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.