By Dawn Dolan
When the first Wine & Weed panel discussion was introduced last year at the 2016 WIN Expo, the room was packed. Now, with the private use law upon us and taking effect in just six weeks, a “next steps” session is planned as a hot topic for this year’s Expo. George Christie, President of Wine Industry Network and creator of the WIN Expo, anticipates that providing ongoing information to the wine industry, which is struggling with concerns about what the legalization of cannabis will mean for them, will help allay fears. “We plan to provide a forum for the wine industry to learn more about the cannabis industry, so they can better understand what real risks they may have to contend with as well as what opportunities might present themselves.”
Competition for labor and water, safety issues, and legal questions are all on the table. Moderator Heather Irwin, Press Democrat dining editor and author of the Emerald Report, will work to guide the panel towards collaborative topics. “Cannabis people feel like the red-headed step child. They are interested in finding out how cannabis can become more like wine; upscale, respected, and an integral part of our community workings.”
The goal is information, says Irwin. She aims to look for some first steps, which include being good stewards of the land on both sides. “Wine might be interested in our agricultural practices. There are some really bad players and really good players in both realms.” The discussion includes how cannabis might create best practices. “They are taking notes from how the wine industry has honored the land (or not)”, she points out.
One of the concerns that both sides are considering is the potential threat of what Irwin calls, “Big Marijuana.” She points to a fear that Phillip Morris-type growing would take away the laid-back, artisanal feel that the North Bay is known for. This potentially crosses into both demographics of agricultural products. Low-priced inventory coming in from elsewhere would compete for a different buyer and possibly dilute the brand. In the same way that inexpensive California appellation red wines compete for a different buyer than Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, in general, the way that North Bay wine grape growers distinguish their product is also the pattern that cannabis growers are setting up for themselves. Small-production, appellation specific, and excellent ratings are what keep prices high on north coast wines, and appears to be the pattern for local cannabis as well. Says Irwin, “We have a need for open lines of communication [between wine and cannabis] regarding this potential threat to the areas vibe. We need to discuss how to keep it artisanal.”
On the verge of being able to sell their product in a more open environment, Irwin notes that the wild fires have had a massive impact for the marijuana growers, whose buds strongly retain the smoke taint, just like wine grapes. The financial impact for this industry may be huge, and just at a critical moment.
Are crossover clientele going to ditch wine for pot? It doesn’t look that way. Irwin notes that, “A lot more people who haven’t ever used or haven’t used in a long time may turn to [the properties of] CBD for mood and health, and we are seeing people turning to [the properties of] THC for pain relief, as an alternative to opioids.”
Christie adds, “I doubt very much that on January 1st we’re going to see any decline in wine sales because of cannabis. That’s not happening, but what we can count on is that cannabis will, over time, play a huge role in the north coast economy. To ignore that fact, is just a poor business decision. This workshop is designed for wine industry professionals that get that and want to protect what they’ve built by staying informed.”
Interested readers can find out more about this session and others being offered at www.wineindustryexpo.com.