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Two new books explore wine bootlegging during Prohibition 

Wednesday, Jul 1 2009

While waiting for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's bill to legalize pot to actually become meaningful to you, why not undertake a comprehensive, compelling survey of 14 turbulent years of misguided American social engineering? Put another way: If you have enough leisure time in this economy to read one book about California's wine industry during Prohibition, you have time to read two.

And in fact, Richard Mendelson's From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America and Vivienne Sosnowski's When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country are particularly complementary. That's not just because Mendelson's scholarly survey offers a broader legal and historical context for Sosnowski's more locally focused yarn, but because the writers' respective styles alleviate each other's excesses. For instance, there aren't many better ways to sober up after a pastoral page and a half of Sosnowski's rhapsodic scene-setting — "thousands of prune trees with pale blossoms looked like so many ballerinas twirling in frothy tulle" — than with Mendelson's conscientious pragmatism: "In California, the ban on the sale of spirits by the drink, contained in Section 22 of the California Constitution ..." Yes, these two companionable tomes add much to the literature of well-researched wine geekery. By all means read them both, not consecutively but concurrently, and with a glass, bottle, or case of something special at the ready.

Sosnowski's book, which spotlights several firsthand family histories, is a willful act of regionalism. It's premised on her correct presumption that there should be more to the provincial lore of Prohibition than the familiar characters and settings of the legislative halls of Washington, D.C., and the speakeasies of New York and Chicago. So she turns to the immigrant winemaking families of Napa and Sonoma counties, whose still-new American beginnings were strenuously tested starting in 1919, when — with moral support of sorts from San Francisco's thirsty citizenry — they became outlaws in order to protect their culture and livelihoods.

One example: "Cuneo's father always polished and cleaned the family Dodge for the long brandy run. Then his mother and father would dress in their best clothes, hide the brandy under a picnic basket in the backseat, and head south. They always tried to catch the 3 p.m. ferry, making it appear that they were heading to the opera or a night out in the city."

With a surplus of good stories, Sosnowski can't help but romanticize her central players, and her prose eventually, although forgivably, becomes purple. "A winemaker is extrasensory," she declares in the last chapter. "Like a great lover who understands a partner's wishes by the tiniest flutter of an eyelid, a winemaker can recognize the health of an entire vineyard with a glance, the scent on a breeze, the color of a leaf, the way a vine hangs, the way it moves." It goes on like this, working up our winemaker into an ecstasy of feeling "virile and energized and pulsating with pleasure." Okay, sure, let's open another one, but first, would somebody please take her keys?

Meanwhile Mendelson, probably as much an expert on our "hopelessly complex" wine law as one person can be, has his moments of hero worship, too, but with characteristic circumspection. As he puts it, "This country established an authentic wine culture from scratch in a single generation." His book's task, well accomplished, is to explain what a feat that was. His approving summary of the Mondavian philosophy — "to make world-class table wines and to associate those wines with the land, food, and the arts" —rightly seems like a giant, civilizing leap from what Sosnowski calls "a river of booze flowing into San Francisco from the wine counties." Cheers to that.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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