"When the Rivers Ran Red," tells the gripping story of how wine survived Prohibition.
"For years, like so many people I know, I thought Prohibition was all about whiskey and gangsters in Chicago," says author Vivienne Sosnowski, "then one day I got to speak to some wine-country pioneers in California who were in their nineties. They told the most tremendous stories of how wine survived those dark days and about the adventures their families had lived through during Prohibition."
The book, which was researched through interviews, library resources including the Library of Congress and local and national historical archives, tells how in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on the many families who had made their living from making wine for many decades. Congress had approved the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act which created prohibition and set up the structure for its enforcement by agents and bureaucracy across the country.
When Prohibition came to California’s wine country, agents emptied thousands of gallons of wine into rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads and local law enforcement officers, sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors, found ways to stonewall the intruding authorities. For the state's wine-making families, many of them immigrants from Italy, surviving Prohibition meant facing a crucial decision: give up their idyllic way of life, or break the law for the sake of their survival of their families.
“The book is a powerful, well-paced account of Prohibition in wine country.”
WINE SPECTATOR The Year in Books: Roundup of the best new reads for wine lovers
“When the Rivers Ran Red" casts light on a less-understood aspect of that infamous period in American history -- an era whose familiar images of Prohibition usually don't include its effect on American wineries.”
Interview with author.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
“Sosnowski offers a gripping account of Federal agents looking to seize wine and the winemakers who hid their vintages in ingenious ways. It’s also a fascinating look at the birth of some of the California wine dynasties that exist to this day.”
WINE ENTHUSIAST MAGAZINE
“A rollicking story…It’ll keep you awake on your towel.”
THE MIAMI HERALD
Best Book on New World Wines – U.S.A. 2009
GOURMAND WORLD COOKBOOKS AWARDS
“Wine lovers, history buffs, and those interested in the history of many local grape-growing families are sure to enjoy Sosnowski’s compelling, thought-provoking account of winemakers’ fight to survive Prohibition. It’s a book to relish, perhaps with a glass or two of fine wine.”
SANTA ROSA PRESS-DEMOCRAT
“In this cool history book for fans of wine and local lore, Vivienne Sosnowski illustrates exactly how Prohibition affected not only business, but grape-growing and wine-producing families in the Napa and Sonoma valleys for years.”
SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER
“This tale of a little-known aspect of American history will be enjoyed by Californians, as well as oenophiles and history buffs.”
“Sosnowski records in heavily researched detail the real effects of Prohibition on people who wished only to produce sound wine.”
“Not until this book has anyone really examined the impact of Prohibition on the people of California 's Wine Country. It's a story whose arc you know, yet in the telling it is far more powerful and engrossing than you might expect.”
50 Notable Bay Area Books of 2009
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
“…a lively account of the battle of the local industry to survive against aggressive government efforts to shut it down.
“(Sosnowski) turns to the immigrant winemaking families of Napa and Sonoma counties, whose still-new American beginnings were strenuously tested starting in 1919, when — with moral support of sorts from San Francisco's thirsty citizenry — they became outlaws in order to protect their culture and livelihoods.”
“Ms. Sosnowski's deeply researched story puts a human face on a tragic story.”
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The book came about when I started to work with Gina Riner, a friend in Healdsburg, California, on a project which eventually grew into an exhibition called “Enduring Spirits.” That exhibition still hangs today in the City Hall in Healdsburg. Gina had met a number of local pioneers and she wanted to put together some short essays of the lives of these pioneers that would help tell about the history of Healdsburg and their part in the development of that special little town in wine country. And I offered to take photos of the people she was going to write about. Well, these wonderful older people – none of them was younger than 90 years old – told us a lot of fascinating tales about their lives. As they talked about what had happened to them through the years, I would be setting up the photos and adjusting the light, etc., and I would listen to many reminiscences, some of which were about what had happened to their families during Prohibition.
I was astonished. Prohibition seemed to me to have happened way back in history. But here were lively, vital, fascinating people chatting animatedly about their part in that amazing moment in the early 20th century.
I thought someone should write those stories down while these wonderful people were still with us. And since I was a journalist, I felt it a responsibility to the wine community of California and especially to these pioneers to write these stories down so that we would not lose that part of history.
Like many people, I knew a bit about Prohibition but it was what happened in with Al Capone in Chicago and in big urban cities and involved gangsters, machine guns and whisky. Not to good, hard-working agricultural families in the beautiful, serene countryside of Napa and Sonoma. What I had not realized was how vast an operation California winemaking was back than and how it almost did not survive. So I set out to give the reminiscences context and find out what had happened to Northern California’s wine industry during Prohibition.
When Prohibition began there were millions of gallons of wine in the cellars of California’s vineyards. California wines had sold since the late 1800s all over the world – in France, in England, to Japan, to China, to South America. California wines were famous – they had won medals at many world’s fairs, including the Paris Exposition of 1900. This was not a business of a few small vintners in a remote rural area. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed millions and millions of gallons of wine that was stored in that city waiting to be sold there and shipped around the world. There is a story, I don’t know whether it’s apocryphal or not, that some Italian-Americans in the North Beach section of San Francisco were able to save their homes in the fires that ensued after the 1906 earthquake by soaking blankets in their wine vats and throwing them over roofs. Whether that story is true or not, I don’t know, but I do find it interesting that in the photos of the rubble of that earthquake there are four or five homes standing in North Beach, the Italian area of San Francisco.
So armed with the stories of these few pioneers I first met, I set off to see if I could find out more about the story of what happened to winemakers and grape ranchers in California’s two best-known premium wine counties, Napa and Sonoma.
Q: How did you get started?
A: Well, fortunately I had some stories from the pioneers to get me started. Then I set out throughout Napa and Sonoma to find more stories from other survivors or from families whose grandparents and parents had lived through that time. And then I headed to archives and museums and libraries where I got so much help from the devoted people who maintain those great resources. I was lucky enough to be working in Washington, D.C., in the early days of my research. I was new to town and well, you know how it is, you don’t know many people, so you have a lot of time in the evenings and weekends on your own. I headed up to the Library of Congress every weekend to search through the Congressional Record and other books and files for more insight into how Prohibition in California came about. Another outstanding resource is the National Archives situated at a number of places across the United States. Wonderful staff there found what I call historical treasures for me in their files. And I cannot say enough about the value of America’s newspaper archives. Historical research will not be the same without them as we move to internet cache-ing. They are an incomparable treasure: they report on history as it happens. So you can get not only the immediate facts of the stories, but the context in which they happen.
Q: What surprised you most about this story?
A: I thought that survivors and their families from that time would be furious about the financial cost to them of Prohibition. Losing their land, losing their wine, living through hard times. Yes, they mentioned that, of course, but mostly they were disappointed that to survive some of them had to break the law. You see their land and capital was all tied up in wine making and vineyards. When Prohibition happened they could not earn a living. As well, the government paid nothing in compensation to these people for taking their livelihood away. They could mostly all eat well and keep very healthy – they owned land and they could grow their own food and keep their own cows and pigs and chickens. But they had no cash to buy sugar, flour, coffee, tea, pasta, olive oil or other staples they needed and could not grow themselves – as well they could not afford to keep their wine-making equipment and their tanks and barrels in good repair, so many of them lost those, too, during Prohibition. Most important they did not have money to pay taxes on their lands. And since they were determined not to lose their land they had worked so hard to buy, a lot of them felt forced to do things they would never have done in ordinary circumstances – bootlegging, running stills, hiding wine and brandy from Prohibition agents. These were all difficult decisions for these proud, hard-working people to make. And so the memories of some people were of the hurt and anger their families felt when they believed their own government turned against them – hardworking, loyal citizens that they were.
Q: Was the wine industry prepared when Prohibition happened?
A: No, when Prohibition began, winery owners and grape ranchers were shocked. They thought the new Prohibition law would only ban hard liquor – not wine, which they did not think caused the troubles in the taverns that Prohibitionists really wanted to put an end. Suddenly they had to worry what they would do with their wine and their grapes; the millions of gallons of wine they had in storage and the tens of thousands of acres of vineyards.
Should they store the wine, or destroy it? What should they do with their vines? Should they pull them up and replace them with prunes? Should they sell their vineyards and try another line of work? I found the stories about what happened to the people of Napa and Sonoma during the 14 years of Prohibition and what they had to do to survive those years so compelling.
By 1925, five years into Prohibition, federal agents endlessly criss-crossed the hills and valleys of California’s wine country day and night in search of anyone who might be a bootlegger. Many winemakers had tens of thousands of gallons of wine made before Prohibition began under official lock-up in their cellars. They were forbidden to sell the wine. They could only sit and watch it age poorly. They bitterly resented the harassment of the despised federal agents and their enthusiastic monitoring of every gallon of wine in the area:
“Perhaps no one in the two counties had better reason to be vexed with the relentless pressure of the law than Nate Ghisolfo, the proprietor of a bonded winery in Calistoga. In April 1925, a Prohibition agent had marched uninvited onto his premises to check the state of his cellars and discovered that 25 percent of Ghisolfo's previously cataloged and padlocked wine had gone missing.
Ghisolfo claimed the shrinkage was entirely explainable: It was from natural causes like evaporation. But when the matter came to the desk of United States Attorney Alma Weyers, she pooh-pooed the excuse immediately, and set in motion the volumes of paperwork required to secure a federal court order to destroy the remaining 31,000 gallons of wine that Ghisolfo had on hand. It had a value of more than $60,000—a great deal at a time when a new car cost $1,500. While the documents were making their way through the courts and bureaucracy, Deputy Marshals John H. Hanlon and William Foster were sent to guard the wine to prevent any further “leakage” or “evaporation." But despite the insult of the imminent threat of destruction of the asset he had worked years to accumulate, and into which he had invested the cost of not only his own labor but of field workers too, the warm-hearted and gracious Ghisolfo treated the two agents like welcome visitors.
The agents spent the days relaxing in the green heaven that is Napa in the summer, dining with the family on fine homemade food, including fresh chickens and good fruit and vegetables from the family’s own land.
By July, the days are long and hot in Napa Valley. In the kitchen early in the morning before the heat becomes too oppressive to work, salamis to be dried or juicy sausages ready to be browned to a crunchy crisp over the family’s wood-fired stove are being prepared, along with long-simmered sauces and meat stews. Outdoor ovens are readied for loaves of breads, rubbed with olive oil, that have risen in their pans under spotless dishcloths. In the gardens, pumpkins are as big as a baby’s head. Cantaloupe, though small, are ready to eat, juicy and perfumed. Tomato plants as tall as your shoulder are bearing their first sweet, ripe fruit. Sunflowers bend their heavy heads. The first corn arrives. And long, sweet Italian peppers are getting ready to turn from green to red. Roses are on their third blooming of the year. By noon, nothing moves in the still and heavy heat of a vineyard. The low vines that stand along (un-trellised) and are dubbed “head-trained” as the leaves fall from the top-knot of the vines, now have elegant trains of leaves reaching to the ground, the leaves arranged around the fruit to protect it from burning in the relentless sun. But when evening comes, it is cool and refreshing.
Surrounded by all this beauty, the agents spent happy days guarding the wine. But after three months of feeding the agents and treating them to a virtual vacation on his property, Ghisolfo grew weary and began providing them with an increasingly less elaborate menu while they were on their watch. After all, they were there as enforcement officers. Eventually Ghisolfo enlisted the help of an attorney in San Francisco to help him find a way to get rid of the two men. His lawyer informed the authorities that Ghisolfo wanted the two deputies to leave and that, if necessary—and even though it would mean a sickening financial loss to him—they could take the remaining wine with them. Ghisolfo, said the lawyer, was even prepared to put up an $18,000 bond if they would leave him alone. The U.S. Attorney refused to recall the deputies or accept the bond, saying that Ghisolfo might be using this as some sort of cunning ruse to get rid of even more wine in some illegal manner. A judge refused to make a ruling without the U.S. Attorney’s consent. “Mr. Ghisolfo,” reported the Sotoyome Scimitar newspaper, “does not know what to do. And the deputy marshals face a life of stale sandwiches.”