ripped out their vines; they never had to negotiate with brokers or shippers; and alicante grafts never threatened their fine Semillon grapes or the famous “Wente clone” that became parent to 80 percent of all California chardonnays. The Wentes were blessed by an arrangement they had made to sell their entire output to Georges de Latour, a winemaker in Rutherford, eighty miles to the north. Once, when he was late with some money he owed them, de Latour put one of the brothers at ease. “I will tell you something, Mr. Wente,” de Latour said. “My business is with the church. They are slow paying—but they are good.”
Judging by the wealth he would accumulate, “good” was an understatement. Georges Marie Joseph de Latour had arrived in California from his native Périgord in the early 1890s. Trained as a chemist, he first made his living not in wine but in one of its lowlier by-products, tartaric acid, a scummy substance derived from grape skins that could be refined into cream of tartar, which was the active element in baking powder and a useful substance in various other culinary endeavors; you could even clean pots with it. He soon married, and with his wife bought four acres of Napa Valley wheat fields and orchards in 1900. For a time he continued to drive around the Northern California wine country in a horse-drawn wagon, collecting discarded grape skins from growers who were happy to be rid of them.
Thirty years later the wagon was long in his past; de Latour now traveled in a Cadillac Custom Imperial touring car. He owned two fine houses, one atop Pacific Heights in San Francisco and the other deep in the four-hundred-plus acres of vines he owned in and around Rutherford. He had a debutante daughter and a box at the opera, and was acknowledged in the newspapers as the head of “one of the best known families in San Francisco.” The de Latours dressed for dinner every night, the urbane Georges in a tuxedo, his regal wife Fernande always putting an accute accent on her elegant wardrobe with one of her famously stylish hats. They supported themselves not on inherited wealth but on the dividends they extracted from the family business, Beaulieu Vineyards. By the early 1930s, after more than a decade of Prohibition, these dividends exceeded a hundred thousand dollars a year, or more than a million dollars at 2009 values. Yet the de Latours still were able to invest the equivalent of many additional millions in land, in buildings, and in the grapes he bought from the Wentes and other growers. These were grapes that he, almost alone among Napa Valley winemakers, could turn into legal, salable, and eminently respectable wine.
In a 1959 motion picture called This Earth Is Mine, Claude Rains plays a character loosely based on de Latour—or, more accurately, Rains plays a character loosely based on Claude Rains playing Georges de Latour; he’s at best a facsimile of a facsimile. The Rains character bears no trace of the impenetrable French accent that de Latour never lost (so thick, said journalist Ernie Pyle, that “a stranger can hardly follow him”), and he spends most of Prohibition growing grapes and then regularly, determinedly, and inexplicably plowing them back into the ground. But in many other respects Rains is perfect: he’s debonair, generous, utterly devoted to making good wine, and respected by the grandest landowners and the lowliest grape pickers. No one in the Napa Valley ever had anything bad to say about Georges de Latour. He was “a very good man, capable, honest, ethical, a gentleman in every way,” rival winemaker Louis M. Martini recalled. “An elegant, patrician man, like all his family.” And, said Martini, “he knew wine.”
With such qualities, de Latour might have been a successful vintner in any circumstances, but his rise during Prohibition was a breathtaking ascent abetted by a sentence and clinched by a clause. The sentence, dating from 1912, read, “This letter will introduce Mr. George [sic] de Latour, an estimable Catholic of this Diocese, who is about to visit the Eastern States for the purpose of introducing altar wines, which he makes in Napa Valley, California.” It was addressed, companionably, “To the Reverend Clergy” and signed, persuasively, “P. W. Riordan, Archbishop of San Francisco.” And when a clause in the Volstead Act authorized the manufacture and sale of sacramental wine under the Eighteenth Amendment, it became the key to a fortune.
A devout Catholic as well as an estimable one, de Latour had not stumbled into Archbishop Riordan’s good graces by accident. Those four original acres of wheat fields and orchards were soon planted in grapes, and in 1904 de Latour incorporated as Beaulieu Vineyards. Among his first board members were two Catholic priests; one, Father D. O. Crowley, would remain by his side for two decades, guaranteeing the purity of the sacramental wines Beaulieu began producing in 1908 and maintaining a direct connection to the archbishop’s office. Soon de Latour opened a marketing office in New York. It did a decent enough business, but nothing compared to what was to come. By the time he made his deal with the Wente brothers in 1918, Prohibition’s moment had arrived, and so had Georges de Latour’s.
De Latour wasn’t the only California winemaker whose business was tied to the church. Other Catholic vineyard families—the Beringers and the Martinis in Napa, the Concannons down in Livermore—were also able to win “ecclesiastical approbation,” the formal nod from a bishop indicating to parish priests that a vintner’s wines were acceptable for Communion. But de Latour already had other assets: his New York sales office, which had a decade’s worth of satisfied accounts by the time Prohibition began; an intimate friendship with Riordan’s successor, Archbishop Edward J. Hanna (who would officiate at the wedding of de Latour’s daughter Hélène to a French nobleman); and a certain sense that altar wines might have a market far from the altar.
When he made his deal with the Wentes—he would end up purchasing the family’s entire production for the full fourteen years of Prohibition—de Latour was placing a bet on the sacramental wine business. It did not take long to start cashing in. Just before Prohibition began he hired Charles W. Fay, a political operative who had been San Francisco postmaster throughout the Wilson administration and had continued to play a prominent role in California politics during the 1920s. Soon de Latour was granted, in March 1920, the Prohibition Bureau’s permit number Cal-A-1, allowing him to make, ship, and sell sacramental wines. That same month Archbishop Hanna congratulated him on the rapid growth of his business. By 1922 de Latour had distributors in seven eastern and midwestern cities, in addition to his headquarters in San Francisco; the next year he began buying up large tracts of vineyard land and all the grapes that came with them (including a large piece acquired directly from the Diocese of Northern California). By the middle of the decade he was storing 900,000 gallons of wine in a vast new building that covered more than an acre, and shipping prodigious quantities via a rail spur running up the Napa Valley that the Southern Pacific had opened expressly to handle his business.
To many this seemed like an awful lot of Communion wine. Prohibition Bureau records indicate that occasionally wine warehoused by one of Beaulieu’s wholesalers would go missing, and although Ernest Wente was certain that de Latour played by the rules, he also believed he chose to look the other way when Beaulieu’s production fell into what Wente called “illegal channels.” It didn’t have to fall very far, for de Latour’s church business lay not only with the priests whose signatures were required by law on order forms, but implicitly with their congregations as well. When a priest took receipt of an order for, say, 120 gallons of Beaulieu (a not uncommon amount), he suddenly had an inventory of 46,000 communion sips, more or less—or, perhaps, 10,000 communion sips, with nearly a hundred gallons set aside for members of the congregation. Sometimes the wine didn’t even leave the rectory. In 1932, six cases of Beaulieu’s best were shipped to Chicago expressly for the use of Cardinal George Mundelein. “I advise priests to buy a large quantity at a time—for instance a half barrel or a barrel,” de Latour told E. C. Yellowley, the second-ranking man in the Prohibition Bureau who, over the years of their professional relationship, would become a close and valued friend. De Latour explained that bulky shipments made in-transit theft more difficult. He did not explain that they also made postdelivery allocation quite a bit easier.*
Beaulieu’s wines were put into circulation beyond the altar by the irresistible physics of the era, that form of gravity that deposited potable alcohol in the cupboards of people whose need was not particularly spiritual. But one historian who praised de Latour’s ability “to move a lot of wine without the trouble and expense of actually having to market it” wasn’t looking very closely. In the promotional materials he sent out to priests across the country, the message of the Eucharist—“Who so eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life”—seemed less central than the message of the market. “I have had many favorable comments on your wine and, personally, consider it to be of the very best produced in California,” read a testimonial from Archbishop Hanna reprinted in one of the Beaulieu brochures. Photographs of the vineyards and descriptions of the winery—“sheltered by the foothills of the Coast Range mountains”—lent sales materials an aroma more commercial than ecclesiastical. So did the product offering, which suggested a connoisseurship one doesn’t necessarily associate with the Communion rail. In 1921 de Latour was offering sauterne, Chablis, Riesling, cabernet sauvignon, Tokay, sherry, Angelica, burgundy, port, and muscatel. Before Prohibition was over he had added Madeira, Malaga, and Moselle, as well as a blend he called “Beaulieu Special.”*
But de Latour’s most brilliant marketing gesture was the construction of a guest cottage for visiting clerics and a standing invitation to any who wished to visit Beaulieu and test the wines on the spot. Other de Latour guests included political figures and Hollywood celebrities, but as pleasing as those visitors might have been, they were mere signifiers of the de Latour family’s stature; the priests who came to Rutherford materially contributed to it. The guest cottage was built deep into the vineyard, next to the family’s summer residence, a sprawling, six-bedroom wooden structure decorated inside with Louis XVI furniture and outside with verandas, gardens (one Italian, another French), a rooftop bell imported from Florence, and one of the first swimming pools in northern California. Invited to join the de Latours for dinner, how could Father Meyer of Milwaukee, or Monsignor Brody of New York, or Bishop Cantwell of Los Angeles, or any of the hundreds of other churchly guests who made the pilgrimage to Rutherford consider any other Communion wine?
If any clinching was needed, de Latour had provided the perfect environment for closing the sale: there on the veranda, shaded by a grove of sycamores, the lush rows of vines gleaming in the distance, he had built an altar, where the visiting priests could commune with the blood of Christ under circumstances that could place even an atheist in the grip of ecstasy.
“WE STARTED OUT about 10 a.m. and after about 100 miles arrived at a Frenchman’s house,” an eighteen-year-old Englishman traveling through California in 1929 wrote in his journal. “I can’t recall his name, but he makes the wine which is used for sacramental purposes.”
Randolph Churchill had come to Beaulieu as his father’s traveling companion. During a lengthy tour of North America, Winston Churchill, who considered Prohibition “at once comic and pathetic,” had entered the constitutionally dry United States with some trepidation. But before the party crossed to Seattle from Victoria, British Columbia, Randolph had filled flasks and medicine bottles with whiskey, demonstrating the initiative that led his father to write to Randolph’s mother with button-popping pride. Invoking Zeus’s cherished cupbearer, Churchill told his wife, “Randolph acts as an unfailing Ganymede. Up to the present I have never been without what was necessary.”
Not that there was any reason to worry on the day they were luncheon guests at Beaulieu. “A moment’s halt, a momentary taste,” Churchill wrote in the de Latour guestbook. Their host, Churchill told Clementine, “had over a million gallons stored in his factory which was a goodly sight to see in this dry land.” Randolph, in his diary, was more allusive: “Christ has come to the aid of Bacchus in a most wonderful way.”
Christ was not alone on his aid mission, for de Latour produced kosher wine as well. The quantity was only a fraction of what he made for the Catholic Communion (not to mention the Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, and other denominations whose clergy also traded with Beaulieu), but it was a business worth pursuing. In 1923 de Latour had concluded an agency agreement with two Chicago men who had “a wide acquaintance among the Jewish rabbis and congregations throughout the State of Illinois,” granting them exclusive distribution rights within the state. Beaulieu wines were certified as kosher by a San Francisco rabbi whose imprimatur cost de Latour ten cents a gallon. By all the available evidence, Beaulieu’s kosher wines were truly kosher. This could not be said about the wines of Louis M. Martini, up the road in St. Helena. Martini liked to sneak into his winery on Saturdays, when his own koshering rabbi was off the premises observing the Sabbath. Then, recalled his son, Martini would secretly spike the wine with “the ingredients that made the wine palatable.”
With the exception of social worker Lillian Wald, Utah governor Simon Bamberger, Rabbi Stephen M. Wise, and those other progressives who saw Prohibition as a lever to lift the downtrodden, American Jews had opposed the Eighteenth Amendment with the near unanimity and absolute vehemence that seized American Catholics. For both groups, it wasn’t simply a matter of protecting the free practice of their respective religions. Like the Catholics, the Jews peered behind the Prohibition banner and saw the white-hooded hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and the foaming xenophobia of the nativist pastors who dominated the Methodist and Baptist churches. It was a view summarized by a speaker at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1914: the effort to place Prohibition in the Constitution, the rabbi declared, could be attributed to “the ambition of ecclesiastic tyrants.”
The CCAR, as the umbrella organization for America’s Reform rabbis, represented the most liberal, the most assimilated, and the most economically privileged branch of American Jewry, and it decided against taking a position on Prohibition during the run-up to ratification because the subject itself was “beneath the dignity of the conference.” Their Orthodox brethren, less inclined to stay on the sidelines, lobbied Andrew Volstead directly while his bill was under consideration, which helped cement the sacramental exception into the final legislation. The regulations that the Prohibition Bureau subsequently put in place covering the distribution of wine for the Jewish sacraments were in one respect narrower than they were for Catholic rites, limiting individual families to ten gallons a year. But whereas the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church provided an organized, supervised distribution process—the archbishop approved a vendor, and the priests in his diocese purchased Communion wine under his authority—the amorphous structure of American Judaism did not accommodate a formalized system. Consequently, any individual rabbi presenting a list of congregants could legally obtain the prescribed quantity and assume responsibility for distributing it.
But there were rabbis and there were rabbis, and then there were rabbis who weren’t really rabbis. Insofar as wine was concerned, men bearing this ancient and honored title occupied three distinct categories: rabbis who believed wine to be a necessary part of the sacrament, properly distributed under prevailing rules; rabbis who believed that unfermented grape juice was not only an acceptable substitute, but a politically necessary one; and rabbis (and faux rabbis) who saw the distribution of wine as an unalienable and profitable right. Particularly among the Orthodox, disapproval of the intrusions of civic authority into sacred matters was offset by the opportunity to improve their financial circumstances. Unlike their Reform counterparts, the Orthodox rabbis in the United States in the 1920s were to a large extent unassimilated, impoverished immigrants from eastern Europe. The scholar Hannah Sprecher, in her authoritative and sympathetic monograph on the Prohibition era’s wine-selling Orthodox rabbis, concludes, “The temptation to profit from wine transactions was great.” When Congregation Talmud Torah of Los Angeles made its jump from 180 members to 1,000 in the first months of Prohibition, its rabbi, Benjamin Gardner, bemoaned his membership’s clamor for “wine, wine, and more wine.” But he was being somewhat disingenuous. A Talmud Torah trustee charged Gardner not only with peddling wine to outsiders as well as members, but with running a sort of concession business on the side: apparently Gardner was doing so well he had offered cash to another synagogue for the rights to sell wine to its members.
Gardner’s story was resonant because the political climate in heavily Protestant, proudly dry Los Angeles—it was the only constituency in the country that ever elected a Prohibition Party candidate to Congress*—was notably unsympathetic to wets and wet sympathizers. The Los Angeles Times delighted in patrolling rabbinical abuses. Rabbi Gardner became “Rabbi” Gardner after his third appearance in the paper. When another “purported rabbi” named Harry Margolis was arrested for a third Volstead violation and bond was set at $5,000, the Times closed its report by informing readers that “Margolis went down into his jeans and produced $5000 cash.” The biggest splash was made by the case of the Groves brothers—a federal Prohibition agent, a former secretary of the state Democratic Party, and a third, uncredentialed brother—who, the Times said, “disposed” of half a million gallons “through ‘paper’ Jewish congregations represented by men professing to be rabbis but who in reality were bootleggers.”
In hundreds of instances, though, they were rabbis and bootleggers. A particularly credible account of the racket, “Stamping Out Wine Congregations,” appeared in the national social-work magazine Survey, written by Rabbi Rudolph I. Coffee of Oakland. There were seven Jewish families in the East Bay town of San Leandro who managed, Coffee wrote, to conduct religious services only on the high holy days. But once the town’s “poor but respected Hebrew teacher” was named the tiny congregation’s rabbi and made a commission arrangement with his suppliers—he would be paid for every gallon he moved—things changed. Soon membership swelled to 250, among them a worshiper who lived in Red Bluff, California, nearly two hundred miles to the north. Next door to San Leandro, in Alameda, same story: in this case, the rabbi of a small congregation withdrew five thousand gallons of wine in one nine-month period, thanks in large part to a membership roster lengthened with the names of the dead. It was a common practice; an investigation in 1924 by the state’s Prohibition director Samuel R. Rutter indicated that the names on some lists of “wine congregations” were “promiscuously selected from obsolete city directories.”
This practice was hardly confined to California. The leading Orthodox rabbi in Omaha, Zvi Grodzinski, complained to colleagues that other local rabbis were “conducting a free-for-all and selling their sacramental wine to Jews and Gentiles alike.” The celebrated Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein busted New York rabbis operating out of tiny tenement rooms who claimed congregations in the hundreds. In Providence, Rhode Island, the Reform rabbi Samuel Gup complained that “our local Orthodox rabbis have broken the law continuously; they sell wine for profit, they sell it to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who is willing to pay for it.” His colleague, Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf of Philadelphia, said the illegal wine selling of some of his Orthodox counterparts was “a public scandal.”
There were rabbis who pocketed the revenue collected from their customers and also took commissions from the wineries that supplied them. There were even rabbis who opened what Major Chester P. Mills, the chief federal enforcement officer in New York, forthrightly called “wine stores.” A typical one had a sign in the window reading “Kosher Wine for Sacramental Purposes” and a rabbi behind the counter signing up customers to “join” a synagogue at the same time they picked up the goods. Schapiro’s, the long-established kosher winery on New York’s Lower East Side, did a large sacramental business (and a decent under-the-table business as well) in its famously viscous and alcoholically potent “wine so thick you can cut it with a knife.” But those seeking an even greater alcoholic kick (not to mention a more appetizing experience) had plenty of other choices. There were rabbis who dealt in sacramental champagne, sacramental crème de menthe, sacramental brandy, and various other liquors utterly unconnected to any aspect of Jewish religious practice. All of them, however, were deemed legal by a federal judge in the District of Columbia who ruled “it is not the content of the beverage, but the purpose for which it will be used that determines whether or not it is a sacramental wine.” The New York Herald suggested that under such an interpretation, 100-proof rye would be perfectly acceptable at the Sabbath table.
It was quite a time to be a rabbi looking for a supplement to his income—or to be someone who merely claimed to be a rabbi. “To the Prohibition bureau,” wrote Herbert Asbury in The Great Illusion, “any man who dressed in solemn black, possessed a Jewish cast of countenance, and wore a beard was automatically a rabbi.” But Asbury’s mention of the Jewish cast of countenance was gratuitous, for Izzy Einstein encountered rabbis named Patrick Houlihan and James Maguire, and Major Mills said he “found two Harlem Negroes posing as rabbis, claiming to have ‘got religion’ in the Hebraic persuasion.” Mills said he suspected that their conversion dated from some time after the arrival of the Eighteenth Amendment.
IN THE AGE-OLD PHRASE, this was not good for the Jews. The fact that some of the malefactors weren’t Jewish was no comfort. The regular tom-tom beat of newspaper stories was a daily agony, each one attributing widespread lawbreaking to regulations specifically crafted for the benefit of Jews. It was a situation that summoned another long-established idiom, this one in Yiddish: it was “a shande for the goyim”—a communal embarrassment, suffered in full view of gentile America. A Hebrew phrase was invoked as well, this one directly from the Talmud: the sacramental wine scandals, wrote Rabbi Leo M. Franklin of Detroit, president of the CCAR, were becoming a hillul ha-shem, a desecration of the name of God.
For Franklin and the Reform rabbis, the illicit fountains of sacramental wine turned Prohibition—once “beneath the dignity of this conference”—into an obsessive concern. The problem had become especially acute when Henry Ford found in the Jewish use of sacramental wine a fortuitous merger of two of his most loathed enemies: Jews and alcohol. In his notoriously anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent, the ultra-dry Ford seized on the rabbinical wine scandals as evidence of Jewish perfidy. The advent of Prohibition was “Jewish luck,” the Independent said. Conflating the sacramental wine business with the undeniable Jewish presence in the bootlegging industry, the paper proceeded to enumerate “certain illegitimate commercial advantages” bestowed by Prohibition: “The Jew is the possessor of the wholesale stocks; he is the director of the underground railways that convey the stuff surreptitiously to the public. . . . The bulk of the liquor permits—a guess at 95% would not be too high—are in the hands of Jews, [for] if you can sign a Jewish name to it, you can get it.” The rant continued: “ ‘Rabbinical wine’ is a euphemism for whiskey, gin, Scotch, champagne, vermouth, Absinthe, or any other kind of hard liquor.” What was most horrid about Ford’s diatribe was how much of it was accurate.*
But in some ways the worst part of it was the portion of the Independent article that was not in Ford’s voice or in the words of the hate-mongering hirelings who wrote his screeds. This was a direct quotation from someone who said he had been in contact with “not less than 150 men in all parts of the country” who called themselves rabbis and were in the business of distributing wine for the Jewish sacraments. “They were men without the slightest pretense at rabbinical training or position who, for the purpose of getting into the wholesale liquor business, if you will, organized congregations.” Their technique was straightforward: “They simply gathered around them little companies of men; they called them congregations; and then, under the law as it now exists, they were privileged to purchase and distribute wine.” The man the Independent chose to quote was Rabbi Franklin himself.
For a man of Franklin’s prominence and probity, this was a double agony. The spiritual leader of Detroit’s aristocratic Temple Beth El, Franklin happened to be a friend and neighbor of Ford. Starting in 1912 the automaker had given the distinguished rabbi a new car to drive every year. Though Franklin declined the gift once Ford began his anti-Semitic campaign in the Independent in 1920, the two men had maintained cordial relations. At the same time Franklin was convinced that even uninflected reports about the wine-dealing rabbis—the kind appearing daily in the newspapers—could only foment more anti-Semitism. “We must . . . do what we can to clean our own skirts of the scandal that will come and I am therefore urging you to take rather drastic measures,” he wrote to Rabbi Edward N. Calisch, his successor as CCAR president. Franklin’s solution: petition Congress to rescind the sacramental exception.
This triggered a sectarian war. Reform rabbis offered learned disquisitions arguing that Talmudic law allowed the ceremonial use of unfermented grape juice instead of wine “in the case of necessity.” It was as if they had picked up the tune the WCTU’s Department of Unfermented Wine had been trying to insinuate into Christian liturgy. The WCTU’s solution to the Communion issue was an unfermented, pasteurized product first bottled in 1869 by Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister/dentist from Vineland, New Jersey, and initially marketed as “Dr. Welch’s Unfermented Wine.” It achieved its first great success after Welch’s son, Charles, was appointed to the Methodist committee that formally authorized Communion use of what was by then called “Welch’s Grape Juice.” The Reform rabbis seemed to be suggesting something similar.
The Orthodox rabbis soon responded theologically with their own treatises and emotionally with cries of pain. The Reform rabbis and their supporters, according to an article in an Orthodox publication, had ignored “the sentiments of Jews who for two thousand years attached a sanctity to the use of wine in connection with festive celebrations.” A respected Conservative Talmudic scholar who endorsed the Reform interpretation received threatening letters. It did not help when the use of sacramental wine was conflated with other aspects of Orthodox practice that did not meet the approval of assimilated Reform Jews. “Ask Jews to Drop Yiddish and Wine,” read a New York Times headline over a report on a 1923 convention of Reform laymen. To the Orthodox, this was like asking them to deny who they were.
In the end the petition to Congress failed, and the sacramental wine privilege enjoyed by American Jews stayed in place. But the relentless headlines (“Jewish Rabbis Reap Fabulous Sums by Flouting Dry Laws”) and the Orthodox-Reform tensions continued until civil authority intervened. In 1926 the Prohibition Bureau tightened regulations by closing down the wine stores, revoking hundreds of rabbinical permits, and slicing the maximum family allotment from ten gallons a year to five. Total legal withdrawals of wine for Jewish religious rites plummeted in some cities by as much as 90 percent.
But the real effect of the Volstead Act’s sacramental wine exception on the American Jewish community could be calibrated by measuring the difference between statements made by two rabbis, one before the controversy began and one after it concluded.
Rabbi Gotthard Deutsch of Cincinnati in 1914, quoting the 104th Psalm: “ ‘Wine is made to gladden the hearts of men,’ and in rabbinical teachings it is a sin to reject the gifts of God.”
Rabbi Louis Wolsey of Philadelphia in 1926: “Prohibition is an Anglo-Saxon–Protestant issue that we Jews ought to keep out of.”
* The iron miners who belonged to the Italian Club in the town of Virginia, Minnesota, took pains to procure more suitable grapes, dispatching a grocer named Cesare Mondavi to the San Joaquin Valley late each summer to acquire their supply. Inspired to get into the grape business himself, Mondavi soon moved his family to California, where his precocious son Robert would make his own name in the winemaking world.
* When the friars of the Christian Brothers were beginning to develop their own wine business at their property on Napa’s Mont La Salle, they guarded against theft by shipping half barrels of wine packed inside flour barrels labeled “Mr. La Salle Products.”
* De Latour distributed some of these same wines under the medicinal exception in the Volstead Act, with one definitional difference: in his contract with agents handling the drug store business, they were described as “medicinal preparations . . . unfit for beverage purposes.”
* Charles H. Randall served three terms, from 1915 to 1921, and was later elected president of the Los Angeles City Council.
* Ford also reached into the past in his frenzied assault, reminding readers that Lee Levy’s gin had been responsible for the rape and murder of fourteen-year-old Margaret Lear.