Wine Country vintners curious but wary of cannabis industry
When Tom Rodrigues looks out the window at his Yorkville winery, he can see two worlds collide.
Some of the most coveted wines in the United States emerge from the vineyards of California's North Coast. But in the hills overlooking his Mendocino County winery, and just to the north in California's famed Emerald Triangle, another thriving crop is pulling millions of dollars into the region: cannabis.
Increasingly, these two worlds are bumping into each other as the state's newly legalized cannabis industry steps out from the shadows and begins to vie openly with California's long-established wine industry for workers, water, land and customers.
The two industries find themselves facing a common question: Are they competitors or collaborators?
The answer is complicated and depends on who you ask. Rodrigues, who straddles both worlds, sees a natural affinity between wine and weed. He farms 164 acres, devoted primarily to pinot noir, chardonnay and zinfandel. He also has used marijuana since the mid-1970s to treat glaucoma, and grows several cannabis plants for his personal use.
“Mendocino County has been growing cannabis longer than it has been known for wine,” said Rodrigues, owner of Maple Creek Winery. “Whether you like it or not, we got it here.”
He serves on the boards of Mendocino WineGrowers, a trade group for the county's wine industry, and the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association, which represents cannabis farmers and businesses.
Both industries seek to position their products as high-priced premium brands, not low-priced commodities, by emphasizing quality and a connection to the people and place that created them.
The region's cannabis industry is copying many viticulture practices - from naming appellations to tracking crop tonnage - to help market its products in an increasingly crowded and competitive market for cannabis. A few local entrepreneurs are cautiously exploring business opportunities that would twin the two most profitable crops along the North Coast.
First blended symposium
Local vintners are watching the developments with great interest and some concern.
Next month, the first-ever Wine and Weed Symposium will draw 400 people to Santa Rosa to explore the impact of legal marijuana on Northern California's two most lucrative agricultural industries. About 75 percent of registrants for the sold-out Aug. 3 event come from the wine industry, said George Christie, president and CEO of Wine Industry Network, a Healdsburg events firm sponsoring the forum.
“It's a safe environment where they can ask the kind of questions they want. They don't want to do this at the Emerald Cup,” said Christie, referring to the two-day celebration of marijuana culture held every December at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, which features judging for the best marijuana flower and strain.
Most wineries, however, are casting “a wary eye” on the emerging cannabis industry, said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director for Sonoma County Vintners, the trade group that represents 200 wineries and wine-affiliated businesses.
Rodrigues is even more blunt. “Most wineries and the wine industry are holding a big sign with marijuana and a line slashed across it,” he said.
The wine industry has a tangible reason for keeping its distance from marijuana. Wineries could lose their federal licenses to sell wine if they offer cannabis for sale or on-site consumption. Despite voters' decision in November to legalize recreational use in California, cannabis is still illegal under federal law, which classifies it as a drug with “no currently accepted medical use” and a high potential for abuse.
But there is a growing realization among vintners that cannabis will have some effect on their business - no matter how they view the crop.
A defining moment occurred in February when San Francisco-based cannabis distributor Flow Kana purchased the original Fetzer winery in Redwood Valley. It plans to turn the former winery into a marijuana processing facility and destination for cannabis tourists.
As the state of California prepares to start issuing licenses for cannabis businesses on Jan. 1, local accountants and law firms that have specialized in serving wineries are ramping up to help the cannabis industry. A handful of local entrepreneurs are already beginning to offer such things as cannabis tours that include winery stops, or wine-and-weed dinners.
Christie predicts no winery will jeopardize its license to enter the cannabis business in the near future. However, he notes that risk-takers such as Robert Mondavi and Jess Jackson created the modern American wine industry, providing a model for a premium product that today's cannabis entrepreneurs are trying to replicate.