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100 Years After Prohibition

A pre-Prohibition era wine label with handwritten notations by Maynard Amerine, one of the founding members of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department (UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

A pre-Prohibition era wine label with handwritten notations by Maynard Amerine, one of the founding members of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department (UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

Described as “a great social and economic experiment” by President Herbert Hoover, the National Prohibition Act, known informally as the Volstead Act, went into effect 100 years ago, in January 1920.

The problem with Prohibition is that it didn’t.

Prohibition was filled with loopholes. The 18th Amendment made it illegal to sell alcohol, but not to consume it. Even some alcohol sales remained legal: wine could be prescribed by a physician and was therefore sold by drug stores. Wine was also sold to the church for sacramental purposes. It turns out that during Prohibition, alcohol wasn’t quite as prohibited as one might think.

Similarly, the problem with Repeal is that it didn’t entirely repeal the restrictions of Prohibition, either.

For example, we still have local restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and some counties across the United States remain ‘dry’.

Nevertheless, with the start of Prohibition, the UC’s nascent viticulture and enology program was forced to switch gears, and formal research and teaching ceased. The silver age of wine under Professor Eugene Hilgard and Professor Frederic Bioletti ended.

Later, when the 18th Amendment was repealed, Professor Bioletti resumed the teaching program on the Davis farm, now present-day UC Davis. Professor Bioletti was the link between pre- and post-Prohibition and his resumption of teaching allowed Department Chair Albert Winkler to begin building the post-Prohibition Viticulture & Enology Department at UC Davis. His first hire was Harold Olmo followed by Maynard Amerine, thus beginning the golden age of wine research and teaching at the University of California, Davis.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of ‘the great experiment’ known as Prohibition, the library is also beginning to catalog and digitize Harold Olmo’s research papers to make them more readily available to researchers and the public. This work is possible thanks to a generous recent gift from the owners of Larkmead Vineyards, where Olmo established a research plot starting in 1939, just six years after the repeal of Prohibition.

Over time the research of Olmo, Amerine and other members of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department helped raise the quality and build the global reputation of Napa Valley wines. And the rest, as they say, is history.