In the epicurean world, Northern California is famous for two intoxicants — wine and weed. With recreational marijuana about to be legal in the Golden State, some cannabis entrepreneurs are looking to the wine industry as a model.
On the elegant terrace of a winery overlooking the vineyard-covered hills of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, a dozen invited guests are sipping pinot noir, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and taking hits off a water pipe.
They have come for a farm-to-table meal of kale salad, roasted vegetables and grilled flatiron steak paired with wine and certain types of marijuana.
"What we've found so far is that sativas go well with whites, indicas go well with reds," says Sam Edwards, president of the Sonoma Cannabis Company.
He's part of the emerging pot-for-pleasure industry that seeks to grab a share of the nearly $2 billion tourism business in Sonoma Valley with events like this.
"What we're beginning is melding cannabis with wine and food in a curated meal that offers the best of all worlds," says Edwards.
Recreational marijuana is now legal in eight states and the District of Colombia.
But the prize is California, where American cannabis has the deepest historical, cultural and agronomic roots. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana 21 years ago; in November, voters gave the green light to cannabis for fun.
Northern California's legendary Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties produces some of the world's most sought-after pot.
As it happens, just south of the Triangle lie the state's famed wine-growing counties of Sonoma and Napa.
"I think that the wine industry is going to really want to be part of the cannabis industry, because I feel like there's probably a secure future in that," says Domi Heckei, a 32-year-old special education teacher who attended the wine-and-weed dinner.
While cannabis people are excited to co-market with wine, wine people are taking a wait-and-see approach. Few of the wine trade associations contacted for this story wanted to comment on the coming of cannabis. One longtime Sonoma winemaker acknowledged "a certain level of apprehension" among his peers.
Erin Gore markets cannabis-infused confections for women, under the name Garden Society. She married into a family of grape growers, and this is her take on why those in Sonoma County may be apprehensive:
"Going down (U.S. Highway) 101 are ... all the vineyards going to get ripped out and it's only going to be pot? How bad is it going to smell? A big thing is, everyone's going to get robbed. A lot of people are worried about marijuana-stoned driving."
In fact, Sonoma is already struggling to accommodate its 469 wineries. Though wine tourism is the lifeblood of the economy, residents complain about the endless special events at wineries, the congested roads and tipsy drivers. Adding cannabis to the mix just heightens those concerns.
"We have some challenges, some cumulative impacts from wineries and tasting rooms," says First District County Supervisor Susan Gorin. "And now here comes cannabis."
Oregon, where recreational pot has been legal for two years, has had some cross-pollination between wine and cannabis, but the big experiment is here on the north coast of California.
Sonoma County expects so many applications for cannabis land-use permits that it has hired 14 additional regulators. There are rules for groundwater management, mandatory use of renewable energy, setbacks from highways and schools, and requirements for elaborate security plans.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, cannabis is going to be the most difficult crop to grow in Sonoma County," says Fifth District County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins.
The vineyards own all the good land, and no one knows if they'll want to expand into cannabis cultivation, as a handful have done in Oregon.
Tom Rodrigues, who owns Maple Creek Winery in the hills of neighboring Mendocino County, is bullish on the regulated commercial cannabis market. Rodrigues sits on two advisory boards — one for cannabis, one for wine.
He says he grows pot for personal use, but has no plans to slap the Maple Creek label on the green, resinous buds.
"My first passion is the wine," he says. "If the laws were different I could grow (cannabis) because I have 164 acres here. But I would have to move my tasting room off the property, because the law is that you cannot be selling alcohol and growing cannabis on the same property."
In terms of the market, Rodrigues thinks fine wine drinkers are a natural clientele for Emerald Triangle cannabis.
"I speak to people every day here in the tasting room and people want to know about it. It's no longer hush-hush. 'I'm from Iowa, I've heard Mendocino County has great cannabis. Where can I get some?' " Rodrigues says.
They'll have to wait until Jan. 1. That's when retail recreational marijuana opens for business in California.
A preview was available at the recent Cannabis Business Summit & Expo down the highway in Oakland. Vendors were there hawking the latest in cannabis farm security, insurance, fertilizers, grow lights, potting soils and consumables.
Humberto Torres is the COO of GFarma Labs, a company that infuses chocolates and lemonades, as well as sells marijuana bud.
In Sonoma County, the talk is all about the marriage of wine and cannabis, but at the trade show, Torres sees alcohol as the competition. "Instead of coming home and pouring myself a glass of chardonnay," he says, "I'd make a (cannabis) tea, 2 ½ milligrams, and take that and try to take the edge off."
The two industries will come together next month for the first time at the Wine & Weed Symposium in the city of Santa Rosa to explore cooperation and competition.
What will north coast tourists be looking for: a wine with notes of berry, leather, and a hint of quince or a joint that delivers a calming body buzz with a cerebral creative boost — or both?
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