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Wine & Weed Symposium Offers Pot of Gold

Bud break is taking on a whole new meaning in California, where voters legalized the recreational use of cannabis in November.

Opportunities form the focus of the Wine & Weed Symposium, which takes place on August 3 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. Nearly 500 attendees are expected at the $295-per-person trade show that offers seminars with perspectives from both the wine and cannabis businesses and 45 vendors selling everything from water tanks and HVAC systems to vapes, tinctures, labels and packaging.

Some 75 percent of the attendees are from the wine industry. “If you’ve got an emergent industry with the upside that cannabis has and you’re going to be sharing the neighborhood with them, then it’s in the wine industry’s best interest to know and understand their new neighbor as best they it can,” says George Christie, president of Wine Industry Network, the symposium’s producer.

“To do otherwise is just naïve and bad business.”

The opening speaker is slated to be California State Senator Mike McGuire, who represents seven counties in the North Coast/North Bay, including Sonoma and Lake wine country as well as the Emerald Triangle (Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity Counties), one of the nation’s largest cannabis-growing regions.

“The North Coast is the epicenter for cannabis cultivation in America and it has been critical that as state regulations are implemented, the North Coast is driving the conversation,” McGuire says.

McGuire, a Democrat, was the lead legislator for the Cannabis Budget Trailer Bill passed in June that regulates legal use of marijuana in California. He also co-chairs the Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry.

Other panelists providing a look into the cannabis business include Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, the largest organization of cannabis businesses and growers in California; Tawnie Logan, chair of the board of directors of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, which works with the marijuana-growing community; and Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a national trade association.

One group not attending is the Sonoma County Winegrowers association. “Our organization is focused on supporting the grape growing and agriculture community and are not involved in or commenting on cannabis,” says its president, Karissa Kruse.

The Wine And Weed Symposium.
Photo provided by Sonoma Cannabis Company / Kristen Jeanne Photography

Pot No More of a Threat to Wine than Beer

To date, 29 states and the District of Columbia permit medical marijuana, and eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult-use marijuana. In North America consumers spent $6.7 billion on legal cannabis products in 2016, up 34 percent from 2015, according to the Arcview Group, which studies and invests in the industry. Total sales are expected to top $22 billion by 2021.

The state produces 85 percent of the wine in the United States, with domestic sales hitting $238 billion in 2016, according to The Wine Institute.

While some predict that weed will compete with wine for consumer dollars, others disagree. Phil Coturri is CEO of Enterprise Vineyards, which supervises 650 acres of certified organic grapes in Sonoma and Napa Counties. He grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the psychedelic ‘60s and says marijuana has been part of his life since he was 14 years old.

“Marijuana has been in the forefront of middle-class American culture for the last 50 years,” Coturri says. “Is beer in competition with wine? Sure. Is pot in competition with wine? Sure, as much as beer is. But is someone going to stop drinking wine because they want to buy pot—I don’t think so.”

Coturri sounds a cautionary note about how fast the commercial cannabis business can expand into wine country. “Cannabis is still illegal as far as the federal government goes. I would not risk growing marijuana in my vineyard or having it in my winery because I’m dealing with the federal government on that point also.”