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Sonoma and Napa counties differ on mixing wine and cannabis cultivation

As cannabis emerges as a burgeoning and profitable crop in California, its path out of the shadows has been rocky and inconsistent in areas where the wine grape has been dominant.

Both Sonoma and Mendocino counties this month are taking steps to write rules for commercial cultivation of a cannabis plant that had an estimated $4.4 billion in legal sales last year statewide. In addition, retail dispensaries and processing plants are already part of a growing regional infrastructure.

Yet, Napa County remains an outlier. There’s an increasingly more contentious debate between the upstart marijuana industry that has finally become legitimate and the conservative wine sector protective of its “Napa Valley” multibillion-dollar brand it fears would be sullied by cannabis farms.

However, certain Napa wineries see the lucrative business opportunities of adding weed to their wine enterprises.

Politically connected opponents have continued to thwart any attempts there to establish new ground rules for growing commercial weed amid fears of effects on the wine industry. Napa County has the highest valued wine grapes annually in the United States, as much as $1 billion in value during normal harvests not hurt by wildfires or other extreme weather.

“Some of my peers do not see the value of a second crop of high value competing with wine,” said Michael Honig, president of his family’s Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford who supports limited cannabis cultivation in Napa county.

That was on full display March 2 when Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht brought up the long-stalled issue during a board meeting as he feared no action could lead to residents proposing a ballot initiative on cannabis cultivation, similar to one suspended last year because of the pandemic.

Opponents lined up last month and derailed any headway. They represented a who’s who of the county’s economy, such as Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau and Visit Napa Valley tourism organization. The groups noted they didn’t want the Napa Valley name ruined by visible blights and foul smells they claim have occurred in Santa Barbara County from cannabis growers.

Linsey Gallagher, president of Visit Napa Valley, said that “unsightly hoop houses and overwhelming pungent terpene odors are huge detriments to the wine visitor experience.”

Debra Dommen, vice president of government affairs of Treasury Wine Estates, which owns six wineries in Napa County as well as Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, said that in other counties where there has been a combination of wine grapes and cannabis cultivation it “has not been a good experience.”

Napa supervisors decided not to go further with debate about mixing cannabis cultivation with grape growing. Supervisor Ryan Gregory said: “When I close my eyes and picture Napa, my vision doesn’t include cannabis.”

While Gregory’s vision doesn’t include cannabis, many others do, especially some leading vintners that have well-known Napa County properties.

They include Constellation Brands Inc., which owns the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery and also has a majority stake in the Canadian marijuana firm Canopy Growth. And Francis Ford Coppola, the famed film director who owns the legendary Inglenook winery, and also has a separate company that partners with a Humboldt County cannabis producer.

Therein lies the contradiction of the debate. While the old guard fears what cannabis may bring, others see promise, especially because younger consumers are looking for more varied experiences than their parents and are crucial for continued growth of the wine sector.

The latter is represented by Tracey Mason, a wine industry veteran who now serves as CEO of the House of Saka in Napa, which produces nonalcoholic wine infused with cannabis and sold in licensed dispensaries. The brand uses Napa Valley grapes in its wines and would like the option for the cannabis it uses.

“Napa carries with it a beautiful provenance. That will hold true for cannabis,” Mason said. “Cannabis growth in Napa will become known worldwide as the best cannabis grown in the world.”

She contends younger consumers want beverages and leisurely experiences that could include cannabis or related tourism.

Sonoma County already has diversity in its craft beer scene, as well as boutique cider and spirits operations. Plus, cannabis operators in both Sonoma and Mendocino counties are exploring greater opportunities to bring visitors to the area.

“Cannatourism would bring more people into the (Napa) Valley, especially millennials and those younger than that,” Mason told Napa supervisors last month.

Stephanie Honig also agreed. She’s Michael Honig’s wife and a partner at the winery and board president of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association. Her family also has invested in a cannabis venture with former vintner Eric Sklar.

“Millennials and Gen Zs are not coming here. We have a major millennial problem,” Honig said of Napa Valley.

Cannabis supporters are looking for cultivation in small, outdoor plots in remote areas outside the valley floor that would not total more than 100 acres in the county, Honig said.

“You would be driving up and down Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail and you wouldn’t even know they’re there,” she said. “We’re not trying to rip out grapes from Rutherford.”

They argue that such efforts would help Napa County transition from a monoculture, as wine grapes represented 99% of the overall value of agricultural crops in 2019, according to the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner's Office.

The legal cannabis crop is a money maker. For example, the average cannabis farm can produce a crop far more valuable with much less acreage than wine grapes.

In Sonoma County, cannabis varies in value from $5.5 million to $6 million per acre annually, compared to wine grapes that were about a $11,000 per-acre value in 2019, county Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith said. There are about 40 permitted and licensed cannabis acres countywide, compared to the 57,539 vineyard acres bearing grapes.

Igor Sill, who has a family winery in the Atlas Peak region in the hills of Napa County, cited concerns like water usage and the effect that cannabis terpene compounds could have on wine grapes, among other issues that he thinks have not been properly addressed.

“We’re in a drought situation,” Sill said. “There is a concern for water consumption.”

Napa County Farm Bureau, however, takes a broader view that since legal cannabis is grown elsewhere in the region there is likelihood it will eventually become oversaturated. Therefore, Napa County doesn’t have to participate in legal marijuana cultivation, said Ryan Klobas, CEO of the trade group.

“There is no need to grow it in Napa County. You can easily go to a surrounding county and grow it,” Klobas said.

That stance is in contrast to Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The ag trade group has cannabis business leaders in its organization. They are represented as business members not agriculture members, since the group is adhering to the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a posture shaped by the fact that the crop is still illegal at the federal level, said Tawny Tesconi, the bureau’s executive director.

There are local farmers such as dairy ranchers and small vineyard owners who are considering leasing their land for cannabis growing to help diversify their business, Tesconi said.

“There are different industries that are struggling out there now,” she said. “They need things to make it over the hump.”

The debate likely will play out over coming years given that cannabis for legal adult use was approved by California voters in 2016 and the public is still grappling with all of its ramifications, said Corey Beck, CEO of the Family Coppola, which includes the popular Geyserville winery.

“There is a natural progression,” Beck said. “I equate it to what happened after Prohibition and what took place in terms of the resistance around alcohol.”

The cannabis industry, he said, has more work to shed its 1970s stoner image and to explain purported health benefits of the plant. He noted he is a fifth-generation member of a Napa Valley family whose ancestors grew prunes and walnuts in an area now filled with grapes and vineyard workers.

“There was an evolution with grapes,” Beck said. “It’s an evolution. I think as we as a society continue to embrace it (cannabis) and look at certain benefits to it, things will start to progressively change in a meaningful way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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