Just as the nation emerged from the dark mist of federal Prohibition 80 years ago today, Washington state is now wrestling with similar issues with the legalization of marijuana.
On Dec. 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified after Utah, Pennsylvania and Ohio approved it. This repealed the 18th Amendment and ended more than 13 years of Prohibition.
It also threw liquor laws nationwide into turmoil, as each state could then make its own laws regarding restrictions and distribution. Much of this turmoil remains today.
Ron Irvine, owner and winemaker of Vashon Winery, founder of Pike & Western Wine Shop in Seattle and author of The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History, said he sees many similarities between post-Prohibition Washington in 1933 and 1934 and what it faces today trying to sort out marijuana laws since Washington voters legalized it a year ago.
“Immediately after Prohibition, liquor was not available,” Irvine told Great Northwest Wine. “People were looking for something that was legal. Wine was the obvious choice, but few people knew anything about wine.”
Three-tier system – then for wine, now for marijuana
A three-tier system was set up for getting alcohol to consumers: Producers sold to distributors, who supplied retailers. That kept alcohol in control.
“It’s almost like marijuana is today, a three-tier system,” Irvine said. “People who hadn’t made wine were diving into winemaking. That’s now happening with marijuana. People are getting into it because they think there’s potential to make a lot of money. That was how people saw it after Prohibition. They saw people were thirsty.”
In 2011, Washington voters began to dismantle the three-tier system with the passage of Initiative 1183, which took the state out of the business of selling alcohol. But marijuana legislation is going the other direction, Irvine observed.
Of interest, one of the bidders at the Red Mountain land auction two weeks ago was hoping to buy a 20-acre parcel for a legal marijuana growing operation – an ironic twist in the heart of Washington wine country.
Washington unprepared after repeal of Prohibition
Irvine said Washington and many other states were not well prepared for producing wine after Prohibition was repealed. Wines were made with many types of fruit, though some had access to grapes right away, thanks to William Bridgman. The two-time mayor of Sunnyside began to plant wine grapes in the Yakima Valley in 1917, just before the veil of Prohibition descended over the nation. And because Prohibition laws allowed private citizens to make wine for personal consumption, Bridgman and others found a steady revenue stream for their grapes even during those dark times.
“He was shipping a lot of grapes,” Irvine said. “He saw the potential during Prohibition. He understood that Europeans liked their wine. He was shipping lots of grapes to Cle Elum, Spokane and a lot of places.”
Irvine noted that grapes also were shipped from California during Prohibition.
In 1933, the first Washington winery to open was St. Charles Winery on Stretch Island near the Puget Sound town of Grapeview. It stayed open until the 1950s, when it was purchased and renamed Alhambra before closing for good in 1965.
But others quickly followed. Bridgman opened Upland Winery near Sunnyside in 1934 (which lasted until 1972). And perhaps most significantly, two wineries called National Wine Co. (Nawico) and Pommerelle both opened in the year after Prohibition. They later merged into American Wine Growers, which in 1976 was renamed Chateau Ste. Michelle. Today, Ste. Michelle is Washington’s largest and oldest winery.
Son of temperance champion led Washington wine industry
Soon after Repeal, a young man named Walter Clore came to Washington State College (now WSU) as a horticulturist. In 1937, he moved to the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.
Clore was not a wine drinker. In fact, his mother was an active member of the Temperance Union in his native Oklahoma, so he was raised in a dry household – an inauspicious start for the man who would later be known as “the father of the Washington wine industry.”
“Wine was the furthest thing from Walt’s mind,” Irvine said.
But then he met Bridgman, who connected Clore to the possibilities that the Columbia Valley had for growing world-class wine grapes. Irvine believes Clore did not have his first drink of wine until he tasted a rosé made by Chas Nagel, a WSU scientist who ended up working side by side with Clore into the 1970s.
“After that, Walt was tireless” in pursuit of helping to turn Washington into a significant wine-producing region.
Clore died in 2003, and Nagel died in 2007.
By 1942 – less than 10 years after Repeal – Washington had 38 wineries. That grew until 1969, when a bill went through the state Legislature that removed tariffs from out-of-state wine, allowing a flood of higher-quality table wine to flow in from California.
By the 1970s, Washington had fewer than 10 wineries, but that steadily grew until the state hit 100 wineries in 1997.
Today, Washington purportedly has more than 800 wineries sourcing from more than 50,000 acres of wine grapes.