Letter from California
Karen MacNeil on California’s cannabis industry
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