Sonoma and Napa counties differ in how they mix wine and cannabis

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As cannabis becomes a burgeoning and profitable crop in California, its path out of the shadows in areas where grapes have dominated has been rocky and uneven.

Both Sonoma and Mendocino counties are taking steps this month to write rules for the commercial cultivation of a cannabis plant that had estimated legal sales of $ 4.4 billion nationwide last year. In addition, retail pharmacies and processing plants are already part of a growing regional infrastructure.

Still, Napa County remains an outlier. There is an increasingly controversial debate between the burgeoning marijuana industry, which has finally become legitimate, and the conservative wine sector protecting its multi-billion dollar brand, Napa Valley, which it fears will be tainted by cannabis farms.

However, some Napa wineries see the lucrative business opportunities in adding weed to their winery businesses.

Politically connected opponents have continued to thwart attempts to establish new ground rules for growing commercial weeds, fearful of repercussions for the wine industry. Napa County has the most valuable grapes in the United States annually, valued up to $ 1 billion in normal crops unaffected by forest fires or other extreme weather.

“Some of my colleagues do not see the value of a second crop of great value competing with wine,” said Michael Honig, president of his family’s Rutherford Honey Vineyard and Winery, which supports limited cannabis cultivation in Napa County.

That was seen on March 2, when Brad Wagenknecht, head of Napa County, brought up the long-deadlocked issue during a board meeting, fearing that no action could lead residents to propose an electoral initiative to grow cannabis, similar to one , which was suspended last year because of the pandemic.

Opponents lined up last month and derailed any progress. They represented a who’s who of the county’s economy, such as Napa Valley Vintners, the Napa County Farm Bureau, and the Visit Napa Valley tourism organization. The groups determined that they did not want the Napa Valley name to be destroyed by visible rot and foul smells that they claim came from cannabis growers in Santa Barbara County.

Linsey Gallagher, President of Visit Napa Valley, said “Unsightly tire houses and overwhelming pungent terpene odors are seriously affecting the wine-visitor experience”.

By contrast, Debra Dommen, vice president of government affairs for Treasury Wine Estates, which owns six wineries in Napa County and Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood, said that other counties that had a combination of grape and cannabis cultivation “wasn’t a good experience . “

Napa regulators decided not to continue the debate about mixing cannabis growing and viticulture. Supervisor Ryan Gregory said, “When I close my eyes and picture Napa, there is no cannabis in my vision.”

While Gregory’s vision does not include cannabis, many others do, especially some leading winemakers who have well-known properties in Napa County.

These include Constellation Brands Inc., which owns the legendary Robert Mondavi winery and which has a majority stake in the Canadian marijuana company Canopy Growth. And Francis Ford Coppola, the famous film director who owns the legendary Inglenook winery and who has a separate company that works with a Humboldt County cannabis producer.

That is the contradiction in the debate. While the old guard fears what cannabis could bring, others see promising results, especially as younger consumers are looking for more diverse experiences than their parents and are vital to the continued growth of the wine sector.

The latter is represented by Tracey Mason, a wine industry veteran who now serves as general manager of the Saka House in Napa, which produces non-alcoholic wine that is cannabis-infused and sold in licensed pharmacies. The brand uses Napa Valley grapes in their wines and wants the option for the cannabis used.

“Napa has a beautiful background. That goes for cannabis too, ”said Mason. “The cannabis growth in Napa is known around the world as the best cannabis in the world.”

She claims that younger consumers want drinks and leisurely experiences that could include cannabis or related tourism.

Sonoma County already has a diversity in its craft beer scene, as well as in boutique cider and liquor stores. Additionally, cannabis operators in Sonoma and Mendocino counties are looking for greater ways to bring visitors to the area.

“Cannatourism would bring more people to the (Napa) Valley, especially millennials and those who are younger,” Mason told Napa managers last month.