Documentary illustrates how vintners survived Prohibition

The unique stories of America’s wine families and leaders come to light in “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” a documentary about the history of California’s wine industry screening Thursday at the California Historical Society,

The Wente, Foppiano and Gallo families are highlighted amid rare footage and interviews with historians, industry experts and legendary figures including Brother Timothy and Robert Mondavi.

Directed, produced and written by former CNN producer Carla De Luca Worfolk for UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, the documentary is a remarkable story of optimism, perseverance and entrepreneurial spirit.

The film includes archival material from California Historical Society collections, along with historic footage and comments from historian Kevin Starr, Thomas Pinney, author of “City of Vines” and UC Davis historian Jim Lapsley. Viticultural attorney James Seff suggested the film, according to California Historical Society Executive Director Anthea Hartig.

“We relish in exploring history through archives and contemporary scholarship, and design our programming as a bridge that connects a broader audience to our exhibitions and vast collections. By telling the story of American wine post-Prohibition, we are providing guests with an opportunity to see our current exhibition, ‘Vintage,’ through a deeper context of wine history. They may drink in the labels with their eyes, but they can savor it even more deeply with the rich context of wine history,” said Hartig.

Worfolk, whose father John De Luca was president of Wine Institute for nearly 30 years, decided to make a film when she attended a private luncheon in 2003 celebrating the 70th anniversary of Prohibition’s repeal hosted by her dad and attended by longtime wine families and industry leaders.

“Knowing that this gathering would be special, he asked if I could record it,” she said.

With roughly a dozen of the honored guests in their 80s and 90s, Worfolk said, “Given their advanced age, time was of the essence” for her to begin her film documenting document personal stories, contributions and reflections of those who built the modern wine industry.

It soon became clear that there had been no other documentary about how the winemakers overcame Prohibition and built their businesses.

“I believed that this undertaking should encompass a larger story, including the influences of scientific discovery, globalization and legal issues. The vintners and growers, most of whom were immigrants running family businesses, never gave up hope that they would succeed. At first, Prohibition was a shock to them. They couldn’t believe this new law would apply to them and their livelihoods. Public abuse of alcohol had also become a big problem. But throughout the ‘dry years,’ many winemakers believed in the certainty of repeal, never losing faith. In fact, they cleverly continued their operations in a variety of ways, just waiting for the day when Prohibition would be lifted … and they were right.”

Worfolk was surprised to discover the magnitude of the home winemaking business during Prohibition.

“It was perfectly legal to make wine at home within certain limits. Those who owned vineyard property capitalized on this. The vineyard acreage in California actually doubled between 1920 and 1925. This was crucial to the industry’s survival, as tons of grapes could be regularly shipped and sold back East. It also kept the emerging American wine culture and traditions alive among immigrants who drank wine with meals.”

Documenting the Prohibition era, Worfolk came to see connections between economics and politics: “Societal events can impact, and even reverse public opinion. They can lead to changes in our laws, just as the Great Depression was a significant factor that influenced repeal. There are always individuals who step forward to galvanize groups to act. The emergence of leadership impacts who is ultimately supported and which ideas are put forward. It also determines how we govern ourselves.”

One of Worfolk’s greatest tasks was determining whom to feature in the film, initially a daunting task. She was aided by food and wine historian Victor Geraci of the Oral History Center in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, who was the historical advisor for the film.

Kimberly Charles, a publicist who works with many California wine legacy families, said, “This documentary presents a multifaceted lens on an industry that in many ways is emblematic of American history. From the story of an immigrant population that shaped a nascent wine industry to enterprising families who persisted through Prohibition keeping their businesses thriving to legislation that was imposed and challenged, it represents a valuable history lesson as told through the voices of those who help shape the business. Carla combines her innate talent as a news producer with a deep understanding of the world of wine to keep history alive and relevant.”

Worfolk said it was “fascinating” to learn more about her father’s time in the industry: “I had the great fortune of knowing all of my grandparents and one set of great-grandparents. Four of them were Italian immigrants who became U.S. citizens. They always saw life in terms of what is possible. They worked extremely hard and truly believed in the American dream. Over the years, they realized their goals and they succeeded. I couldn’t have had better role models.”

America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition
Where: California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., S.F.
When: 6 p.m. March 16
Tickets: Free

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