With the legalization of marijuana in many jurisdictions, we have begun to see just how much of a fit there is between growing grapes and growing cannabis.
From a business perspective, there doesn’t seem to be a big swing from wine to pot consumption; however, the arrival of marijuana farming in what has traditionally been wine country certainly has its controversies.
Some areas have banned the growth of weed in their jurisdiction, as is the case in Napa County, while other areas have embraced it, often to the consternation of winegrowers. This is how it is playing out in Santa Barbara, on the Pacific coast about 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
In an article he posted May 6, 2020, W. Blake Gray explained that, although Santa Barbara is one of the top areas for growing Pinot Noir and Syrah, wine grapes only account for 8 per cent of the area’s agricultural revenue. County officials are quite open to the establishment of cannabis operations.
A study published by mastersofwine.org - “An Investigation into the impact of cannabis on viticulture production in Sonoma County” – found that, in terms of economic impact, a vineyard lags so far behind grow-op that it is no surprise that from a government’s revenue perspective, pot is a far more attractive alternative.
While projections suggest that Pot will generate about a million dollars an acre, statistics show that wine grapes in Santa Barbara County result in only seven thousand dollars per acre. In Sonoma, that jumps to $13,000, but still a laughable amount in comparison.
In an article by Kathleen Wilcox published this May online by wine-searcher, we learned that in April the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission gave approval for an operation the size of more than 60 football fields. In California, Proposition 64 limited the size of grow farms to no more than one acre until 2023, but in Santa Barbara a grower could obtain multiple licenses, effectively increasing the size of an operation significantly.
We might ask, why should wineries care? Simply put, pot stinks. If you have a winery and tasting room near a big operation, you could worry about how the smell of pot might impact the attractiveness of your tasting room. Even worse is the potential impact on the taste of your wine.
Just as wildfires can cause smoke taint basically ruining the grapes for wine, Wilcox explains that some worry that “volatile organic compounds” given off by marijuana plants could ‘infect’ the grapes.
That this is a reasonable concern makes sense if you consider how in places such as Provence in France, they talk about “Garrigue”, a herbal note in the wine that comes from the wild herbs such as rosemary that grow in the vicinity. The plants often have a sticky residue that can be carried on the wind, land on grapes, and stick to them. In the south of France, this is a good thing!
There have long been illegal grow-ops – and still are – but they were always out of the public eye; now, in Santa Barbara, such farms might be found right out in the open, even adjacent to wineries.
Ironically, wineries could be subject to lawsuits if their fungicide spray drifted over onto to marijuana crops – by law, the latter must be organically grown, and so the sprays would make the crop unusable.
How realistic these concerns may have yet to play out, but when one’s livelihood may be at stake, the fight is on. There are already lawsuits against the County over licensing practices and irregularities.
My interest in this topic was piqued when, in June, The Wine Spectator’s cover story was Cannabis in Wine Country. In it, writer Aaron Romano pointed out that most of the controversy is centred on Santa Barbara, wherein 2020 the County Board took only one of 19 Grand Jury recommendations for monitoring cannabis production. The recommendations cover such issues as odour abatement and environmental impact, among others.
Things are not nearly as dicey in Sonoma County. There, the regulations are more stringent, and they are enforced. (I remember years ago when a winery was fined heavily for cutting down redwood trees on its own property without permission!)
The same applies to Monterey County, where there must be 5 miles between cannabis and vineyard operations.
Aside from concerns about contamination and visual impact, two other factors can be of major concern. Grapevines are noted for being deep-rooted and requiring relatively little water compared to cannabis. One acre of vineyard requires about 100,000 gallons of water per year. The same acreage of pot takes a million. Taking into account the general acute shortage of water along the west coast, this could be a crisis in the making.
Labour competition is another crucial one for vineyard owners. Trump’s border policies and COVID have impacted significantly on available labour, to begin with. With Cannabis in the picture, things become even more dire for grape growers. Labourers can earn almost twice the amount working on a cannabis farm than in a vineyard, and the work is less intensive.
Not all winegrowers, obviously, are opposed to pot farms – some actually have decided to grow both. I recall one such grape grower explain how it helped to solve his labour problems. Instead of employing people for a couple of days and then asking them to come back a few days later – and be lucky if they did – he could keep them employed, switching from crop to crop as needed.
As the ‘Masters of Wine’ investigative study concludes, Cannabis farming is not going away. Winegrowers and Cannabis producers are going to have to work together to find ways to co-exist and to find solutions to issues as they arise. There is an annual “Wine & Weed Symposium” sponsored by “WineIndustryNetwork” which is striving to find common ground between wineries and cannabis growers. The most recent edition on Aug. 5 had the theme ‘Exploring the Confluence of Cannabis and Wine; Reimagining the Coexistence.'
It is still too early to predict where this will all lead. Currently, with no cannabis allowed in Napa County and a “no holds barred” attitude in Santa Barbara, there is a lot more work to be done. As California produces about 80 per cent of the wine in the U.S., much is riding on finding ways to profitably co-exist.
As for now, we shall see what we shall see.
August 21 Vintages Release
Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2019, $13.95 from South Africa, is “medium weight, firm, dry and well balanced, with some spritz lifting the proceedings. Some salty and bitter tang on the finish… Crunchy white.”winealign.com – 89.
Paul Mas Single Vineyard Collection Reserve Viognier 2019. $14.95, is a fine option from the Languedoc. Paul Mas is an acknowledged value producer with sound and attractive wines. It combines good density with a lifted texture towards the finish. Vintages suggests we look for “touches of honey pear, citrus and peach.”
Muga barrel Fermented White 2020, $17.95 – Vintages comments on its complexity and texture: “it’s rich and intense, with apple, pear, citrus herbs, great balance and concentration.”
L’Ostal Rosé 2020, $15.95, from France’s Languedoc carries refreshing citrus notes – clementine, lime, orange? - along with the suggestion of strawberry and maybe pomegranate. Perfect for the warm weather we have been experiencing.
Cave de Pazac le Pigeonnier 2018, $13.95, is a great bargain from the Rhone. “This is mellow and smooth throughout with plenty of delicious fruit flavour, good depth, balanced on a pin with no rough edges.” Winecurrent.com – 92.
Librandi Duca Sanfelice Ciró Riserva Rosso 2017, $17.95, is a must-try for those of Calabrese heritage. The grape, Gaglioppo, had long been thought to have been brought over from Greece centuries ago, but has since been identified as an offspring of Sangiovese and a relative of the Sicilian red grape, Nerello Mascalese. This is Librandi’s best gaglioppo, carrying spices and tobacco on the nose with ripe strawberry and cherry flavours followed by velvety tannins, all integrated harmoniously. Italy’s Gambero Ross gives it its full top rating of “3 glasses”.
Borsao Zarihs 2016, $19.95 from Spain ranked #28 in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 for 2020. WS referred to “a thick, polished texture, supported by well-integrated tannins and balsamic acidity, carries dark plum, black pepper, soy sauce and loamy earth flavours that are seamless and long.” 93. Let it breathe – it should be good for a decade.
At the moment I can’t really make any recommendations for the Sept. 4 Release. While I know which wines are coming, I don’t know the vintages or the prices. There are many I am interested in, such as the Pasqua Romeo and Juliet Prosecco Rosé – it is only recently that some Pinot Noir has been permitted to be incorporated into the white prosecco to create a Rosé. There are also wines from excellent producers in Campania – Mastroberardino’s Aglianico and Terradora’s Lacryma Christi Del Vesuvio Rosso.
Be sure to pick up a catalogue and chat with our wine consultant, Jeanie Fremlin. I am sure she can steer you towards wines that will please you.