A History of Wine in America:
From Prohibition to the Present
University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005, 532 pp.
Reviewer: Daniel A. Sumner
Professor Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America provides a magisterial overview of wine in America since Prohibition. His coverage is broad and detailed. He travels region by region throughout the United States dealing with industry trends, consumer behavior, individual personalities and public policy. The narrative steps year-by-year through the decades, dealing with the crises of an industry that struggled to establish an identity and secure an economic role in a society that was mostly indifferent or actively hostile. It also chronicles the industry’s unsteady growth as the consumer base expanded and production adapted to the specific demands of the market. With its breadth of coverage his treatment is a welcome addition to the more narrowly focused literature such as James Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era, to which Pinney makes regular reference.
Together with his previous volume, which covered the period up to Prohibition, Professor Pinney has now made available the story of five centuries of wine in America. The previous book covered several centuries; this book covers eight decades. But these 80 years witnessed a transformation from devastation to desolation and on to a pain- fully fitful recreation of the American wine industry into something that had not existed before. Pinney concentrates on wine production in America and American consumption of American wine. There is little global context and he mentions U.S. wine imports only in passing and mostly ignores U.S. wine exports, which have (as he notes on page 340) become important recently. The 369 tightly packed pages of narrative are accompanied by 110 pages of endnotes, 25 pages of published and unpublished sources, and a 25-page index. The endnotes and list of sources provide a wealth of detail for the committed reader. The book is a narrative filled with data and stories of the people responsible for the modern wine industry in America and one imagines that there are more stories that the author could have shared.
The drama begins with the text of the Volstead Act, which appears on page one. Pinney mentions in passing that besides being the author of Prohibition in the United States, Vol- stead was best known as a supporter of farm interests in the Midwest. He does not note the irony of the agricultural destruction that the Volstead wrought or that Volstead was also the co-author of the Capper-Volstead Act, which provided the core legal support for farmer cooperatives, which became so important to the development of the wine industry a few years later. In Chapter 3, Pinney establishes the importance of cooperative wineries in the regeneration of the industry, especially in production of bulk wines that were a major force in the industry in the 1930s and for many years thereafter.
Pinney shows us how even Prohibition was not able to destroy the wine industry altogether as the remnants struggled to maintain some viability while they waited for the experiment to end. For the growers and wineries that survived Prohibition the post- Prohibition period was almost as difficult. New ventures entered, market prices fluctuated and the industry struggled with the Great Depression, much as did the rest of agriculture. The 1940s brought relief, as they did for other farm industries and during the war years higher prices created a short-lived prosperity. While not explicitly stated, the facts recounted indicate how much the wine industry is a part of agriculture, and how its history and fortune is linked to that of fruit and vegetable processing and marketing more generally.
The development of the wine industry for almost four decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, was a struggle with disappointment following enthusiasm for those interested in creating a substantial wine market and wine culture in America. For many years much of the industry, that centered in the Central Valley of California, relied on sales of fortified wines – port, muscatel and sherry. This market encouraged the production of high-yielding low cost grapes and the use of raisin grapes as a major part of the crush. Sales of table wines were a minor part of the whole and were associated with the coast of California. Even in the 1960s, as table wine began to replace the fortified wines in the mix, much of the new demand was in the form of flavored wines or wine coolers, which also drew on very low-price grapes. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s that what we now think of as the wine revolution in American finally took hold.
Just as the economic fortunes of the wine industry tracked that of other horticultural crops, so did the periodic use of public policies to enhance prices. Unlike the farm subsidies typical for grains, direct government payments were not available. Instead growers used various supply control schemes to limit production or shift it off the wine market and thereby raise prices. While details varied, each attempt was short lived at best and brought little relief. Advocates simply found no effective collective mechanism to limit supplies that was strong enough to counter the private incentives to maintain or expand production.
One theme of the book is the use of research, technology and innovation to build the winegrape and wine industry. The emphasis on both quantity and quality was a hallmark of systematic research and industry innovation. As the industry grew and adapted, it could not rely on centuries of tradition to guide the choice of varieties, locations and produc- tion practices. While individual growers and winemakers did considerable work, university researchers, in Washington state, at Cornell and a few other schools in the east, and espe- cially at the University of California, initially at Berkeley and later at Davis, came to play the central role in providing systematic research to support the industry. The tradition, reaching back to Hilgard in the 1880s, was renewed under Cruess and continued by Joslin, Amerine and Winkler, to name a few. Their work was not isolated to the laboratory or the field experiment. They participated actively in industry affairs and were increasingly relied upon by growers and winemakers. In the east with a much smaller industry and therefore much less institutional support, individual innovators, sometimes with informal networks of collaborators, developed practical information for their own use and that of their neighbors. For those outside California, major concerns were cold climates and con- ditions inhospitable to vinifera grapes. Steady progress allowed the gradual development of the Eastern wine industry, which now has devoted local customers and a strong base of activity in almost every state.
Despite market growth, Pinney develops a recurring motif of disappointment with wine consumers in the United States. First, he is dismayed that most American consumers do not appreciate wine at all or do not appreciate “quality wine” as much as they should. Sometimes, he attributes this failure to the wine industry for neglecting to cultivate a solid consumer base. At other times, this failure seems to be attributed to fundamental features of American history and culture. A second disappointment is that parts of the industry and some wine aficionados appear to appreciate too much “quality.” The final pages of the final chapter make explicit the author’s views. He longs for a wine culture in which wines he enjoys can be available at prices he can afford on a daily basis, and he wishes that more Americans shared this appreciation. He disdains the “idea that wine is inseparable from the worst forms of conspicuous consumption…” (pp. 368–69). And, he links the failure to cultivate a broad customer base for every day table wines with the emphasis, at least among those most closely associated with wine publicity, on wines for only the wealthy few or the special occasion.
Economists will find this an interesting and useful book, but this is not an economic history in that there is little economic analysis of historical events. For example, in account- ing for “the Big Change” in the industry that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, Pinney outlines numerous hypotheses and concludes that they all may have contributed. But, the ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼idea of quantifying the contributions of income growth versus some broader cultural shift or improved grape varieties or wine making techniques does not appear on his agenda. Throughout the narrative economic issues arise, but economic questions are neither posed nor answered. No book can do everything and there is much work left for the economic historian of the wine industry.
In a break with much academic writing in economics at least, Professor Pinney makes little attempt to maintain a veneer of objectivity. His personal priorities color the story from the start. He champions the cause of wine in America and, despite its ups and downs, the story he tells is one of progress and optimism. He is clear that the forces for “good” are those that foster a successful industry and the forces for ill are those that interrupt the flow of progress. He wants consumers to value “quality” and he wants the industry to lead consumers to this ideal. He likes the idea of small personal wineries, but he appreciates that, in America, the large firms have often produced innovation and the bulk of the wine that is affordable for daily consumption. These views are not always explicit, but they are not far below the surface and the reader is not confused about where the author stands.
Economists will also find small frustrations scattered throughout. These include the casual use of statistics and a dearth of charts or tables. In many places the narrative would have flowed more naturally with reference to a time series chart or table of price or tonnage comparisons across regions. Instead, the text is encumbered with lists of selected numbers that leave the reader thirsty for a more systematic treatment. And, when economic trends and comparisons are considered, there are periodic slip-ups. For example, in comparing winegrape prices in California between 1968 and 1978, no accounting is made for the effects of general inflation during a period of very rapid climb in the general price level. When the author says, “In 1968, to take that year as a starting point, the average price per ton of wine grapes in California was $71; a decade later, in 1978, it had tripled to $210” (p. 232). The author and many readers will know that this statement mixes changes over time in the relative price of wine grapes, changes over time in the composition of wine grapes by variety and by region as well as the overall change in the price level. Unfortu- nately, while not affecting the basic message, such neglect makes it harder for readers to appreciate what was actually happening during this period.
For wine economists, A History of Wine in America will be fascinating and informative. It will also generate hypotheses and supply ideas for understanding the current situation of the wine industry on a global basis. The list of cited works and sources and the detailed footnotes will supply leads to follow up for further study. But, the most enjoyable feature of this history will be the wine industry stories, and more of them would have been even better.
Daniel A. Sumner
University of California, Davis