Adapted from Concannon, The First 125 Years by Jim Concannon with Tim Patterson
When Prohibition hit in 1920, our family winery had been up and running for decades. Many wine businesses didn’t make it through the tough times, but a small handful of us in Northern California continued to stay in business. How? Sacramental wines.
Because we had already been making altar wine for the Church for 35 years, we were able to keep our equipment working and maintain a limited portion of our distribution network. This helped keep our name and reputation alive. Things were also in our favor because the holy wines weren’t much different from our ordinary wines. The Church’s main request was that they were made entirely from natural grape products, including any brandy or spirits used to fortify the wine. It also had to be sound and stable—if it tasted vinegary, that would deem the mass as invalid.
We produced three types of altar wine. The most popular one was the Angelica, which was basically a white port made from French Colombard and a mix of other white grapes, fortified with grape brandy to 18% alcohol, and aged for four years. (This was actually named one of the “Wines that Changed the Industry” by Wines & Vines magazine.) Our Chateau Concannon, a Sauternes-style sweet wine had about 12% alcohol and 3% sugar. Lastly, there was a Muscat de Frontignan, which was also fortified and sweetly aromatic. These wines were so stable, that we were able to ship them all over the world, including to the Philippines, China, and Rome.
Unfortunately, even though we were producing a good amount of altar wine, it didn’t generate a lot of income—and James Concannon’s brothers and sisters weren’t interested in trying to keep the business going. Eventually, James knew he had to refinance. Luckily, after he married Giovanina Ferrario in 1925, he was able to get a loan from mom’s brother, Uncle Carlo. This allowed him to purchase the interests of his brothers and sisters and take over as the sole proprietor of the winery.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, we had plenty of wine in the tanks ready to go. To get things back into full swing, James put up a circus tent on the lawn in front of the winery and hired 100 men to help with the bottling and labeling. There was a line of trucks that stretched halfway into town hauling the wine away, taking it to the railroad and shipping it by train all over the country. James also sent a boatload (literally) of wine to Seattle, and when it arrived, there was a big celebration with banners saying, “Welcome Concannon.” This got received of press.
Not only were we fully prepared for the end of Prohibition—we were also exceptionally successful. After the repeal, Concannon wines were on fancy restaurant wine lists and in railroad dining cars all over the country. We were also shipping wine in barrels to missionaries in China—and a barrel of wine every year to the Pope.
Years later, James met former altar boys who were introduced to Concannon wine because that’s what the priests had around. Talk about putting the “pro” in prohibition!