A Little Pot with that Pinot? California Weed Farms and Wineries Pair Up

Weed farms and wineries in Northern California compete for resources, but are also starting to work together to draw tourists. Credit: Getty Images

Picture this: You’re enjoying one of Northern California’s famed wine tours — travelling to sunny vineyards, sampling the finest pinot noir, dining on farm-to-table meals. But this jaunt entails a few extra stops: sanctioned visits to local cannabis farms, where you’re welcome to tour the fragrant marijuana plants and sample the latest Mendocino Kush in the on-site tasting rooms.

Excursions like this could be the result of the first-ever Wine and Weed Symposium, a business conference being held on August 3 in Santa Rosa, California. The symposium itself isn’t that remarkable; these days you can find every sort of cannabis-themed event, from marijuana business expos to job fairs to cannabis religious services. What is noteworthy is that this conference is being organized by the Wine Industry Network, a wine marketing and events company, and organizers say three-quarters of the sold-out event’s 400 registrants are from the wine industry, a business not necessarily known for its counterculture leanings. Wine Industry Network CEO George Christie says the marijuana industry is similarly excited about the endeavor. “When we talked to cannabis people, they were like, ‘I love wine. What can we do to help?’” says Christie. “I think the wine industry is going to find a very willing partner in the cannabis business.”

Now that the Golden State is well on its way to launching a legal cannabis market in 2018, it appears that many in Northern California’s two most iconic and profitable agricultural businesses might be ready to join forces. But can wine and weed really mix – either in business plans, or on the dinner table?

At first glance, there are many reasons for wine and marijuana interests to butt heads. For one thing, some experts believe legalized cannabis will lead to less alcohol consumption. In Colorado, Oregon and Washington, beer sales are down since consumers started buying recreational cannabis, and in some states, alcohol interests are actively opposing marijuana legalization efforts, likely because they’re concerned about their bottom lines.

Legalized cannabis might do more than just hurt wine sales. Wine operations can’t currently grow or sell cannabis without risking their federal winery license. So instead of legalized marijuana offering them an opportunity for business growth, wineries could soon be competing with newly legitimate cannabis farms for real estate, water resources and workers. In some places, these concerns are already coming to a head. Earlier this year, an Oregon vineyard sued its neighbor to stop the planned opening of a marijuana grow, arguing the skunky odors will damage its grapes.

Tom Rodrigues, who owns Maple Creek Winery in Yorkville, California, but who’s also a marijuana aficionado who serves on the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association, says such concerns have long made him a bit of a black sheep on the other advisory board he’s a part of: Mendocino Winegrowers Inc. “I would go to a [Mendocino Winegrowers Inc.] meeting and report on what’s going on in the cannabis world and there would be guys on the board who didn’t want to even be part of the conversation and would leave the room,” he says.

But with legalized marijuana coming to their home state whether they like it or not, some California wine industry stakeholders are quietly warming to the idea of cannabis coming out from the shadows. After all, access to Northern California’s famed “Emerald Triangle” marijuana farms could be the sort of tourism draw that benefits local wine and cannabis growers alike. “If I put my rose-colored glasses on, all of a sudden there is one more reason for consumers, particularly millennials, to come to this area,” says the Wine Industry Network’s Christie, who lives in Sonoma County. “Maybe for some people the primary reason to come here won’t be for wine, maybe it will be for cannabis.”

Forward-thinking vineyard operators are also likely already starting to plan for a time when federal laws have shifted and they’re allowed to add marijuana to their crop rotation. “If cannabis becomes more accepted and the rules and regulations change, I think [vineyard owners] are going to have to consider it,” says Christie. “A real farmer asks, ‘What is my profit per acre?’ If they can make $20,000, $30,000 an acre with cannabis, they are going to look at it.”

Cannabis producers also see potential in playing nice with vineyards. While there’s concern among marijuana growers that wine interests could muscle in on their business, many cannabis farmers realize there’s a lot they can learn from vineyards on how to survive and thrive as marijuana becomes big business. “The way the wine industry is structured with lots of producers and boutique quality products, that is exactly what we are trying to be,” says Casey O'Neill, who co-owns HappyDay Farms, a diversified marijuana farm in Mendocino County, and serves on the board of the California Growers Association, a marijuana trade group. O’Neill can envision marijuana-themed versions of wine clubs, barrel tastings, and limited-production vintages. Learning from and collaborating with the wine industry might be among the only ways small growers like him can make it as major marijuana companies take hold and cannabis prices drop.

“You can take the ‘pie is not big enough’ approach for both industries, or you can say a rising tide lifts all boats,” says O’Neill. “The economics of the North Coast can thrive based on that shared collaboration.”

But even if there are opportunities for wine and cannabis businesses to mix, do the two products blend well from an epicurean standpoint? Does a hit of an energetic sativa really go with a fine white wine? While cannabis-infused wines are starting to pop up in California’s medical marijuana markets (none of the legal-marijuana states allow the sale of marijuana-infused alcohol products), gastronomes are undecided as to whether wine and weed go well together on the tongue.

“Pot sommelier” Philip Wolf has been hosting gourmet cannabis pairing dinners for several years through his Breckenridge, Colorado-based company Cultivating Spirits. He says he usually plans both his marijuana options and his wine selection around the food he prepares for his events, rather than try to pair cannabis directly with wine. That’s because he says the two substances by themselves aren’t necessarily complementary. “We use the cannabis to enhance the flavor profiles of the food,” he says. The purpose of wine is often to settle down the taste in your mouth. If food is fatty, the wine can tone down that fattiness. A lot of times when something is kind of bitter, we use wine to sweeten it up.”

Warren Bobrow, author of the book Cannabis Cocktails, Mocktails & Tonics, is more optimistic about mixing cannabis and wine. “They offer a natural combination of flavors,” he says. For example, he says earthier wines like Cabernet Franc go well with lighter stains like Maui Wowie, while fruit-forward wines like Australian Syrah pair well with fruity strains like Purple Urkle. And when you’re in the mood for a crisp Riesling, Bobrow recommends pairing the wine’s citrusy notes with the minty, chocolatey notes of a joint filled with the strain Platinum Girl Scout Cookies.

Bobrow even suggests making your own cannabis-infused wine. Just place a cheesecloth bag or reusable teabag filled with a gram of decarbed marijuana into a high-quality red wine, then heat the mixture to about 160 degrees (avoid boiling). After two hours, remove the cannabis, let the concoction cool, and top it off with fresh wine.

While attendees of the Wine and Weed Symposium next month will be learning all about cannabis and how it can intersect with wine, they won’t be officially sampling any of Bobrow’s suggested flavor combinations. While the conference will end with sampling of fine wines, cannabis consumption isn’t part of the stated plan. “I thought that would be a little too much,” says Christie. Still, might there be some informal wine-and-wide pairings transpiring among the guests?

“I would not be surprised by that at all,” says Christie with a laugh.