Sunday, December 28, 2014

Roosevelt and the Grape

The political history of Prohibition is complex. Before the Eighteenth Amendment took effect in January 1920, a nation-wide ban on most alcoholic beverages had been enacted and took effect at the end of June 1919.

Oddly, the ban had been legislated on the rationale that the nation’s grains were needed for the war effort. But the war ended in November 1918, more than six months before the moratorium came into force.

In addition, some individual counties and states wrote their own local bans into law.

Wineries, breweries, and distilleries were economically destroyed; distributors of beverages and operators of restaurants and bars were badly damaged in their ability to earn a living. By contrast, organized crime - “gangsters” and the Mafia - flourished.

In March 1933, legislation allowed for the manufacture, sale, and consumption of certain types of beer and wine. In December 1933, the constitutional amendment was repealed, making beer, wine, and distilled liquors fully legal.

But the economy could not instantly fix the devastation done to several different sectors. One historian, Leon D. Adams, writes:

Would the government, which had destroyed the industry, help to restore it? Some members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration thought it should. There was ample precedent for Federal assistance; the Department of Agriculture had encouraged winegrowing for more than a century, operating experimental vineyards and breeding wine grapes until Prohibition intervened. As late as 1880, the only Federal census statistics of state-by-state grape production were given in gallons of wine made, because the chief purpose of planting vineyards was to grow wine. This was always the case in other countries; nine tenths of the world’s grapes are grown for wine. Shipping of fresh grapes as a dessert fruit was unimportant until after refrigerated freight cars were adapted for fruit shipments about 1887, and the raisin industry remained small until the 1890s.

American vintners were honored by seeing their product served and consumed at official state banquets:

Promptly at Repeal, Eleanor Roosevelt began serving American wines in the White House, restoring the custom that had prevailed until “Lemonade Lucy,” the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, stopped it in 1877.

Given that the Roosevelt administration was spending massive amounts of money on various “public works” and “make work” projects, it seemed reasonable if a small sum were spent to encourage the nation’s winegrowing industry. Compared to other massive expenditures on Roosevelt’s projects, agricultural help for the vineyards was an insignificant amount. The science of winemaking, reports Leon D. Adams, found at least one friend in the Department of Agriculture.

Dr. Rexford Guy Tugwell, a member of Roosevelt’s famed “Brain Trust,” made elaborate plans to restore winegrowing as a nationwide industry. Tugwell, who then was the assistant secretary of agriculture, even favored exempting wine and beer from taxation in order to hold down the consumption of hard liquor. In 1933 he sent the Agriculture Department’s Dr. Charles A. Magoon to Europe to collect the newest wine yeast cultures. At Tugwell’s direction, two complete model wineries were built, one at the Government’s giant agricultural research center in Beltsville, Maryland, and the other at the Meridian, Mississippi, research station which served the southeastern states. Both wineries were fully equipped with crushers, presses, underground vats, and there was a brandy still at Beltsville.

But after a massive investment of taxpayer dollars, Democrat Congressman Clarence Cannon of Missouri organized resistance to government’s wine efforts. Both research locations and their equipped went unused.