Monday, March 7, 2011

Wine Books to Read: When the Rivers Ran Red

As a recent birthday gift, my parents purchased me the book "When the Rivers Ran Red" by Vivienne Sosnowski.  The book was recommended to me from a fellow co-worker, and with my slight obsession with Prohibition (how did that happen?!), I couldn't resist this book. 

When the Rivers Ran Red by Vivienne Sosnowski

I am SO glad that I received this book when I did.  I finished it right before leaving California, which made me appreciate the book even more.  The writing in the book really captures the essence of Napa and Sonoma Valley before consumerism set in.  But I had to laugh to myself some as some of the ideals that still exist in the valleys today were in place about 100 years ago.  (Small things that I feel you could only pick up if you were familiar with the valleys.)

The book features several legendary wine families or estates that exist today: Inglenook Winery (now Rubicon Estate, owned by Francis Ford Coppola), the Nichelini's (whose original winery in Chiles remains in existence today... I've actually had the pleasure of walking in it during crush), the Sebastiani's (legendary grape growers of Sonoma that are influential in the industry to this day), the Seghesio's (who survived Prohibition and continue to produce quality wine throughout Sonoma County), and many, many more.

The Old Nichelini Winery in Chiles
(Photo from Google Images)

The Old Inglenook Winery - now Rubicon Estate
(Photo by author)

When the Rivers Ran Red gave me a real history to this valley.  The Chicago mob scene was what we learned about in terms of Prohibition while I was growing up.  And sure, you heard rumors that the per capita drinking rate was highest during Prohibition.  While Washington D.C. was convinced the Prohibition would work, it was obvious that the western, Wet, states were being forgotten.  The book has a good way of summing up how Prohibition helped lead to the development of the Depression, how the Depression affected the Wet Sonoma and Napa counties, and the final outcome of Prohibition would be.  It's amazing to think that people actually lived through that during a period of time when the west was a place of new beginnings for many immigrants coming to the U.S. to start a new life.

The book is well written, quite poetic and nostalgic with regards to valley life and harvest.  The factual parts regarding Prohibition in California are often documented by a bibliography or interview citation.  It gives you a real perception about how life lived on through "Wine Country" during a Dry period in history.

Below are some of my favorite excerpts from the book.  I hope you will find it just as enjoyable as me!

An image of Sonoma County before Prohibition:
"But as important as wine to the counties' lifestyle, for decades it had been another important linchpin of a bustling farm economy. Long before Prohibition, green and fertile Sonoma County was renowned as the breadbasket of San Francisco for its wheat, potatoes, oats, barley, butter, cheese, pears, peaches, and cherries. Many families still owed their solid homes and pleasant lives to those splendid crops, especially to the massive local prune harvest - gathered from plum trees and dried in the sun or in mechanical dryers - and exported as far away as Germany."

The Hills of Sonoma
(Photo by author)

Why Prohibition managed to take hold:
"As the Prohibition movement gathered strength around the country, it met surprisingly little combined resistance from the three industries that supplied the nation with alcohol: breweries centered in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati; the great distillers of Kentucky; and wine producers located over-whelmingly in California. Each industry had its own anti-Prohibition propaganda and trade organizations, and they never learned to cooperate. Instead, they distrusted each other's intentions, believing that each would sacrifice the others if necessary."

The vineyards of Napa Valley - Mt. St. Helena in back drop
(Photo by author)

Did you ever wonder where this law came from?  Here's the answer:
"It was a further astonishing invitation to millions of Americans across the country that wished to make their own wine now that Prohibition had arrived. The fact that an American household could legally make up to 200 gallons of wine each year without paying taxes dumbfounded everyone. And that this could happen by merely applying for a permit? Two hundred gallons was, after all, a whopping supply of wine - about 1,000 bottles per year. This homemade wine, it became clear very quickly, would be produced not only to stock the cellars of the private citizens who made it but to spike the bootlegging industry's supply as well."

Prohibition Agents dumping wine
(Photo from Google Images)

The wine grape markets that kept California wineries alive:
"Philadelphia, for instance, whose population was 20 percent foreign born, was a booming destination for wine grapes.... Detroit, its population nearly a quarter foreign born, took more than 1,000 cars of California table and wine grapes in 1924. New Orleans, however - a once-great wine market whose wholesalers and restaurateurs had had close relationships with California winemakers before Prohibition - was proving a surprising challenge.... Boston was third largest market in the nation for California wine and table grapes, partly because it was the dominant trade center in its area - grapes that arrived there were sent out to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and half of Connecticut - but also because it had a healthy immigrant population.... Chicago, California's second most important grape market, took 7,000 cars of California wine and table grapes in 1924.... The finest of all markets for California wine and table grapes was New York..."

Medicinal Wine?
(Photo from Google Images)

How well Prohibition worked out in its regulations and enforcement:
"Corruption was everywhere, the commission said, to no one's surprise - from street level to the highest reaches of Prohibition bureaucracy; it flourished in police departments everywhere across the country; the connection between corrupt local politicians and gangs and the organized liquor traffic was chilling."

Anti-Prohibition Propaganda
(Photo from Google Images)

How "the wine people" of California felt by the end of almost 14 years of Prohibition:
"The felt they had been shamed by their own government as purveyors of poison and misery. They had been brutalized and insulted and treated like criminals. They had lost fortunes in dumped wines, dried-out tanks, and uncared-for vineyards. Yes, some few of them had made money, good money, but the cost had been great. Most of the wine people who had had to break the law only wanted to survive, not a felicitous way of life for decent, rural folk."

(Photo from Google Images)

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