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Rare Prohibition ‘grape brick’ that turns into wine on show

A brick of dehydrated grape juice used to surreptitiously make wine in the days of Prohibition has gone on display at a Californian museum, offering a unique insight into American history.

A Vino Sano Grape Brick, used to make wine in the early 20th century in Prohibition America

The Vino Sano Grape Brick, thought to be one of the last few in existence, has been put on display by the Ontario Museum of History & Art, and dates to around 1930.

The chunks of dehydrated grape juice became popular in the early 20th century when the production of wine was banned under Prohibition, with the bricks able to be officially dissolved in water to make grape juice, or unofficially fermented to make wine.

Their production became particular profitable among those winemakers that owned vineyards, but from 16 January 1920 were no longer able to make wine from them.

Many vintners continued to produce table grapes, or tore up their vines to plant another crop, while others hit upon the grape brick in order to continue turning a profit from their vines.

Under the Volstead Act, whose rules regulated Prohibition, grapes could be grown, but only if they were being used for non-alcoholic consumption. Furthermore, if the winemaker sold grapes to someone, aware they were going to use them to make wine, they themselves could be jailed.

It meant that in selling their grape bricks, winemakers had to be able to maintain deniability that their product could be used to produce alcohol. To get around this, winemakers ensured that their grape bricks carried a warning not to leave it in water for too long in case, heaven forbid, it should begin fermenting and turn to wine.

The warning in fact also served as an instruction manual, specifically advising the buyer “not to leave that jug in the cool cupboard for 21 days, or it would turn into wine”.

Vino Sano was one of the biggest producers, but many grape growers profited from their production. For the most part, grape brick producers were able to successfully exploit a loophole in US law, seemingly getting one over on the system. However it wasn’t long before authorities got wise to the ploy and attempted to crack down on the sale of grape bricks.

In August 1927, Vino Sano owner Karl Offer was indicted in San Francisco by anti-alcohol officials who claimed “in most cases they (grape bricks) have been used to make wine,” according to a report by the United Press. However a jury acquitted Offer the following year, along with several other similar cases.

As the end of Prohibition (in 1933) approached, the the law’s motivation to target grape brick producers dwindled, as did demand for the bricks. However their mere existence provides a fascinating insight into the ‘duck and dive’ world of Prohibition America.

One such Vino Sano brick, made by Vino Sano, is now on display at the Ontario Museum of History & Art. Still in its original box, the brick was donated to the museum in 1992 by local vintners René and Barbara Biane, as reported by California‘s Daily Bulletin. 

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