December 5th

After Prohibition was repealed on December 5th, 1933 at 4:31pm, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “What America needs now is a drink.” Prohibition is a hot media topic lately, with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition on PBS, and continues to shape the way we buy alcoholic beverages. The reasons for our flirt with “temperance” (aka: “the noble experiment,” Herbert Hoover’s description) are not understood clearly by most people, including myself. Politics surround all parts of Prohibition, from the run up to it (temperance movements preceded Prohibition by close to 150 years), to its passing, legislation, repeal and aftermath. Today there are still residual legislative adjustments, lobbying dollars and criminal political activity going on.

Prohibition opened many slivers of business opportunities (all seemed to be illegal), while trying to close just a few. For instance, the story of George Remus, a former attorney and bootlegger in the Cincinnati area who took advantage of a loophole in the laws governing the 18th Amendment that allowed alcohol to be prescribed by doctors and to be carried by pharmacies. George bought many of Cincinnati’s bonded distilleries (shut down and locked up after ratification of the 18th). He then started a pharmacy and began “selling” the alcohol from his distilleries to his pharmacy. The trucks making the deliveries were then hijacked by his own people so the alcohol could be sold to bars and restaurants illegally for bigger profits.

Gambling and prostitution get attention, but the fact that the proprietors of those “dens of disrepute” used alcohol as a social lubricant to increase revenues from those two activities is a subtle undercurrent. There are still laws on the books about gambling and prostitution, and selling alcohol. The use of free alcohol to get men to spend more on prostitutes and gambling was an important part of the economy of a saloon before (and during) Prohibition. This is still the case in states where gambling is legal and in Nevada where both are allowed. In New York, all wholesale prices must be posted with the state 45 days before each month, no free goods are allowed, all samples must be labeled as such, and producers and wholesalers can’t give anything away to help sales (game tickets, gift cards, product, trips, etc.). All sales, pricing, deals and payments are overseen by each state’s Alcohol Authority.

Prohibition made plenty of people very rich, and when it was repealed, many of the same people had the power and money to help massage the new laws about alcohol so they would continue in very lucrative businesses.

What’s all this got to do with wine? It is this history and the resulting laws that make it difficult to get wine shipped directly from wineries to our homes in many states and expensive in the states where it is legal. It is illegal for a consumer to buy wine in one state and have it shipped to many states, including New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, in other states there are strict laws about how much and what type of permit is needed.

Today, instead of smoky, backroom deals involving gangsters protecting their illicit businesses, we have a legal form of the same thing being done in government buildings, again with a small group of powerful people protecting their profits.