A Winemaker’s Perspective on Prohibition
By Marcia Phelan,
Community Interest Staff Reporter, San Francisco Daily Journal
September 18, 1926
Since the Eighteenth Amendment passed seven years ago, the winemakers of California have faired poorly. My aching bones faired just as poorly after sixty miles of rough Sonoma County road brought me to my first stop on a tour of some of California’s now defunct wineries. The scenic Kaštel Estate Winery, and its winemaker Andre Maras, have weathered prohibition by producing sacramental wine and table grapes.
I was led to Maras’s office, deep in the recesses of the wine cellar.
“A lady reporter?” he asked, upon seeing me.
“I’ve been called worse.” For some reason, I had expected him to be older, but he was rather strapping and I was awfully glad he noticed my sex. I offered him my hand. “Marcia Phelan. We lady reporters get assigned all the biggest stories.”
He chuckled, shook my hand, and showed me to a stiff looking chair. Ledgers and papers littered his desk. From the cluttered and cozy appearance of the office, I would venture he rarely leaves the place. And yet, Maras is a veritable bear of a man whose stature testifies to many hours spent in the vineyards. If only a few more of San Francisco’s bachelors were so well built.
He settled himself in the chair opposite me, his posture imposing, his distinctly Mediterranean features stern. “Mr. Maras, how long has the Kaštel Estate been producing wine?”
“My family purchased the land in the mid-nineteenth century.”
“While most California wines are considered inferior, before Prohibition yours were said to match European quality. To what do you attribute this?”
“My family has a very long tradition of winemaking in Croatia. Without belittling my neighbors, it is fair to say they are amateurs compared to the Maras lineage.”
Though his words were prideful, he said them so neutrally I believe he had no intention of insulting his fellows. Rather, I gathered, he is the type of man who is perpetually self-assured.
“And what of the locale? Is it possible for this region to one day compete with France or Italy as a producer of fine wine?”
“Marcia, that is a question regarding fashion, and I avoid those on principle.”
“Then please let me rephrase it. Given what you know of European wines, is there any reason California’s wines could not rival theirs?”
Impatience flickered on his face, but then he very nearly smiled. “A fair question. In addition to the skill of its maker, the quality of a wine rests on climate, and vines, and soil. Yes, California possesses these resources as abundantly as the winemaking regions of Europe. And, in particular the soil of the Kaštel Estate is remarkable.”
“Did your forbearers choose this location for the soil, then?”
“Indeed. The soil was the primary factor in the purchase of all our lands.”
“Your ancestors are from Croatia?”
“My family originated there, yes. It is a truly magical place.”
“So I did not merely imagine your exotic accent? Did you apprentice there to learn the old country’s traditions?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He flashed a smile surely meant to disguise the evasion.
It worked, and I confess I did not plan the path of inquiry my lips forged next. “Is there a Mrs. Maras?”
His smile vanished. “No. And the subject of this interview is the Eighteenth Amendment.”
“Yes, of course. I do hope you will be frank with me. How worried are you about the financial effects of prohibition on your enterprise?”
“Not at all.” He brushed his hand across his desk dismissively.
“Truly? Surely your profits are down. Many wineries have already folded.”
“Miss. And Marcia, please.”
“Fine. Marcia, I have very little to say, other than this. I take the long view. Since before mankind domesticated grain, he has been fermenting alcohol. The pleasure of a drink is a basic human necessity. I am absolutely certain this nonsense will end soon.”
I found his equanimity stunning, and, apparently, he had nothing more to say. He made stilted chitchat, while serving a plate of fruit and cheese, but of course, no accompanying glass of wine. I expect to find his fellow winemakers far less stoic. You can discover if my prediction is correct in the next installment of this series, to be printed next Tuesday.
Amber is addicted to vampire stories, but loves to read all kinds of romance and literature. Her favorite books examine history and cultural origins, like Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, or Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. And, yes, she was named after that Amber, of the classic romance novel Forever Amber.
From the wine country of Sonoma County to the foggy neighborhoods of San Francisco, all of Amber’s fiction is set in Northern California, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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