Three years ago, at the 2019 Wine Industry Network Wine & Weed Symposium, Clare Tooley, MW, found inspiration for her Masters of Wine final paper entitled, “An investigation into the impact of cannabis production on viticulture in Sonoma County.”
Her conclusion: Yes, cannabis cultivation is a threat to viticulture—but it doesn’t have to
In Napa, where Tooley works as the wine development director for Lionstone International, the county does not allow cannabis cultivation. Next door, Sonoma County allows legal cannabis cultivation under tight regulations.
Other counties, like Mendocino and Santa Barbara have seen a rise in legal cannabis cultivation alongside premium wine production with varied results. Illegal cannabis cultivation has long been the norm in these counties and continues today because of the costs and regulations to become a legal operator. For Tooley’s purposes, she concentrates on legal indoor and outdoor cannabis grow operations.
Figures obtained by Tooley for her 2019 thesis showed, “California and Oregon’s combined wine industry has an estimated retail value of $41 billion (CWI 2019; OWB). The reported US west coast cannabis wholesale value is over $20 billion (ERA 2017). … The cost of establishing legal cannabis production is substantial (ERA 2017) yet the average revenue of operations on the US west coast has increased from $1.29 million in 2018 to $3.73 million in 2019 (CBT 2020). Cannabis yield-per-acre at over $1 million is compared with crops including corn at $644, soy at $400 and wheat at $232 (NFD 2016).” [Tooley, 7] (1)
She also found that grape yield estimates per acre are about $13,000 in Sonoma County (SCVA 2020). And yet another factor adding to the appeal of weed cultivation is that cannabis starts producing in the first year after planting while wine grapes can take several years to produce grapes viable for wine production.
Santa Barbara County allowed cannabis expansion without tight oversight, which has clearly caused angst and controversy between vintners and weed growers. “The county supported legalization of cannabis and issued multiple licenses with no acreage restrictions. The comparison of $/acre return shows how far cannabis outperforms grapes as a taxable commodity,” writes Tooley citing California and Oregon crop reports and cannabis law tax reports. “Financial gain may, therefore, have governed the initial decisions, and this was supported in interviews with local wine industry experts, one saying: ‘Unfortunately, money talks’. Furthermore, they all felt there had been no consideration to its effects on viticulture.” [Tooley, 28] As a prime example, Santa Rita Hills AVA has licensed 147-acre outdoor cannabis growths, the largest recorded site to share regionality with high-value vines.
Sonoma County has been far more regulated in its approach to legal cannabis. As of Tooley’s 2019 writing, “Sonoma County has 88 acres of licensed outdoor commercial cannabis (CDFA ; Johnson 2019). This is tiny in comparison to its vineyard acreage suggesting limited impact. Furthermore, outdoor SC cultivation is capped at one acre per permit (SCCP 2020) suggesting its viticulture is protected from the negative impact caused by the rapid expansion of unlimited licensed cannabis acreage experienced in Santa Barbara County.” [Tooley,30]
Wine grape crops in Sonoma County fall far behind field crops like hay and oats (330,000 acres to 80,000), followed by apples, olives and, distantly, cannabis crops. [Tooley, 7] In Tooley’s comparison between potential threats to the wine industry from cannabis, focusing on land, labor, and water, land seems plentiful and, therefore, not really a threat. Arguments can be made regarding the quality of available growing areas, but there is no shortage of land.
Therefore, Tooley determined competition for labor as the clear threat to viticulture. It is still a serious, ongoing issue, but with the severe drought in which the county presently finds itself—the two competing industries find themselves vying for irrigation resources.
“I think water and labor almost tie for first place as issues for viticulture’s threat from cannabis,” said Tooley in an interview with Wine Industry Advisor. “Labor shortage problems, and the intricacies of labor issues, challenge wineries every day. Cannabis is just another competitor.”
Although some modern vineyards have transitioned to mechanical harvesting, as Tooley points out, “Premium hand-harvesting is not easy to replicate mechanically. Although technology improvements may mean mechanical harvesting tools are emerging that are equal to, or better, than hand-harvesting.”
Additionally, the legalization of cannabis has relieved temptation of potential workers to work on illegal grows, which had typically offered higher wages. But grapes and wine have parallel harvesting cycles (although indoor cannabis grows can have several harvests per year), and are therefore in direct competition with each other for the county’s limited labor. Tooley mentions that if she were to explore this issue further, she would consider the potentially healthier, more environmentally friendly cultivation of weed as a better work environment.
In Tooley’s paper, she states,“The impact is more serious when it comes to water. With a limited water supply, [Sonoma County] viticulture already competes with other agriculture and is under pressure to conserve and regulate its water usage. The inherent risk to SC viticulture of an increase in indoor and outdoor cannabis cultivation is that it would be scaled back or forced to impose greater restrictions to maintain the status quo.
“Furthermore, the establishment of new vineyards would be seriously impacted.” [Tooley, 37]
Vintners that dry farm their grapes were less concerned. However, new vineyards require irrigation, so viticulture in general will always be impacted by sharing water resources. “Any competition for this precious resource from other crops, including cannabis, is a challenge….Limiting acreage of new crops, especially ones as ‘thirsty’ as cannabis, is the most obvious answer,” Tooley says.
When asked if she knew of wineries getting involved in the cannabis business, the only
Tooley recalls is Francis Ford Coppola, which partnered with Humboldt Brothers to create the 2018 Grower Series. The innovative product was presented by then-CEO Corey Beck at the 2019 Wine & Weed Symposium.
“As they broke the mold with wine in cans, they did the same with cannabis, specifying specific flower and growing area in premium packaging,” says Tooley referring to the wine bottle-shaped tin. Creative labeling was complete with the signature Coppola label along with an embossed pot leaf; the flower name and farm location a nod to wine’s single-varietal, single vineyard designates that typically connote quality.
Inside the premium packaging, attendees found an assortment of weed-inspired goodies: a Coppola-branded pipe, rolling paper, and a one-gram cannabis flower.
Tooley points out that the investment, innovation, and the product itself shows the potential for cooperation between the two agricultural products. (Although, the product is no longer available.)
This may be the argument for co-existence in Sonoma County, where the years-long effort to market the allure of the county and its wines make it a natural for marketing high-quality cannabis as well. “Cannabis is a viable, if complicated, consideration for grape growers looking to diversify,” says Tooley.
Dialogue between the two industries is essential given the expansion of legal cannabis cultivation and its growing market share.”
- Clare Tooley’s full paper is available to read and download on the Institute of the Masters of Wine website.
Sources cited within Tooley’s text referenced in this article:
- (CBT) Cannabis Business Times (2020), State of the Industry Report 2019, Examining the Cannabis Cultivation Market
- Wine and Weed Symposium 2020 presentation – Borsage Environmental LLC (2019), Odor Assessment Study
- New Frontier Data, NFD (2016), Comparative yield per acre for grains and marijuana https://newfrontierdata.com/marijuanainsights/comparative-yield-per-acre-for-grains-and-marijuana/
- California Department of Food and Agriculture CDFA (2020), Calcannabis Cultivation Licensing https://aca6.accela.com/CALCANNABIS/Cap/CapHome.aspx?module=Licenses
- County of Sonoma, Sonoma County Cannabis Program SCCP (2020) https://sonomacounty.ca.gov/Cannabis/Permits/Cultivation/
- NDIC National Drug Intelligence Center. Domestic Cannabis Cultivation Assessment 2009. US Department of Justice NDIC www.justice.gov/archive/ndic/pubs37/37035/index.htm
- OWB Oregon Wine Board – 2018 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Report https://industry.oregonwine.org/resources/reports-studies/2018-oregon-vineyardand-winery-report/
- SBV Santa Barbara Vintners (2020), Facts & Figures, Santa Barbara County Wines https://www.sbcountywines.com/facts–figures.html
- SCVA Sonoma County Vintners Association (2020), Overview of SC Sustainability Programs Web Version https://sonomawinegrape.org/wp-content/uploads/Overview-of-Sonoma-CountySustainability-Programs-Web-Version.pdf
- Sonoma County Water Agency SCWA (2009), SC Flood Control and Water Conservation District; History