Wherein Americans know nothing is more refreshing than a bathtub claret.
A classic scene in I Love Lucy depicts Lucille Ball stomping grapes for wine while touring Italy and getting into a grape-slinging, body-smooshing brawl in the wine vat (I love almost as much the complaint of Uncle Junior in The Sopranos that homemade Italian wine “reminds (him) of people’s feet”). Being far from an oenophile myself, I’m not sure whether my palate would appreciate or reject a nice glass of homemade vino.
People could not be so discriminating, however, during the Prohibition period in the United States (1920–1933), when the manufacturing and transporting of alcohol was illegal. While this inspired widespread smuggling of alcohol, as well as a marked increase in pharmacies (which could dispense alcohol by prescription) and even rabbis (who could procure and dispense wine for religious occasions), one of the most interesting developments was the encouragement by winemakers for people at home to create grape juice that could accidentally turn into wine.
Thick as a Brick
The Volstead Act posed a serious threat to the California winemaking industry. Grapes could only be grown, and grape juice made and distributed, if the produce was explicitly non-alcoholic. Some vineyards uprooted their grape vines and replaced them with orchards to avoid total financial devastation.
Other winemakers, however, came up with an ingenious solution: they made and distributed compressed bricks of dehydrated grape juice and, with a little wink wink, nudge nudge, included explicit instructions on what the buyer should not do with the bricks in order to avoid turning rehydrated grape juice into wine. Adam Teeter explains:
If you were to purchase one of these bricks, on the package would be a note explaining how to dissolve the concentrate in a gallon of water. Then right below it, the note would continue with a warning instructing you not to leave that jug in the cool cupboard for 21 days, or it would turn into wine.
Many Americans unsurprisingly ignored the not-so-earnest warnings and channeled their inner Homer “Beer Baron” Simpson to produce homemade wine (ironically, the Volstead Act allowed people to consume 200 gallons per year so long as they didn’t transport the alcohol outside the home). Teeter adds that winemakers like Vino Sano even explained how the bricks could create specific wines like Burgundy, Claret and Riesling.
These wine bricks were so successful that not only did winemakers save their vineyards (with the price per ton of grapes rising 3,847% in the first four years of Prohibition), but salesmen were hired to further build the business. Teeter notes an advertisement by Vino Sano in Popular Mechanics proclaiming, “SUCCESS For the hustler guaranteed, selling Vino Sano Grape Bricks, Wine Bricks, Orange Bricks.”
Unfortunately for basement vintners, the glory days of wine bricks came to an end in 1931. Fruit Industries, a public face for the California Vineyardist Association and distributor of Joseph Gallo’s (father of Ernest and Julio Gallo) Vine-Glo grape bricks, lost a federal court case ruling that grape bricks could not be used to create juice, thereby removing the “legal” source for wine from the market.
Image: Vine-Glo ad (Chicago Tribune) (Source).