Industry expert: “The legacy of Repeal still hurts wineries by giving regulatory power to the states.”

One hundred years ago, the 18th amendment went into effect, and it changed the way of life for generations in Yates County and the Finger Lakes area.

An announcement in the Jan. 16, 1920 edition of the Penn Yan Democrat proclaimed:

“Today marks the beginning of a new epoch in the United States, it being the date on which the 18th amendment to the Federal Constitution goes into effect. This amendment abolishes the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcoholic beverages in all parts of the United States. While the country has been practically dry for some months under the war-time prohibition act, the enforcement has been much more lax than it will be from now on.”

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, But not before having a huge impact economically and socially in an area that had been teeming with grape growing and wine production. Wine production to meet sacramental needs continued during Prohibition, but it took years to rebuild the industry to pre-Repeal stature.

Jim Trezise of Penn Yan, president of Wine America, and former president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, says Prohibition was a disaster in so many ways.

“The ‘Noble Experiment’ was a complete disaster, and unfortunately lives on today in certain ways,” he says, adding, “This failed attempt to legislate behavior led to an underground economy run by criminals, while hard-working grape growers and winemakers were put out of business. The previously thriving grape-based economy around Keuka Lake disappeared for decades — until smart public policy led to a renaissance. But the legacy of Repeal still hurts wineries nationwide by giving regulatory power to the states — which means small family-operated businesses essentially have to deal with 50 different countries. We at WineAmerica are working to improve the business climate for American wineries, and there’s a lot of work to do.”

According to a 2017 study commissioned by Wine America, the wine industry has a $13.8 billion impact on the New York state economy, generating more than $2 billion in federal and state taxes from 450 wineries.

The study also determined that the industry is responsible for 62,450 jobs in New York, and attracting nearly 1.4 million tourists to the state annually.

The seeds of Prohibition were actually sewn in the 1600s when the Colony of Maryland passed the first law punishing drunkards.

From 1805 to 1919 the battle between the wet and dry elements waged vigorously and incessantly, first in townships, second in municipalities, next in the state itself, and finally as a national issue.

The first statewide prohibition measure became effective in 1861 in Maine, and other states followed suit. By 1917, before the U.S. entered World War I, 88% of the U.S. was under no-license and 61% of the people were living in dry territory which they themselves had made dry.

Yates County early Temperance

In Yates County, the Temperance movement got its start when a meeting was held at the Centre School House in Benton on April 18, 1832. While this pre-dates the established wine industry locally, a number of distilleries had been operating here. For a number of years, a tremendous battle of ballots was fought in many of the towns in Yates County every second year over the question of license during elections.

Eventually, Yates County became the first “all dry” county in the Empire State, yet much of the local economy was tied to wine production. That’s why, in late 1919 and early 1920, some unusual news items were reported.

Truckloads held up

Just days before Prohibition took effect, two truckloads of champagne from the Empire State Wine Company of Penn Yan, consigned to Wm. J. Hattmatter, New York, for export, were held up at Herkimer. The trucks were carrying 167 cases of champagne, each case containing a dozen quarts.

The Penn Yan Democrat reported: “The consignment had been started on its way without a sufficient number of revenue stamps attached, and upon the Utica arrival of Mr. A. C. Brooks of the Empire State Wine Company, the matter was straightened out and the joy water was again started on its journey.

“It was known here that the stamps were short, but it was all that could be obtained at the time, and it was intended to follow with another shipment and more stamps the next day. With Jan. 16 only a few days off, it was necessary to act quickly, as practically all of the company’s champagne was sold for export.”

Penn Yan’s thirsty eyes

Back in Penn Yan, the locals could only watch as “hundreds of strangers” came to town to carry away as much product as they could carry.

“Special trains consisting of engine and baggage car were run from Penn Yan after night fall, the Penn Yan-Geneva bus made special trips, motor trucks and horse drawn vehicles were pressed into service, and the big wine stock disappeared with great rapidity. Some who wanted a little port for their stomach’s sake; others with parched lips and swollen tongues, stood by in awed silence while the procession moved away,” reported the Penn Yan Democrat.

The revenuer’s advice

Before Prohibition took hold, a Steuben County newspaper reported:

“This section has been flooded with Hammondsport wine for several days past. The Lake Keuka cellars are said to have been advised by a Federal Commissioner of Internal Revenue that the logical way to unload their huge stocks of wine before Jan. 16, when the Federal Prohibition Amendment goes into effect, would be to charge for the package in which the wine was contained, trusting that the buyer would also leave the money value of the contents where it could easily be found.

“At any rate, all this week, wine has been taken out of the lake country by train loads, by trucks, automobiles and sleighs. The State roads have carried a stream of vehicles like county fair week, notwithstanding the fact that they are badly drifted with snow. On Monday a sleigh load of wine was seized on the premises of Frank Campbell, a Bath banker, by Undersheriff Melvin G. Bundy. The driver of the sleigh stated that the wine was the property of Mr. Campbell and Dr. T. O. Burleson. The load was driven into the undersheriff’s barn for safe keeping, but disappeared before morning.”