At Wine and Weed Symposium, vintners find themselves surrounded by economic opportunity

Wine professionals attended a one-day conference in Santa Rosa to explore ways to capitalize on the $7 billion cannabis industry.|

Wine professionals found themselves surrounded by potential economic opportunity Thursday as they learned about possibilities for capitalizing on cannabis - and a few pitfalls - at a sold-out conference.

California’s newly legal and most valuable agricultural crop, which could one day rival the North Coast’s dominant wine grape industry, was the focus of the all-day Wine & Weed Symposium held at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek hotel. Of the 400 attending, at least half came from the wine world, including some from big players like Fetzer Vineyards of Hopland and Constellation Brands Inc.

Vendors, growers, contractors and others from the cannabis and wine businesses came together to talk about their similarities and possible collaborations. Their interest comes as all eyes are on California, poised to legalize recreational pot on Jan. 1. The state, having begun to issue business licenses for growers and sellers, will become the largest U.S. market in the country for legalized marijuana, and ramifications range from water usage to the impact on the workforce to the role of law enforcement -even as it remains illegal under federal law.

California wine grapes have a cash value of about $5 billion annually compared to an estimated $7 billion for the state’s marijuana crop, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, in the symposium’s opening remarks. The two are the major agricultural crops of the North Coast.

But the wine industry has largely kept its distance from marijuana, particularly as vintners don’t want to risk losing their federal licenses to sell wine by offering cannabis for sale or on-site consumption. In addition, marijuana still carries a stigma despite coming out of the shadows to be regulated at the state level.

“Honestly, I think some of those (wine) folks don’t want us on the same stage,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association.

Still, there remains a great interest behind the scenes, as both industries share common concerns that range from designating appellations to courting tourists.

“Most (winery) people are calling to find out what the opportunities are. Certainly, there are opportunities, but they are complicated. It’s not a casual endeavor,” said Rebecca Stamey-White, a San Francisco lawyer with local winery clients. Like others, Stamey-White has ventured into cannabis regulation now that both are highly regulated industries.

Jim Coxeter, a partner at Batia Vineyards in El Dorado County, said he came to learn more about the opportunities for collaboration because he has been interested in making cannabis-oil-infused wine for his boutique winery.

“We have been surprised to find that there are so many regulations that are coming into play at the municipal level and the county level, and those are hurdles before you can even get to the state,” Coxeter said.

Given the resistance to cannabis legalization at the federal level, Coxeter was skeptical about future partnership opportunities. “I may not live to see it,” he said.

Vendors to the wine industry, however, were much more enthusiastic than vintners. They included Cecil Jack, a sales manager for Guillaume Grapevine Nursery in Knights Landing in Yolo County.

“We’re here to learn. Where is all this marijuana grown?” Jack said. “If we did grow it, I think our biggest hurdle would be, who is going to be our market?”

Grape growers also may have greater opportunities, especially because it would only take about 2,500 square feet to grow a sizeable cannabis crop on their property, said Allen, of the California Growers Association.

But he cautioned that pesticide regulations will be much stricter for cannabis than grapes, so farmers would have to consider the drift of their spraying operations and whether it would touch their marijuana crop. They also would have to ensure they have a workforce to pick and trim the crop in a tight labor market, as both grapes and cannabis are harvested around the same time of year.

Many at the event, sponsored by the events firm Wine Industry Network of Healdsburg, discovered that their winery services could be a perfect compliment to the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Alan Skinner, president and chief executive officer of VirtuaLabs, a Napa design and contracting firm, has built more than 50 wine caves for such wineries as Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma and Kunde Winery in Kenwood. Skinner has now created a new business, Cannabis Caves, for boutique growers who want to grow their plants in secure locations that can also be used as comfortable places for visitors and tourists.

“We ran some numbers. We believe it’s economically viable,” Skinner said. “There’s a lot of interest.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

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