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'When the Rivers Ran Red' recalls Prohibition's effect on wine country

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Rivers and creeks overflowing with wine -- was it a biblical sign of the end of the world or time for a free drink?

This singular image kept coming up as Vivienne Sosnowski talked to the elder members of Northern California wine-making families -- many in their late 90s -- about life after Prohibition took effect in 1920. And it's the image that inspired the title of her book "When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country" (Macmillan: 256 pp., $26.95).

"When I read how the dumped wine killed plants and orchards, and how fish died, it just boggled my mind," she said in a recent telephone interview.

"When the Rivers Ran Red" casts light on a less-understood aspect of that infamous period in American history -- an era whose familiar images of Prohibition usually don't include its effect on American wineries.

"Until I started this book, when I thought about Prohibition, I thought of Chicago gangsters and machine guns, of barrels of gin getting smashed," said Sosnowski, a former newspaper editorial director. "There was so much that was new and strange here."

"New and strange" certainly applies to one angle Sosnowski's book explores: Briefly, Prohibition turned out to be very profitable for wine-making families. Though it was illegal to sell wine, Sosnowski explained that the ban didn't prohibit the sale of wine grapes -- and wine-making families saw the price of grapes increase as demand spread across the nation. At one point, she said the price per ton skyrocketed from $5 to $250. Oversupply and the growing Depression, however, "caused this wonderful bubble to implode . . . for everyone," she said. She described an ugly feud during that brief time of profitability that developed between the wine-making families and the Central Valley's raisin growers, many of whom decided to plant wine grapes.

Sosnowski supplemented her interviews with reports from the newspapers of the day but it was the interviews that provided the most poignant moments. Heartbreaking for her were the stories of the families finding their vats padlocked -- "this was their lives' work" -- and being forced to pay an annual bond to keep the vats (even though they knew the wine would go bad if it wasn't bottled). When paying the bonds became too expensive, and when it was clear that the wines were reaching the end of their cycles, the federal agents were usually called in. Then, they opened the valves.

"This was the solution they came up with," she said. "A miniature ecological disaster."

Locals along the Russian River didn't know what to make of it. Sosnowski's account of these dumpings also includes unexpected moments of humor -- albeit dark ones -- as the families watched their work going literally down the drain. There were, for example, some very shrewd spectators in the astonished crowds who witnessed the streams of flowing wine.

"They didn't waste any time," she said. "They rounded up as many empty olive oil tins and other containers as they could find."

Though it's easy to be cynical about these people's actions, Sosnowski tends to be more optimistic.

"At least not everything went entirely to waste," she said. "They made the best of an otherwise tragic situation."

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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