Home Wine Business Editorial Allies or Adversaries: The Wine & Weed Debate

Allies or Adversaries: The Wine & Weed Debate


By: Laura Ness

Do you think that pot will take a huge bite out of wine sales or is this just a tempest in a teapot? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on which state you’re in, literally and figuratively.

Like former Speaker Tip O’Neill so famously said, “All politics is local.” So are opinions. Perspective is all about the undeniable bias of place.

Tom Wark
Tom Wark

Take Tom Wark and Rick Bakas, two well-respected industry voices frequently heard within the widely reverberating echo chambers of the wine world.

Wark is known for being an outspoken wine critic and public relations professional, who eloquently opines at www.fermentationwineblog.com. He’s worried about the fate of wine in the growing world of weed. A recent blog post brought to light some alarming research that seems to indicate that over half of millennials may be very likely to transition entirely to cannabis over alcohol, while 20% of Generation X-ers might be tempted to do the same. He cautions the wine industry to take heed of weed: even if this prediction is wrong by half, that would still be a tremendous gut blow to the wine industry, especially given that these two demographic market sectors are continuing to expand their purchasing prowess.

Bakas, who has brand management experience at Nike and Sports Authority, along with plenty of wine sales and distribution chops, was the runner up in a social media contest held by Murphy-Goode and wound up being hired by St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery as their first director of social media in 2009. To help promote the wine industry, which he says was “in the tank” at the time, he collaborated with colleagues to invent the first “international wine day”.  They ended up formalizing “International Chardonnay Day” to be the Thursday before Memorial Day, and subsequently, he defined “International Cabernet Day” to be the Thursday before Labor Day.  Clearly, his commitment to the wine industry was avid, and there’s no doubt he helped expand its reach through what were then relatively new platforms.

Now, Wark and Bakas have taken firm positions on the wine vs. weed debate: one on the side of wine, the other, on the side of weed.

Although he supports the legalization of recreational pot use, Wark is adamant that the wine industry will see an impact, and not in a positive way. “There is going to be big competition between pot vs. alcohol and wine. A percentage of people will certainly choose to stop drinking and smoke dope. Whether it’s beer, wine or spirits that will suffer, I suspect it will be beer and wine.”

Wark’s chief concern is that wine currently represents an easy way for people to take the edge off the day and experience a pleasing buzz, but at $15 to $20 a bottle, the sweet spot for grocery store Chardonnay, it adds up and also contains calories. Pot does not. It’s cheaper, lighter, no hangover, no bottles to recycle. He thinks it’s inevitable that weed will end up taking a big bite out of the wine revenue stream.

Still, he says most wineries just don’t seem all that alarmed yet, “I hear the wine industry saying, ‘Oh, we can all get along.’ To that I say, not likely.”

Wark sees the beginnings of food and cannabis pairings, and wonders what the real benefits are, other than the fact that it stokes the appetite. He questions how its aromas and flavors could really pair with food, saying, “I reserve judgment on that. I am familiar with cannabis and there are not too many instances where cannabis has any other advantage than to get you high.”

That said, though, he says he can see wine, food and cannabis pairings, but they would probably not be taken too seriously. Still, Wark admits he’s keeping a “wide open mind.” His goal is to sell more wine, and hopes there is some synergy between wine and weed. After all, there are definitely plenty of parallels.

Noting that when California made medical marijuana legal in 1996, high-end cannabis producers took the AVA approach, he thinks Napa wineries with land suited more to weed than vines should capitalize on the brand recognition of terroir that wine has already distilled into it. “Sonoma and Mendocino are already linked to cannabis,” he says. “I think cannabis should be sold, regulated and marketed like wine.” He knows Napa could do the same.

He believes distributors are already figuring out ways to add weed to their mix. “They are all over it in Nevada,” notes Wark. “Wholesalers get first right of refusal to distribute pot.” Not enough jumped on board when the state initially asked, ‘who wants in?’ but when the state opened it up to outside parties, the wholesalers protested loudly. They are clearly salivating over the revenue potential.

The big revenue potential is what he calls the return of the pot parties, when the 21 and 22-year olds discover cannabis and become fans. If the cannabis producers and their distribution channels market weed as an alternative to alcohol, the results could make the wine industry not only green with envy, but incredibly envious of green.

From Wine to Weed

When asked how he stands on the wine vs. weed issues, Bakas says, “It’s interesting, we’re having this discussion now. My father-in-law just died of complications related to alcoholism. I didn’t realize how big a problem it is. I’m questioning a lot of this. I look at people at wine industry events and it makes me stop and think. Alcohol cures not one single problem. Pot has proven medical applications and benefits.”

So convinced is he of the relative merits of one versus the other, that he’s actually transitioning out of the wine industry and into the cannabis space, making no apologies, and instead, offering many supporting arguments.

First and foremost, he points to his mother, who has been dealing with MS since 1985, as a poster child for how pot can be a lifesaver, “We tried literally everything under the sun. The side effects of the drugs were so bad, she was taking pills to combat the side effects!”

In 2011, Rick moved his Mom from Boulder, CO, to Santa Rosa, where she eventually discovered the benefits of a certain type of cannabis oil, after realizing that smoking pot didn’t work for her. The tincture, which costs $30 for a monthly supply, is delivered by eye-dropper and works so well, that his mother is able to function and enjoy her grandchildren. Bakas obtains it from a dispensary just off the square in Sonoma.

Going through the process of finding the right cannabis product for his Mom made him realize that a platform where people could exchange information, findings, experiences and anecdotes was needed, so he created www.weedhorn.com in 2015, “I couldn’t find what I was looking for on the internet,” he admits.

He recently launched an artificial intelligence bot called Abbi, that, with the assistance of real live doctors from Oregon with experience in the benefits of cannabis, helps people find the right cannabis product to treat their ailments. “Abbi has already sent out 13k medical recommendations,” he says.

Bakas sums up his life-changing pivot this way, “Alcohol killed my father-in-law. Cannabis saved my mother’s life.”

Does he think cannabis will impact wine sales? Perhaps to some extent, as people realize that the reason they’re drinking that glass of Chardonnay (or insert your favorite varietal here) every evening is to get pleasantly buzzed (insert your favorite adjective here), and they might switch to cannabis, which doesn’t kill brain cells.

Bakas goes on to point out the myriad benefits of cannabis. A few drops of cannabis extract added to massage oil can work wonders for aching muscles and other physical discomforts. While not advocating for edibles and inhalants, he’s clearly in the court of the potential positive effects of cannabis, for both recreational and medical uses.

He also says it’s worth mentioning that no one has ever died from cannabis, but every year approximately 88,000 people die in America from alcohol-related causes.

We don’t truly know the medical potential for cannabis because it’s listed as a schedule 1 drug, which makes it ineligible to research as a medicine.”

Bakas also thinks that one of the big benefits of having a controlled and legalized cannabis industry in California, is that it will cripple the efforts of the Mexican drug cartels. He expects Arizona and Texas to climb on board the legalization bandwagon, noting that Arizona’s Proposition 205 nearly passed in 2016.

Bakas thinks that there is room for all players in the recreational industry, and points to the huge tax revenue that Colorado is already enjoying from weed. He expects California to reap the same. He also points to the fact that the tax revenues from pot are supposed to be earmarked for education and for substance abuse programs. One can see some enormous ironies in that.

Update From Colorado

Doug Caskey, Executive Director of the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board, says he hasn’t seen any evidence of cannabis sales impacting wine sales yet. In fact, wine sales are up. He believes cannabis may be having more of an impact on spirits and beer than on wine. However, he thinks they can all co-exist. At this point, though, they cannot all be enjoyed together in any public setting, as it is illegal to consume alcohol and pot in the same place. There are some private facilities for smoking cannabis, but no alcohol is allowed.

Even though the voters of Denver voted overwhelmingly to create pot clubs that would permit joint activities, the alcohol enforcement arm of the state has firmly disallowed it. Pot growers have challenged this in court saying that alcohol enforcement has no jurisdiction here. The discussion of whether and where you can consume pot and alcohol in public is ongoing.

Further, cannabis has hit some potholes with regards to individual county regulations: for example, Estes Park banned both sales and recreational usage, along with Mesa County.  

 “While recreational pot sales are legal in Colorado, smoking of pot in public is not,” says Caskey. “You see signs everywhere, especially at hotels, that state ’No smoking anywhere on the property, and yes, this means pot!’”

Even when not lit, weed can cause some malodorous consequences. Caskey notes that when the single pot dispensary in Palisades opened up right next door to the office of the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology, the office was forced to move because of the odor.

Caskey further observes that the cannabis industry, while expected to be a significant magnet to increasing Colorado visitors for the purpose of immersing themselves in a weed experience, is not yet creating the kind of tourism fundamentals that producers had hope to establish.

In fact, Caskey thinks that the tourism office may not have been so keen to embrace the weed wave, as it seemed initially hesitant to brand Colorado as embracing pot. But the wave has begun, and the revenue is rolling in, along with some observable side effects.

Rocky Mountain High is not just a side effect of inhaling pot or over-listening to John Denver: it’s also what happens to many tourists when they step off a plane at 6,000+ feet and take that first sip of alcohol, be it beer or wine. It doesn’t take much to set them on their ass, quite literally. Caskey mentions a noted increase in out of state visitors to Denver’s emergency rooms, and warns that altitude affects everything from the weather, which you can’t control, to your ability to metabolize alcohol, the limits of which can be easily tested. The other problem is that people ingesting pot for the first time may not realize how long it takes to have an effect. And unwittingly, they take more, thinking it’s a dosage issue, when in fact, it’s a metabolic one.

While the move from smoking to edibles and tinctures is gaining rapid momentum, for now, the advantage goes to wine when it comes to a dependable and immediate effect. Many cannabis companies are working on streamlining the delivery of their edibles to reduce “lag time.” One producer of edibles, 1906 out of Colorado, just released a line of rapid delivery chocolates, noting that their chief competition right now is Chardonnay, Xanax and coffee. Edibles will surely morph to become more like alcohol in the way they are socially consumed and enjoyed.

Wark opines that the industry should develop more cannabis products that deliver the benefits of pot without getting the recipient high. Would this make weed more of a single dependency or would it then leave the door open to augmenting the multi-layered experience that Bakas thinks could be an additional selling point?  

Says Bakas, “The benefits of cannabis are even more reason to love Northern California! We have a unique place where we can grow world class weed, wine and food.” He points out that cannabis yoga retreats are already happening, and knows from personal experience that massage and spa can be enhanced greatly with the use of cannabis infused coconut oil. “Not only does it relieve pain, but it takes a massage to the power of three! Cannabis provides a lot of benefits, while there are not a lot of medical benefits for alcohol. If you pit cannabis against alcohol, alcohol is always the worst drug.”

While Wark and Bakas may disagree on what the eventual outcome of wine vs. weed looks like, for now, they can agree on one thing: all bets are off when it comes to the current administration’s stance on marijuana.

Many of the concerns and questions addressed here will be discussed in detail at the Wine & Weed Symposium being held in Santa Rosa on August 3rd, 2017. Tickets are limited and selling fast! For more information visit: www.wine-weed.com.



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