Wine & Weed Symposium Explores Opportunities for Wine Professionals in Cannabis | Wine Enthusiast
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Wine & Weed Symposium Explores Opportunities for Wine Professionals in Cannabis

Nearly 500 people, a little more than half of them from the wine industry, are expected at the second annual Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, August 2, according to event founder George Christie.

Christie, president and CEO of the Wine Industry Network, said people had come from Florida, New York, Virginia and Illinois as well as Colorado, Oregon and Washington State to learn about opportunities in the cannabis industry for wine professionals.

Opportunities for the industry 

“This year, we’re focusing on what each industry can learn from the other. There are a lot of people in the cannabis industry that can learn from small wine producers who have been able to be sustainable and successful with limited resources against giant wine companies,” Christie told Wine Enthusiast.

Liz Gehl, executive recruiter and founder of Gehl Search Partners, knows there’s a demand for skills of those who work in wine in the cannabis industry. “Part of the reason,” she says, “is because wine industry candidates have a strong understanding of the three-tier system, distribution and how to manage distribution partners. They understand the whole pay-to-play environment that the adult beverage industry has been dealing with for many years.”

Gehl, who will be on the Cannabis Opportunities for the Wine Industry panel, also thinks “there is opportunity across the board for executive talent.”

Fellow panelist Marc Hauser, a partner in the Napa law firm Gaw Van Male, agrees and went even further to say the current legal status has created “all these market inefficiencies that create opportunities for small investors to dive in.”

He notes that more than $4 billion in the United States and Canada has been raised for investment deals “and all of that is by small investors and cannabis-focused funds[…] But you don’t have large institutional capital or large private-equity firms stepping in.”

Limited by the law

Federal law, which continues to list marijuana as an illegal substance, has prevented national banks from offering services to businesses in the cannabis sector.

Hauser predicts that when that changes, the cannabis industry will eventually “look like the wine industry of today: A handful of large players producing low-cost products with more brands and small producers making artisanal products at a higher price. You’re seeing it now. You’re seeing appellations in Mendocino.”

Tammy Boatright, president of VingDirect in Sebastopol, California, will be sharing her knowledge of how to build a brand and distinguish it from the other products on the shelf because “right now, the cannabis industry seems to me to be what the wine industry was back in the’70s and’80s. There was a lot of Russian River Chardonnay selling at $25 a bottle. They were all $25, and they were all from Sonoma and they were all Chardonnay. It was very much—especially in the early days—a commodity. And that’s where weed is today.

“Weed is not distinguishing itself at the retail level at all. It is about purchasing a product that a consumer, in my opinion, has very little loyalty to,” says Boatright, who will speak on Direct to Consumer Marketing & Small Producer Strategies for Success.

Flash forward 40 years in the wine business and there are iconic Chardonnays that are fetching far more than $25 a bottle. That is due in part to building a brand, says Boatright, whose clients have included St. Supery and Marimar Estate, among others.

Distribution is also a challenge for those in the cannabis industry. Among the speakers who will be addressing those issues is Zack Crafton, CEO of Big Moon Sky. Crafton made his name in the wine business at NakedWines, a platform that gave everyday wine drinkers a chance to invest in independent winemakers. He is doing something similar for cannabis as Big Moon Sky allows customers to order weed online and have it delivered to their door.

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