Review: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – Daniel Orkent
Last Call is the basis of Ken Burns’s 3-part series on US prohibition of alcohol. A well researched documentation of one of the strangest and long lasting phenomenons in US history. While only a long and agonizing 14 years this constitutional amendment was highly ineffective and even materially damaging in ways that were certainly not predicted. A grand failure of a constitutional amendment.
This book gives an excellent detailing that leads up to the 18th amendment and the subsequent and massive failure of this puritanical overreach. The Anti-Saloon League as well as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union sought to have even at that time a multicultural society abide by a very Protestant movement. The book portrays this naive movement that sought and believed that once alcohol was banned that everyone would be happy with soda and water and nothing more ever again.
The alcoholic beverage industry prior to prohibition was certainly a major contributor to government coffers that once removed from the industrial platform a national income became a necessary replacement.
Prohibition didn’t stop churches or synagogues from celebrating their services with wine nor did it stop vinification of wine grapes for familial consumption. And questionable was the “medicinal alcohol” exception. Operators continue as they did before though supplying slightly less alcohol than before. Where one couldn’t get a medicinal alcohol prescription there were no worries as supply lines were hitting the US shore from nearly any and all directions. If alcohol wasn’t hitting the shore–again no need to worry as there were bootleggers and moonshiners to fill in the gaps within borders.
Breaking of prohibition was a daily task somewhere and everyone for this 14-year period. There was a neglect or uncaring or unconcern to enforce prohibition, considerable corruption, a plethora of organized crime and a considerable loss of revenue for government.
Fourteen years was a long time for this amendment to not be amended sooner. The political will and soon the great depression were extra helpful in ending this prohibition. The witness of ordinary American’s in the violent crime sprees of the twenties and even a slight easing of moralistic views as well as generational shift were also ingredients to the end of Prohibition.
What did result was several generations of American’s who drank less than they did before prohibition. The morality on alcohol has been strong and continues to be today. The US wine industry took a long time to restart and revitalize. You could have bought not too long ago “California Bordeaux” or “California Burgundy” which in any view is showing a culture that didn’t care to call out the proper name of grapes in a bottle of wine. Sometimes there was no vintage marked on a bottle. Prohibition encouraged lesser-valued grapes who could produce large quantities per acre. Today we are in a very different world and viticulture has improved and is examining and thoughtful. Today we live in a world of high quality alcoholic beverages.
Consumers want to know what they are drinking; they want a vintage. They want to know where the grapes in their wine is coming from. These are terribly modern notions. After all we have steadily increased to a consumption rate of over 10 liters per person per year. Doubling in a generation.
Prohibition ends in 1933 starting with the first state to begin this unraveling Michigan and ending interesting in December 5, 1933 with Utah being the last state to call Prohibition a historical oddity.
The story does not end in 1933 and this is where both Burns and Orkent go no further. It is as if the ramifications of the Twenty First amendment was a clean slate. There were some states that took no action on ever repealing prohibition whatsoever: Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota. The Twenty First amendment was a let down in that states, cities, counties, special governments and created wine governing zones as they could do whatever they wanted. And, in fact, that is what all of these governments did–they created 40,000 law, codes and even limited prohibitions. Perhaps the most regulated product categories are wine, beer, spirits, and Sake. Regulation took on “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots” in ever reaching laws.
Here are some examples: in some state exclusives wines of a retailer are illegal (Georgia, Idaho), some states have a mix of wet and dry counties (Texas), government owned liquor stores: Utah and Pennsylvania. Some states in the off-premise world you can have a sale but you can’t advertise. Ohio has a peculiar requirement of 100% total market up from vendor to retailer to consumer. Some special government zones prohibit screw cap wines while next to them are screw cap spirits?! There are so many odd and peculiar laws on the books and little political will to change or incentive.
I was fascinated by Orkent’s description of Joseph P. Kennedy–during the prohibition period and well into the fifities there was no references made that was a bootlegger. Even opponents or detractors had even thought of mentioning it. Kennedy’s father had a liquor business and Kennedy himself had a business in the legal medicinal alcohol and became a large distributor post prohibition. While Kennedy was a wealthy person and the largest portion of his fortune was most likely made in the stock market and secondarily his liquor business. The largest share of fortunes went to Sam Bronfman whose family today are superbly wealthy and those fortunes large made in the once mighty house of Seagrams.
Joseph Kenney was called a bootlegger during his son’s run for president and then some would be self-promoters chimed in saying he was—never mind no one made any mention prior. A curious and lingering tale that I remembered hearing in high school as it was sold as fact.
A public who wants change, congressional bodies who can’t move forward because they are not sure which way the sun rises. The great recession of 2008 help to re-focus some of the strangest laws on the books today. After all, Pennsyvlania couldn’t wean themselves off the bottle as there was no political will to do so. Washington State finally allowing private stores was a coup of sorts. There are many progress points to go.
I’ll never forget one of my many visits to Napa a couple were visiting from Kansas trying to make a wine purchase to ship and they were told “we can’t ship to Kansas.” “Okay ship to my office in Missouri” was the solution.
Recently, I saw a news article from Florida noting the state legislator approved wine kegs–a micromanagement of state legislators on these items scream out that they have must have more important business to attend to?
There is more to come in this still shadow of post-prohibition that we live under. It will take a while to chip away at some of the more absurd 40,000 regulations. Perhaps the absurdity of some of the laws on the books will be ignored as a need to not enforce the ridicuous.
I lived the nearly 40,000 laws in my former life as a wine marketing manager at a multi-state retailer. A great education and a great soberer as well. I tend to be optimist and a considerable portion of dismantling will happen sooner or later. Stay tuned for another book on how ridiculous post-prohibition has been when it was thought of as being a liberating period.
This is a brief and engaging and well-written book. Orkent writes a great and true account of something that has been accepted as a footnote in history. I like the depth and coverage and would only wish the post-prohibition would have been more detailed, lengthy and analytical. I have no regrets reading this book and recommend this read.
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
Read more of my wine reviews:
© 2013 James Meléndez / Jaime Patricio Meléndez / James the Wine Guy— All Rights Reserved. James the Wine Guy also on Facebook, Twitter and most major social medias.