Let­ter from Cal­i­for­nia

Karen MacNeil on Cal­i­for­nia’s cannabis in­dus­try

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

CANNABIS DE­LIV­ERED To Your Door in the Napa Val­ley!’ So chirped the sub­ject line of the first email I re­ceived yes­ter­day. A cou­ple of years ago, I might have been sur­prised. But these days, pot talk is ram­pant in Cal­i­for­nia wine coun­try, and not a day goes by that my mostly wine-ori­ented in­box is ‘cannabis free’.

on 1 Jan­uary 2018, recre­ational pot be­came le­gal in Cal­i­for­nia, which ex­pects to reap some $1bil­lion in new tax rev­enues from cannabis this year. In 2017, just over 6.1m kg of pot were legally har­vested in the state. The new laws gov­ern­ing the pro­duc­tion, sale and con­sump­tion of cannabis have been mod­elled on al­co­hol in­dus­try reg­u­la­tions. But the in­ter­sec­tion of weed and wine in Cal­i­for­nia has been both pre­dictable and un­set­tling.

There are now pro­fes­sional sym­posia ad­vis­ing wineries how to deal with cannabis con­sumers. There are also wine and weed som­me­liers who pre­side over wine and weed pair­ing din­ners (the eti­quette, in case you’re in­vited, is sip, puff, bite). of course, a stream of cannabis-in­fused wines have come out too. And to eval­u­ate them, a Weed Wheel has been in­vented, mod­elled on Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel. There’s even a Robert Parker-in­spired cannabis 100-point rat­ing scale.

Then there are some more sober­ing is­sues. A Sonoma win­ery em­ployee re­cently told me that many of its vine­yard work­ers (al­ready scarce thanks to cur­rent US im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy) have switched to tend­ing mar­i­juana be­cause the pay is bet­ter. To en­sure enough work­ers for the last grape har­vest, the win­ery matched the hourly rate paid by pot farms – a fee more than twice what the win­ery had paid just a few years ago. Ex­pect that bot­tle of Pinot Noir to cost more next year.

If it even has Pinot Noir in it. Rebel Coast Win­ery, which made some of the first cannabis-in­fused wine, has now re­leased the first cannabis-in­fused, al­co­hol-free ‘wine’. So you get a wine buzz mi­nus the wine. Chip Forsythe, Rebel Coast co-founder, says the ben­e­fit is: ‘No al­co­hol, no hang­over and best of all, 35 calo­ries per glass.’

The wine in­dus­try is also now fo­cus­ing on cannabis con­sumers. Ac­cord­ing to re­search by BDS An­a­lyt­ics, 72% of US cannabis con­sumers in cannabis-le­gal states also drink al­co­hol. So will a per­cent­age of a con­sumer’s ‘in­tox­i­ca­tion bud­get’ now be spent on cannabis in­stead of Caber­net? Likely so, say ex­perts, who point out that med­i­cally mo­ti­vated, holis­tic health­fo­cused adults with lim­ited in­come may in­creas­ingly opt for pot rather than Pinot. Wine In­dus­try In­sight an­a­lysts pre­dict that the le­gal cannabis market in the US could be worth $23 bil­lion by 2021.

Watch­ing the cannabis ex­plo­sion has been cu­ri­ous, but un­til re­cently I wasn’t af­fected. Then I found my­self walk­ing into a win­ery to meet the wine­maker. As I rounded the cor­ner, a haze of mar­i­juana smoke en­gulfed me. For a minute I was lost in fond mem­o­ries of col­lege. But hav­ing a nose full of weed aroma is, alas, not con­ducive to tast­ing Caber­nets. Ev­ery wine smelled ‘green’. (Smok­ing cannabis in an open pub­lic place is il­le­gal in Cal­i­for­nia, but I guess no one told these tast­ing room vis­i­tors.)

Per­haps this is some­thing that the new Napa Val­ley Cannabis As­so­ci­a­tion could take up. Com­pris­ing vint­ners, vine­yard own­ers and wine in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als (Robert Mon­davi Jr is a board mem­ber), the group en­vi­sions a fu­ture with the Napa Val­ley known for cannabis as well as wine. The as­so­ci­a­tion hopes to lay the le­gal ground­work for com­mer­cial cannabis pro­duc­tion in Napa as early as the 2019 grow­ing sea­son.

I asked Mon­davi Jr why he thinks cannabis will be good for Napa. ‘Com­mer­cially pro­duced cannabis must by law be grown un­der strict en­vi­ron­men­tal and or­ganic stan­dards,’ he said. ‘There’s zero tol­er­ance for pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides. So if and when cannabis is grown in the Napa Val­ley, I be­lieve it will push us more com­pletely to or­ganic stan­dards over­all. Cannabis just may make us more con­sci­en­tious of what’s hap­pen­ing in our vine­yards.’

And that last phrase, any­way, is some­thing that in the Napa Val­ley we all agree on.

Karen MacNeil is the au­thor of The Wine Bi­ble and cre­ator of WineSpeed

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