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The Anniversary of Prohibition's Repeal is on Dec. 5: Let's Check in on the State Of the (Booze) Nation

Sign outside the historic Simi Winery
Sign outside the historic Simi Winery

The Swill’s Courtney Cochran – Hip Tastes book and blog scribe and sommelier about town - weighs in on Prohibition-era intrigue and the generally awkward state of booze regulations in the U.S. of A. Pour yourself a drink; this is gonna be rough.

[Photo: Flickr/Courtney Cochran] 135th Anniversary Celebration at Simi Winery

It’s a big year for Prohibition. To say nothing of the wellspring of speakeasy-style bars that now peppers the drinks landscape in every major U.S. city, the year’s seen the debut of a PBS documentary series on the topic in addition to a potpourri of other news coverage. With the 78th anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal approaching December 5, we thought it a good time to check in on the status of this supposedly free-drinking era we live in. Considering Healdsburg's Simi Winery was one of the few to survive Prohibition, its recent celebration of 135 years makes sense as a jumping-off point for delving deep into the movement's history and aftermath. Turns out we’re not nearly as far from the drudgeries of the Volstead Act as we ought to be.

1) Before 1920, some 256 wineries operated in Sonoma County. By the time the Eighteenth Amendment was finally repealed in 1933, fewer than 50 remained. Survivor Simi Winery commemorated its Prohibition-Era savvy this month with an over-the-top celebration at the winery. Pairing wines dating to 1935 with chef Eric Lee's outstanding 24-hour-brined Berkshire pork loin, Simi pulled out all the stops for an audience that included Wine Bible maven Karen MacNeil. The winery may have made it through Prohibition by soberly selling off vineyards and producing wine for sacramental purposes, but its 135th soirée was anything but restrained.

2) When the affair wrapped up with local cheeses and a 1933 Port that invoked candied quince, anise, and caramel graham cracker—as well as the year Prohibition ended—there was nary a sober reveler in the room.

3) Simi’s story is a shining light in an otherwise dark tale of misapplied morality and unnecessary restrictions to businesses and consumers alike. Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns illuminates the devastating side of Prohibition along with the romanticized speakeasy culture so famous from the era in PBS’ Prohibition doc, which aired this fall. Mutineer Magazine caught up with Mr. Burns at a screening in Seattle, where he shared: “As much as we glamorize the era, people died. It was a very serious thing. We have organized crime in this country because of Prohibition.” The six-hour special delves further into gangsters, “drunkenness,” corruption and the flight of skilled bartenders. Catch it here.

4) Washington has for many years been one of our country's 20 remaining post-Prohibition holdout "control states" in which the state handles the sale of some or all beer, wine and liquor. Washington-based Costco just spent an estimated $20 million to push through legislation that ends the state's monopoly on liquor sales, effective December 8. Privately owned, licensed retailers in Washington can now sell booze, but—here’s the catch —only in stores that are 10,000 square feet or larger, such as Costco and its big-box brethren.

5) The ruling goes to show how “victories” such as this one are often just half-steps towards improvement. Washington consumers, you’ve now got more options for buying booze, but not as many as you should have. For now, those in the 19 remaining control states are SOL.

6) In an era when you can have everything from porn to prescription meds shipped right to your home, fully twelve of our 50 states do not allow inbound wine shipments from wineries. Though debilitating, these stats are a vast improvement from 25 years ago, when only four states allowed wineries to ship to their inhabitants. Why the restrictions? At the close of Prohibition, the 21st Amendment made an exception to the interstate Commerce Clause, ruling that each state could decide to permit or not to permit cross-border shipments of booze. Though intense industry lobbying and a 2005 Supreme Court ruling have eased the way for consumer rights with respect to wine shipments, the road remains fraught with hurdles, often organized by powerful liquor distributors, who benefit from restrictions on direct shipping. Are you a small winery trying to grow your business – and pay your bills – by shipping to some folks in, say, Pennsylvania? There's still a long way to go.

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