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When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country

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When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors—fou When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors—found ways to stonewall the intruding authorities. For the state's winemaking families—many of them immigrants from Italy—surviving Prohibition meant facing a crucial decision—give up their idyllic way of life, or break the law to enable their livelihood to survive. Sosnowski's intimate history provides us with a new view into Prohibition America, away from the flappers and speakeasys of Chicago and New York, and into the lovely hills and valleys of wine country, where families hid vintages and prayed for the days when they could resume the craft that they loved. When the Rivers Ran Red tells of the extraordinary adventures of the stalwart efforts of immigrant families—the Seghesios, the Foppianos, the Nichelinis and the Cuneos—who saved one of America's most beloved traditions.


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When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors—fou When Prohibition took effect in 1920, only a few months after one of the greatest California grape harvests of all time, violence and chaos descended on Northern California. Federal agents spilled thousands of gallons of wine in the rivers and creeks, gun battles erupted on dark country roads, and local law enforcement officers—sympathetic to their winemaking neighbors—found ways to stonewall the intruding authorities. For the state's winemaking families—many of them immigrants from Italy—surviving Prohibition meant facing a crucial decision—give up their idyllic way of life, or break the law to enable their livelihood to survive. Sosnowski's intimate history provides us with a new view into Prohibition America, away from the flappers and speakeasys of Chicago and New York, and into the lovely hills and valleys of wine country, where families hid vintages and prayed for the days when they could resume the craft that they loved. When the Rivers Ran Red tells of the extraordinary adventures of the stalwart efforts of immigrant families—the Seghesios, the Foppianos, the Nichelinis and the Cuneos—who saved one of America's most beloved traditions.

30 review for When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nancy Loe

    Earnest, but plodding. One of those writers that thinks every noun has to have an adjective to keep it company.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Virginia Boylan

    A well-told history of the Northern California wine country and what happened to the industry and its people during Prohibition. Full of interesting details about the people on both sides of the issue, with a sympathetic bias toward the wine industry. She had me caring about these people.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bob H

    Vivienne Sosnowski's love of her craft and her subjects - here, the winemakers' trade, the winegrowing counties of Sonoma and Napa, and their struggle with Prohibition - makes this a work of well-crafted history. She has obviously delved deeply into local periodical archives, U.S. government files, and court records, but has also sought out and captured oral accounts from those who lived this period. It's also an unusual angle on Prohibition, the story of its cruel impact on a region far from the Vivienne Sosnowski's love of her craft and her subjects - here, the winemakers' trade, the winegrowing counties of Sonoma and Napa, and their struggle with Prohibition - makes this a work of well-crafted history. She has obviously delved deeply into local periodical archives, U.S. government files, and court records, but has also sought out and captured oral accounts from those who lived this period. It's also an unusual angle on Prohibition, the story of its cruel impact on a region far from the bootleggers and gangsters of New York or Chicago, an impact on people, usually immigrants, who had built an industry in a beautiful corner of California, and built it on a love of wine and its creation. We see how they tried to adapt during the 14 years of the 18th Amendment, with its regime of permits and revenue agents snooping about, of wine storage permits and wine, rivers of it, dumped by the agents when the wine was deemed too aged. We read of wine turned into grappa or other harder beverages simply because the farm families needed to retrieve money from their years of hard work on the vintage. We read of a surprising loophole in Prohibition law, allowing for home-made wine up to 200 gallons, which caused the winemakers to try and market and sell their grapes directly, though bottlenecks in railroads and East Coast markets would create a nasty boom-and-bust cycle. We learn about the medicinal- and sacramental-wine exceptions and the wink-wink trade that engendered. We also learn how public morality and hypocrisy are two sides of the same coin. The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act created an enforcement bureaucracy that was by turns high-handed, corruptible, inefficient, arbitrary. The book shows just how much it distorted American commerce: not just the winemakers but the railroads, the barrel and bottle industries, the table- and raisin-grape growers, and, ultimately, foreign wine-making nations like Australia, which gained considerably during this time, while California winemakers stood still. In the end, Prohibition was ultimately repealed because America was in a Depression and needed something, anything, that would stimulate commerce. All of this in prose that's as simple, and as nuanced, as a glass of merlot. We now realize just how much the great winemaking families endured to get to our dinner tables today, for many of the names in the book are on the labels now, with wine we should now savor all the more upon finishing this book. For anyone who loves wine, Northern California's wine country, or U.S. history, this is not to be missed.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Walt

    This is one of the better books I have read regarding Prohibition. Sosnowski does an excellent job in placing local history into the broader national history. Her details make for an interesting read. For those interested in local history, one should be familiar with different types of grapes and wines. Fortunately, she does not distract from the story too much in discussing these subtle differences. Her analysis of how the different owners reacted to Prohibition was very interesting. I would ha This is one of the better books I have read regarding Prohibition. Sosnowski does an excellent job in placing local history into the broader national history. Her details make for an interesting read. For those interested in local history, one should be familiar with different types of grapes and wines. Fortunately, she does not distract from the story too much in discussing these subtle differences. Her analysis of how the different owners reacted to Prohibition was very interesting. I would have liked to see a more scholarly analysis (if possible) of how many sold of their land; how many tried to go legitimate; how many went into bootlegging; etc. Of course, such scholarly data would bore and distract many readers. She writes in a clear, easy-to-follow style that has many logical stopping points for readers to pause and digest. She is original in using oral histories to describe bootlegging. Many authors have consulted stories from the rum runners themselves. Several authors have recently written exciting stories of their fore bearers smuggling liquor here and there. Sosnowski is different in that she describes the number of people to work stills of different sizes. Another source talked about rail cars full of corn sugar needed for mash. It is fascinating to read about such "everyday history." She makes excellent use of her sources. Her main sources appear to be the oral histories, while she uses newspapers to augment them. While she does not go into depth about her sources, she seems to use the newspapers sparingly, mindful that yellow journalism was still alive and well at that time. Most of her newspaper references correspond with statements by politicians or trade associations, so there is little controversy over the accuracy of these sources. Then she blends them into the national discourse in language as easy to understand as the more popular books on Prohibition by Behr, Okrent, and Asbury. Recommended to those interested in Prohibition in general.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    It's difficult to imagine that the American politic would enact something as destructive as Prohibition; difficult until one examines today's political atmosphere and sees the parallels. "When the Rivers Ran Red" focuses on the wine makers of Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California, but its story of the Prohibition years is instructive for today, as well as crisply presented. I found it especially interesting how lawmakers provided loopholes in the amendment and subsequent laws that allow It's difficult to imagine that the American politic would enact something as destructive as Prohibition; difficult until one examines today's political atmosphere and sees the parallels. "When the Rivers Ran Red" focuses on the wine makers of Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California, but its story of the Prohibition years is instructive for today, as well as crisply presented. I found it especially interesting how lawmakers provided loopholes in the amendment and subsequent laws that allowed for limited personal consumption and production of wine, which always kept demand alive. But what was really interesting was how, after years of Prohibition and gang violence and wrecked families, despite the mounting evidence that prohibition itself was the cause of the lawlessness and violence that the Drys prevailed still and pressed on with their policy despite its obvious failure. The author, Vivienne Sosnowski, writes: "While this wave of crime had been washing through every corner of the wine counties, grape growers and winemakers had also been living with the dire news from Washington that the Wickersham Commission had recommended that the Dry laws should remain as they were." People were stunned that this commission could conclude that corruption was endemic because of Prohibition, that "special-interest Dry groups had completely hijacked the country's court system," and yet still bow down to pressure from the Dry groups who staunchly believed that Prohibition was actually working! So much like today with powerful, yet minority fringe elements of the Republican Party who pressure policy makers to follow their edicts rather than work productively toward sound legislation. And so much like the present day prohibition against certain drugs. A good read about a strange and dark chapter in our history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    J.S.

    Vivienne Sosnowski has done an excellent job of pulling together a lot of facts and figures surrounding California wine country and the struggle it faced during the Prohibition years. Those in favor of Prohibition were called Dry's and those against were called Wet's. And unfortunately for those wine makers and grape growers in Napa and Sonoma counties, Prohibition had a direct impact on their livelihood - a livelihood which in some cases had been in their family for a generation or so. But wher Vivienne Sosnowski has done an excellent job of pulling together a lot of facts and figures surrounding California wine country and the struggle it faced during the Prohibition years. Those in favor of Prohibition were called Dry's and those against were called Wet's. And unfortunately for those wine makers and grape growers in Napa and Sonoma counties, Prohibition had a direct impact on their livelihood - a livelihood which in some cases had been in their family for a generation or so. But where the book is good on facts and figures, it stumbles in making those facts come to life. Ms. Sosnowski has numbers for lots of things: number of election votes cast by county, wages paid for every single position within the Prohibition Department, number of tons of grapes shipped, etc. That kind of information would be invaluable if you're doing research, but it doesn't make for a very readable history. In fact, the moments when the book shines are when she's relating the personal stories of those who lived the times. Unfortunately, those narratives are short and clipped and never really put much of a face on the people. I was also disappointed that the social forces surrounding the Prohibition era weren't explained a little better. It was dealt with in such a cursory manner that the information felt incomplete. Also, the book calls it a "heroic struggle" against Prohibition - which seemed quite a stretch, especially when so many were making even more money selling grapes or becoming bootleggers (even wearing "silk suits" as was stated at one point). But all that talk about the boon Prohibition was in the beginning left a wide disconnect with the struggles briefly mentioned at the end. There's some interesting information here, but it's pretty dry (pun intended) and falls short in doing justice to the beautiful region and it's traditions.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mir

    Most Americans think about Prohibition from the point of view of consumers or, influenced by popular culture's obsession with gangsters, as a struggle between smugglers and G-men. Those not from one of the few old wine-producing regions of the country probably have never imagined the effect the 18th Amendment had on those whose livelihoods depended on wine. Sosnowski opens with a moving scene -- the Foppiano family watching as federal agents poured out 140,000 gallons of wine, representing years Most Americans think about Prohibition from the point of view of consumers or, influenced by popular culture's obsession with gangsters, as a struggle between smugglers and G-men. Those not from one of the few old wine-producing regions of the country probably have never imagined the effect the 18th Amendment had on those whose livelihoods depended on wine. Sosnowski opens with a moving scene -- the Foppiano family watching as federal agents poured out 140,000 gallons of wine, representing years of labor and financial investment. Almost all wineries in the 19th and early 20th centuries were family business, and many of them disappeared completely. The majority of vineyards were torn out and some older grape varietals were lost. Even after Prohibition ended, it took years for California's wine industry to recover. This is familiar territory for me, but for someone being introduced to this history for the first time, the fascinating story and individuals might be a lost in the deluge of names and dates with which Sosnowski floods the first chapters. The prose also leaves a bit to be desired , not terrible but larded with repetitions of more, so, far, mostly and other bland modifiers, the same ones recurring in sentence after sentence. Sosnowski's career was in editorial journalism, and while the affection for the subject which inspired her to try her hand at writing shines though, it does not entirely make up for the deficiencies in style. I would recommend this book primarily to those with particular interest in wine or California history, and ideally some prior knowledge of both.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    This book has everything I love... Wine, California, Politics, California Wine, Crime & Corruption, Intrigue, More wine, History, Great Characters, and Bootleggers. If you're into any two of those topics, this is a must read. Parts of the book are excellent. I learned plenty about the prohibition era, California wine pioneers, local history, and more. Other parts suffered from a lack of good editing. Sentences that seemed to be missing a subject, or a clear direction. Sections that started to drag This book has everything I love... Wine, California, Politics, California Wine, Crime & Corruption, Intrigue, More wine, History, Great Characters, and Bootleggers. If you're into any two of those topics, this is a must read. Parts of the book are excellent. I learned plenty about the prohibition era, California wine pioneers, local history, and more. Other parts suffered from a lack of good editing. Sentences that seemed to be missing a subject, or a clear direction. Sections that started to drag, despite my interest in the subjects. If you're only mildly interested in learning how Napa and Sonoma Counties survived prohibition, the editing problems might get you to drop the book before you get too far into it. But, if you regularly pass through California's wine country and find yourself not simply tasting the wines, but having in-depth conversations with the wine makers, if you can tell the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet in a blind tasting, or if you love tales of political corruption and historic mistakes, then you will likely find this a rewarding read - despite editing problems.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tonari

    This book explores Prohibition and its effect on the American society, focusing on the impact it had on the rising California Wine Industry. It's quite an interesting topic not much known in Italy due to its geographical distance, but in a way relevant to italian history since the majority of California wineries of the time was run by italian immigrants. I found it very entertaining at the beginning, the author has a quite dry style, but she tries to dramatize the account and give the reader a tr This book explores Prohibition and its effect on the American society, focusing on the impact it had on the rising California Wine Industry. It's quite an interesting topic not much known in Italy due to its geographical distance, but in a way relevant to italian history since the majority of California wineries of the time was run by italian immigrants. I found it very entertaining at the beginning, the author has a quite dry style, but she tries to dramatize the account and give the reader a true feeling of Napa Valley and Sonoma areas of those years. However in the second half the book become more and more difficult to read: probably it's my lack of knowledge of American history, but for me it was really difficult to follow all the names, dates, laws cited by the author. Figures and datas mixed in my head and I had to struggle a lot to finish the book, which toward the end becomes quite boring. Anyway a decent read if you have interest in wine.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Leisa

    this is a really badly written book on an interesting topic with a lot of info. it's written like a high school research paper. you an tell the writer just stitched together the info in various research articles. her writing style and vocab changed as she moved from resource to resource (these were red flags when i was a teacher grading papers). i'd be surprised if this thing couldn't pass a trip through copyright infringement software- my guess is that .any sentences were minimally altered. i d this is a really badly written book on an interesting topic with a lot of info. it's written like a high school research paper. you an tell the writer just stitched together the info in various research articles. her writing style and vocab changed as she moved from resource to resource (these were red flags when i was a teacher grading papers). i'd be surprised if this thing couldn't pass a trip through copyright infringement software- my guess is that .any sentences were minimally altered. i don't have any proof, that's just how it felt. still it was worth reading if you're interested in wine and/or prohibition history. it highlighted details about prohibition in the wine regions that are very different than the general info about that time.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kara

    Although the 70’s is when California wines got their big start into the greater world California has actually been making wine for decades. One of the biggest obstacles they had to face was Prohibition. In When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country we hear the story of the families that struggled to make a start, that fought to keep it going despite their future running down stream, and ultimately surviving and giving us wine so wonderfully made an Although the 70’s is when California wines got their big start into the greater world California has actually been making wine for decades. One of the biggest obstacles they had to face was Prohibition. In When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country we hear the story of the families that struggled to make a start, that fought to keep it going despite their future running down stream, and ultimately surviving and giving us wine so wonderfully made and easily available. *Also posted to www.shelftalk.spl.org

  12. 5 out of 5

    Denise

    Definitely a book for those who have lived in Wine Country. The author delicately illustrates how Napa and Sonoma Valley used to look prior to the 1970s when the industry really grew. I thought it was interesting because I lived there and can imagine the day-to-day life stories that were explained in the book. Plus, it paints a very different picture of Prohibition than taught in history classes. I really enjoyed this book, but then again - I like history and I like wine.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    Interesting premise, but writing style did not hold my attention. Went back and forth between historical facts about Prohibition and how it affected California's wine industry and accounts from those growing up during that time. The excerpts from interviews and stories of the vineyard owners were really interesting, but short and then the book would go back to more facts about the era. Some authors can use history to really tell a story (or stories) but this reads more like a textbook. Interesting premise, but writing style did not hold my attention. Went back and forth between historical facts about Prohibition and how it affected California's wine industry and accounts from those growing up during that time. The excerpts from interviews and stories of the vineyard owners were really interesting, but short and then the book would go back to more facts about the era. Some authors can use history to really tell a story (or stories) but this reads more like a textbook.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ed Eleazer

    When the Rivers Ran Dry presents a fascinating view of all that happened to vintners in California during Prohibition. The book is not as interesting as an episode of Boardwalk Empire unfortunately, but then again it does not set out to be. Sosnowski gives us a solid, concise slice of history — well documented and despite what others have said, one that is quite well edited.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Burchfield

    " When The Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosniski (Palgrave MacMillan), published the old-fashioned way, was much more coherent and pleasurable. Read the rest of my review of this book at my web page, "A Curious Man:" http://tbdeluxe.blogspot.com/2011/10/... Thanks! " When The Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America's Wine Country by Vivienne Sosniski (Palgrave MacMillan), published the old-fashioned way, was much more coherent and pleasurable. Read the rest of my review of this book at my web page, "A Curious Man:" http://tbdeluxe.blogspot.com/2011/10/... Thanks!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Perhaps not as engaging as Erik Larson's works, Sosnowski provides an solid historical account of the politics of prohibition and the lives of those Napa farming families who survived it. This is a worthy read and valuable historically with its many references to original sources. Perhaps not as engaging as Erik Larson's works, Sosnowski provides an solid historical account of the politics of prohibition and the lives of those Napa farming families who survived it. This is a worthy read and valuable historically with its many references to original sources.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ocean

    Not a fan of this book, reads a little too much like a history text book. There were parts that were okay and it was interesting to read the ins and outs of prohibition, but it just didn't hold my attention. Not a fan of this book, reads a little too much like a history text book. There were parts that were okay and it was interesting to read the ins and outs of prohibition, but it just didn't hold my attention.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I enjoyed the book although there could have been better copy editing in the Kindle version. The stories of how the vintners dealt with prohibition were interesting, if a little repetitive. There was history here that I hadn't read previously. I enjoyed the book although there could have been better copy editing in the Kindle version. The stories of how the vintners dealt with prohibition were interesting, if a little repetitive. There was history here that I hadn't read previously.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    Very interesting true story of the Prohibition years 1920 to 1933....13 years of no wine making in the U.S. Havoc was caused, all because of the Government. I'm not one for history stories, but this captured me. Maybe beacause of the subject matter. CHEERS. Very interesting true story of the Prohibition years 1920 to 1933....13 years of no wine making in the U.S. Havoc was caused, all because of the Government. I'm not one for history stories, but this captured me. Maybe beacause of the subject matter. CHEERS.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    A bit slow...interesting, but just not my cup of tea....

  21. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Gaughan

    Repetitive, badly edited, and rather one-sided, the book nevertheless provides a nice overview of the wine - or more to the point the grape-growing - industry during Prohibition.

  22. 5 out of 5

    William M

    Excellent look into the wine business in the greater San Francisco Bay Area before, during, and after prohibition. A great starter book into the history of the California wine industry.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    Fascinating reading about the effects of prohibition on Napa and Sonoma Valley vineyards and growers.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Vikki

    Interesting to read about the history and impact of prohibition in No. California. Covers politics and policy, and personal stories from the people it impacted.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Valerie

    Almost done!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cathy

    Read for book club. Would never have chosen it but did find the history interesting. Very repetitive and overly detailed.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    Well researched, fascinating book!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mark Levine

    Unbelievable.A good idea for a short essay.Poorly written,ridiculous editing, apparently no proof reading,biased story telling ,short sighted narrow research.A complete waste of time.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mimi

    tells a sad but courageous story of how vintners survived during prohibition, writing is so-so.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nicole LaFave

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