Drive the twisty back roads of Sonoma County and the grand panorama of ranchlands, redwoods, and vineyards unfolds before your eyes. But many of the stories of how the county?s bucolic countryside transmuted from the carefully tended fertile ecosystem that was overseen by the Pomo, Miwok, and Wappo people for over 10,000 years to the mostly flourishing yet sometimes competing agribusinesses of today are just beginning to be told and understood.
Local writer and former editorial director of the San Francisco Examiner Vivienne Sosnowski adds her talented voice to the historical record with genuine and some truly astonishing tales from when Prohibition descended on California?s wine country in ?When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America?s Wine Country? ($26.95, Palgrave Macmillan).
As Sosnowski?s title suggests, during Prohibition Northern California?s largely immigrant grape-growing families, many of them Italian, faced hardships of almost Biblical proportions when the Constitution was amended in 1919 to ban the making and selling of alcoholic beverages including wine. The title also refers to an incident some years after the start of Prohibition when federal agents unceremoniously dumped some 140,000 gallons of red wine, ?made in traditional Italian style at the renowned Foppiano family vineyard,? into public ditches and beyond. A crowd quickly gathered and gleefully discovered the wine was still drinkable.
?In seconds, everyone was shouting for help from the children, who ran as fast as their legs could carry them, to bring the bottles, jugs, and pans they had carried from home for this moment,? writes Sosnowski, who divides her time between homes in Healdsburg and Vancouver, British Columbia. ?The monstrous day did not spell bad luck for everyone. For neighbors who made the 15-minute trek south from the tiny farming community of Healdsburg, it turned into a riotous holiday. For the Foppianos, the day had been a cruel trial.?
According to Sosnowski, at the start of Prohibition there were 700 wineries in California, with 256 in Sonoma and 120 in Napa. By the early ?30s the number had dwindled to fewer than 160 wineries statewide. ?The cost of the loss of all that wine, in capital, in hard work, in financial security, was astronomical,? writes Sosnowski. ?Prohibition was a national shame. As of this writing, many decades later, winery people still speak of it with bitterness.?
So how did the county's grape-growing families survive Prohibition? Some grew new crops, some sold their land and gave up, some won permits to make sacramental and medicinal wine, and others simply broke the law.
Everyone who had a barn in Sonoma and Napa counties had a still, according to Louis Foppiano, whom Sosnowski interviewed for her book. ?Some neighbors would share a small still between them, using it only from time to time to distill wine for their own use,? writes Sosnowski. ?But others made thousands of gallons of distilled liquors for markets in San Francisco and beyond ? and profited greatly.?
As the dry years wore on, raids and arrests by federal agents punctuated the days, and when night fell the roads belonged to smugglers. ?Everyone knew that at night, the twisting narrow roads that zigzag through the dense redwood forests at Sonoma County?s western edge were perfect for transporting illicit liquor,? writes Sosnowski.
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.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here