Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: When the River's Ran Red

When the River's Ran Red (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009) is Vivienne Sosnowski's telling of the travails that beset the American wine industry as a result of Prohibition and how the players in this fledgeling industry survived this misbegotten experiment in social engineering.  It is a historical tale with a good ending for the producers of wines and spirits, those who made their living getting product from the producer to the consumer, the consumer, and government tax receipts.  Not so for the "Drys" and those employed in "enforcing" the Prohibition statutes.

The book -- arranged into 10 chapters, and 200 pages long (exclusive of front matter, notes, bibliography, and index) -- has six main themes: the development of the American wine industry prior to the passage of the constitutional amendment ushering in Prohibition; the preparation, or lack of same, of the winemakers for the onset of Prohibition; the broader social and political battle that was waged over the Prohibition issue; winemakers' initiatives to "ride out" Prohibition; the battle for repeal; and the euphoria accompanying repeal.

The book begins slowly, somewhat dry and peppered with numerical data and historical facts.  We are made to know that the Franciscans were probably the first to grow grapes in California (1823), followed by George Yount in the 1840s, and that Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian emigre, brought in clippings to Sonoma.  The role of the early immigrant Italian families in the development of the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma counties is explained in some detail.  The names read like a roll call from the wine hall of fame: Seghesio, Simi, Passalacqua, Foppiano, Cuneo.  Despite the effects of Phylloxera and the San Francisco earthquake, the domestic industry had raced past imports, going from a ratio of .03:1 gallons-consumed in 1850 to 3.5:1 gallons-consumed in 1896.  The 1910 census showed a total of 145 million grape vines in California.

The author paints a broad-brush picture of the national battle leading up to the institutionalization of Prohibition with the passage of the 18th Amendment.  We learn of the Drys -- the forces in favor of passage -- and their arguments and the counter arguments of the Wets -- the forces arrayed against passage. We learn that, in California, "Prohibition was a confrontation between North and South, a war between Southern California's Presbyterian dominated Protestants, who had hailed from Arkansas and Oklahoma, and the multi-ethnic inhabitants of the Catholic dominated north, many of whom had come from Italy, France, and Spain, where wine was an integral part of life."

The author impresses upon us the deleterious effects of Prohibition on the domestic winemaking industry.  Prohibition had a loophole which allowed for home winemaking -- up to 200 gallons per year without incurring a tax liability -- and this was, initially, a boon for grape growers.  But the lack of relevant transportation infrastructure, as well as shady operators all along the supply chain -- eventually brought this safety net crashing down.  California went from 700 registered wineries at the beginning of Prohibition to 137 at its repeal; and many of the survivors had to resort to bootlegging and other "unsavory" practices in order to survive.  The author recounts these stories in an unvarnished fashion; as she does their encounters with Prohibition Agents and the rampant corruption associated with all aspects of Prohibition.

This book makes for good reading.  The author surrounds the dry historical facts with flowing, gripping descriptions of the anthropology, geography, agriculture, and environment of America's premier wine-growing regions.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Vivian:
    I am following up on your conversation this week with April Butcher of the Sac Library Foundation. Please respond with your e-mail so I can discuss Authors on the Move.
    Kathy Les