America can be justifiably proud of the growth and improvement in its wine industry over the past decades, but few are aware of how large America's wine industry was before Prohibition. Although Prohibition ended in 1933 and lasted just 13 years, we are still today experiencing its negative and even devastating effects on wine production — overall volume dropped from 55 million gallons in 1919 to 3.5 million gallons in 1925. What might America's wine industry or wine culture actually be like today if Prohibition hadn't nearly destroyed it?
The effects of Prohibition in the US and elsewhere on wine production and sales are enormous all around the world. Between 1919 and 1925, the number of wineries in California falls from 700 to a little over 100 and the total US wine production drops from 55 to 3.5 million gallons. However, the acreage dedicated to table grapes doubles to 600,000 acres. After all, growing fruit is legal. For white grapes, the choice is the Thompson Seedless, developed by William Thompson. It is a prolific grape, unable to produce a decent wine. For red grapes, the choice is Zinfandel. This cultivar is amazingly productive unless the vine is old (say, over 30 years) or severely pruned.
Concentrated grape juice in a can is sold as Vine Glo with instructions on how to ferment its contents. Packages of dehydrated grapes with a yeast pill are sold as Wine Bricks. But this is all low-quality grape juice. Most premium cultivars disappear from California. Less than 100 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon survive Prohibition.
Source: Wine from Neolithic Times to the 21st Century, by Stefan K. Estreicher
It was easier for the beer and spirits industries to recover after Prohibition because they used ingredients already planted for other reasons and which were easier to plant in larger quantities. Wine, in contrast, requires grapes which need specialized conditions to create decent wines, several years to start producing in sufficient quantity and quality, and which do not produce consistent, reliable crops every year.
Once the vines were torn up because of Prohibition, the land was given over to other crops and even to non-agricultural uses, so they couldn't easily be returned to grape production after Prohibition was repealed. Thus vineyards all across America which once produced a wide variety of wines were lost forever — great wines which might even today have been created in vineyards in states like Ohio are now impossible and will never exist.
After more than a decade of legal banishment, America’s vineyards and wineries were devastated. Before Prohibition, the wine industry in Ohio was bigger than the wine industry in California today. After Prohibition, the predictable profitability of soybeans, corn, and wheat never gave an inch, and wine grapes never reemerged as a viable crop even in formerly wine-rich states. There were 256 wineries in Sonoma in 1920, only 58 by 1969, and 254 in 2005 – close, but still not even where we were 85 years ago.
Source: Jonathon Alsop, Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking
The American wine industry could never have recovered quickly from Prohibition, but I think that its growth after prohibition was much slower than it necessarily had to be. This slow growth didn't reflect low alcohol consumption or a low demand for alcoholic beverages, so it has to be traced to a lack of demand for wine in particular.
One factor was the Great Depression which America was experiencing — wine is generally more expensive per drink than other alcoholic beverages, making it something of a luxury which American weren't prepared to pay for. Another factor may have been that wine hadn't become as important to American culture in the way that it was important in nations like France and Italy. People in America learned to live without having wine with every meal or just while sitting and relaxing.
Even today, wine simply isn't as integral to America culture the way beer is and this says something about American culture itself. In America, wine remains more a beverage — just one of many beverages, all interchangeable — than a cultural product or a part of culture that is necessary for explaining who we are, our history, what our values are, etc. Why do you think that is?