Turns out that homemade wine in Prohibition wasn't legal

Efforts to save a historic building in Healdsburg from destruction-by-parking-lot have resulted in a temporary stay of execution for the 84-year-old warehouse - and a look at how folklore becomes history.

Or, to put it another way, how what we want to believe becomes conventional wisdom.

The warehouse at No.3 North St., right across from Healdsburg's new City Hall, is now known as the Purity building, its last tenant being Purity Chemical Co. It was built in 1922 three years after the start of Prohibition, that spasm of righteousness that Americans voted into law in 1919.

The owner was Romeo Cerri, a Tuscan immigrant who also owned a prosperous grocery store on the main street (Costeaux Family Bakery today).

The new warehouse, which was served by a short spur track from the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, was used as a depot for shipping grapes - and also, we are told, for storing the large shipments of raw sugar Cerri stocked for some of those north county entrepreneurs who had found a way to convert it to bootleg whiskey. Dry Creek, as the saying goes, was anything but dry.

There was money to be made in Prohibition, no doubt about it. An awful lot of grapes went through Healdsburg - and Sonoma and Santa Rosa - in the 14 years that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in every state of the Union.

The standard explanation offered in books, college classes and old-timers' accounts for the boom in grapes during the country's infamous "dry" period was home winemaking.

It was legal under the enforcing Volstead Act, historians wrote and teachers taught, for families to make up to 200 gallons of wine for their own use.

The resulting demand for "juice grapes" in the immigrant populations, not only local but in the cities of the Northeast and along the Eastern seaboard, kept Sonoma County vineyardists, indeed, all California grape growers, fat and happy.

KEITH POWER, a food and wine writer and former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who retired to Healdsburg 10 years ago, got involved in efforts to save the old warehouse. As vice president of the Healdsburg Museum board, Power believed the structure deserved a better fate, and his investigative reporter curiosity was piqued. He set out to show that the Cerri building was an important link to the town's interesting past.

He found that it was a lot more interesting than any of us realized.

Browsing in the Wine Library, looking for wine news of the period, Power came upon a 1923 issue of the California Grape Grower that contained an essay reprinted from The Oregon Grower. It was written by the manager of the Oregon Apple Co., accusing California grape growers of evasion and violation of the law prohibiting the production of alcohol.

"The wine grape business," wrote B.W. Johnson, who was obviously upset, "fosters contempt for law, tends to sear the national conscience, helps to undermine the morals of the country and aids in making prohibition a national joke."

Say what?

Johnson's thesis was that grape shipments were co-opting all the refrigerator cars in the West at the expense of the apple industry. But it was his contention that home winemaking was, in fact, illegal, that was the stunner.

It sent Power to the text of the Volstead Act itself and thence to a 1926 legal case that tested the teeth of the law, and found that it, to use a wine metaphor, lacked body and authority.

The Volstead Act, read at face value, does indeed outlaw the production of any intoxicating beverage. It says nothing about 200 gallons. That is a number from pre-Prohibition law about how many gallons families can make, with a permit, without being taxed.

Under the law of the land, winemakers, home or otherwise, could be arrested. And one notable home winemaker was. His name was John Philip Hill and he was a congressman from Maryland. He made some wine at home and served it, with a flourish, apparently, to some of his House colleagues and other high-ranking guests at his Baltimore home.

He was arrested and tried in the federal court of a Judge Soper who interpreted Section 29 of the Volstead Act to mean that homemade wine or grape juice would be illegal if it were "intoxicating, in fact, that is, to be partaken in sufficient quantity to make an ordinary man drunk."

Clearly, what we knew as wine was illegal. But the decision also held that the burden of proof was on the government. Proving intoxication without a qualifying percentage of alcohol, either in the grape juice or in the bloodstream, neither of which was included in Section 29, was ambiguous enough to render the law unenforceable. The Federal Court of Appeals' decision on another case (U.S. vs. Isner) confirmed Judge Soper's ruling.

Gen. Lincoln Andrews, who as assistant secretary of the treasury made a formal reply that he acknowledged Hill may wish to make public, saying, in part, "... a householder who manufactures in his home for home consumption ciders and fruit juices which acquire by fermentation one half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume, but which are not intoxicating in fact, does not violate the law but that the law is violated if the fermentation process is allowed to proceed to the point where the beverage becomes intoxicating in fact."

An appeal to the Supreme Court settled the question of home winemaking.

The government, already reeling from the unintended consequences of the law, including widespread bootlegging and rumrunning and the rise of organized crime (read, Al Capone), was not about to institute sobriety checks in private homes.

It was, one might say, an earlier version of "Don't ask, don't tell."

It was allowed. But it wasn't legal.

MOST OF the people I talked to about Power's findings - including college professors, wine historians and elders who remember Prohibition and did some home winemaking of their own - greeted the news that all that home winemaking was actually illegal with, "You've got to be kidding," or words to that effect.

David McCuan, who teaches wine politics as part of his political science classes at Sonoma State University, laughed out loud. And, indeed, the joke is on all of us who perpetuated the myth. SSU's Bill Crowley said his wine geography students have heard about those 200 "legal" gallons for years. Gail Unzelman, whose latest work on Sonoma County wineries is one of Arcadia Press' Postcard History series, freely admits she didn't know. "I've even corrected people who said it was 600 gallons, telling them, "No, it was 200," she said.

Retired SRJC history teacher John Crevelli, who has lived his entire life in Wine Country, went off to read the Volstead Act for himself, as did Sonoma County wine historian Millie Howie. Both were convinced.

Gladys Horiuchi, spokeswoman for the Wine Institute in San Francisco, expressed surprise, while Gene Cuneo, a 94-year-old Healdsburg grape grower, still doesn't believe it wasn't legal, telling of the permits he and his family used to slap on those barrels of homemade wine. Bo Simons, who presides over the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg, was privy to Power's research and put it succinctly. The federal law, he said, "apparently had a loophole big enough to drive through."

The experts, of course, knew. Charles Sullivan, the Los Gatos author of many books on wine history including "A Companion to California Wine" and "Zinfandel, a History of a Grape and Its Wine," said immediately that any supposition of legality was "not exactly true." Thomas Pinney addresses the issue in the first chapter of his "History of Wine in America, from Prohibition to the Present." Asked for a comment, Pinney described the law as "ambiguous and unclear," adding that "the practical application was in favor of home winemakers."

The upshot is that we have long known that Prohibition was a really bad idea. Now we know that it was really bad law as well.

As for the Cerri warehouse, it's on hold. Richard Spitler, development services director for the city of Healdsburg, says there are three factions at work on that project: those who want to tear it down for much-needed parking, those who would like to see it as a mixed commercial and residential use, and those, including Power, who would like to save it as a museum of Healdsburg's agricultural past.

Spitler said there's much work to be done on soil contamination and other factors. It won't come back to the council before early next year.

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