The two curators from the Smithsonian were asking a lot of questions, but Julie Pedroncelli St. John wasn’t taken aback until one of them said, “We’d like some of your stuff.” After more discussion, Pedroncelli Winery, located in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, agreed to donate a copper polenta pot used by St. John’s grandmother, a stencil for marking barrel heads, a grape box used for harvest during the 1950s, and a sign that welcomed visitors to the winery during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
St. John, 53, and her father, Jim Pedroncelli, 81, are scheduled to be at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History this week for events commemorating the 80th anniversary of the end of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933. The events include a public oral history session featuring representatives of California wineries with history extending back to Prohibition or earlier.
Paula Johnson, director of the museum’s Food and Wine History Project, said the events will highlight family owned and operated wineries that survived Prohibition and thrived following repeal. Participating wineries include Gundlach-Bundschu, Pedroncelli, Wente Family Estates, E&J Gallo and Louis M. Martini. (Martini is now owned by Gallo but still run by Mike Martini, Louis’ grandson.) Johnson’s team developed the exhibit FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, which opened last November, and is compiling an extensive oral history of wine in the United States.
These family wineries survive in an industry that sees wineries and brands sold and traded like commodities. Indeed, much has changed in the U.S. wine industry since Repeal. Our palate preferences are different, for starters.
“When my grandfather made his first wines following the repeal of Prohibition, there was a demand for sweet, Port-style wines,” Mike Martini said in an e-mail. “In addition to making these wines to satisfy his customers, Louis M. was always looking ahead and began crafting dry varietal wines. My dad then followed suit and so did others in the Napa Valley, eventually leading to the success of varietal-labeled wines.”
“As a wine region, California is still relatively young,” says Gina Gallo, granddaughter of Julio Gallo. She cites California’s innovation in winemaking technologies and environmental stewardship as examples of the industry leading the world.
These wineries now into their third, fourth, even sixth generations are anomalies in an age when wineries and brands are traded among corporations like poker chips. For Carolyn Wente, whose great-grandfather Carl founded the family winery in Livermore Valley in 1883, that tradition is a strength.
“It’s very exciting to be an authentic brand,” she says. “If we take the consumer’s point of view, there are very few families that are five generations, family owned, who continuously produced wine during Prohibition, and growing all the grapes for the wine they produce.”
Jim Pedroncelli, along with his brother, John Jr., and their children now operates the winery his father, John Sr., bought in 1927 during Prohibition to sell grapes to other immigrants for home winemaking. He professes some bewilderment at the way the wine industry has changed.
“I kind of wonder about all these new labels with colors and critters, without a winery behind the label,” he says. “But it’s the modern way now. We still feel family is our history and we want to continue this way.”
For Jeff Bundschu, some things haven’t changed, such as the view over his vineyards in the southern end of Sonoma Valley along the Mayacamas Mountains. “Aside from a single frost-protecting wind machine, you cannot see another man-made structure despite seeing thousands of acres of southern Sonoma,” he said in an email. “I tell everyone I bring back there that if Jacob Gundlach or Charles Bundschu were in that exact spot 150 years ago they would see virtually the same thing.”
Yet Bundschu, the sixth generation to head his winery, is excited about today’s wine industry. “Barriers for entry are much lower than they used to be,” he says. “Ambition and a little capital, not landed gentry and a lot of capital, are all you need to start a wine brand. As a result there are some incredible wines being made by relative newcomers. As always, the good ones will have staying power, while the others fade away. That’s all the motivation we need to keep moving forward, even as we celebrate the past.”
Jeff Bundschu, Mike Martini, Jim Pedroncelli and Carolyn Wente are scheduled to participate in an oral history forum, “America’s Wine: The Legacy of Prohibition,” on Tuesday, Oct. 22, from 2-4 p.m. at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, Presidential Reception Suite. Admission is free but RSVPs are required, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Post on October 16, 2013.)