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Sonoma makes way for cannabis wine


“Cannabis grows well wherever wine does – and it grows incredibly well here.” So George Van Patton told the Index-Tribune in 2015, talking about the underground economy of the Valley.

And, perhaps more to the point, he added: “And, on equal plots of land, cannabis would be more lucrative than wine.”

The insights of Van Patton – also known as Jorge Cervantes, his pen name for a dozen books he’s written on marijuana cultivation – seem prescient now, with the passage of both Proposition 64 legalizing recreational marijuana in November, and Measure A establishing a regulatory framework in Sonoma County in March.

The success of both showed that public support for the legal cultivation of marijuana is growing like a weed – cannabis has mainstreamed in a way that seemed inconceivable just a year or two ago.

And that mainstreaming is cutting a deep channel, indeed.

If you need further proof, there’s this week’s CannaCon, being held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa – it began on 4/20, naturally, and continues through Saturday. Meanwhile, several local cities are renegotiating their rules for cultivation, both indoor and out, though the City of Sonoma has shown no inclination to loosen its already tight regulations against cultivation, delivery and sales.

But the fascinating connection between cannabis and cabernet will be directly explored this summer, at a Wine & Weed Symposium on Aug. 3.

“I’m not a cannabis person, but I’ve been paying attention and it seems to me inevitable that there’ll be collaboration between the two,” said George Christie, founder and CEO of Wine Industry Network (WIN), an industry resource that, among other things, holds an annual industry expo.

At its last expo in December, just a month after Proposition 64 legalized recreational marijuana in California, WIN held a one-hour educational session on cannabis. “It was the most well-attended session we ever had,” said Christie. “While it was going on, nobody left; when it was over, people stayed for an hour asking questions.”

Reading the writing on the wall, Christie quickly organized the Wine & Weed Symposium, a trade show specifically relevant to wineries and grape-growers interested in expanding into the cannabis market. The direction will be “exploring the opportunities and issues that the legalization of cannabis presents to the California wine industry.” And Christie is adamant that most in the wine industry don’t regard cannabis as a competitor to wine grapes, but rather as a partner.

Likely topics of common interest include regulation, marketing, and tourism – seeing Sonoma as an “intoxication destination,” and managing that reputation. Though Christie said speakers are clamoring to get on the podium, Tawnie Logan of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance is already signed up as a speaker.

Unlike the dampening impact that legalized marijuana seems to have on beer consumption, as preliminary figures in Colorado and Washington suggest, wine and cannabis exist in equilibrium, not in competition.

That partnership is one that is well known within the industry, but rarely spoken of.

For years rumors of local winemakers who grew cannabis on their vineyard property have been circulating, though no one will admit to it.

“I do not know of anyone growing cannabis in any vineyards,” said one local winemaker who asked not to be named. “Setting aside any legal issues, the cultivation and farming demands of the two crops are not compatible.”

However Chip Forsythe, of Sonoma’s Rebel Coast Wine, insists the plants make great growing partners.

“You just need to plant a seed next to a drip irrigation line and there you go,” said Forsythe. “Anybody who says it doesn’t happen isn’t getting deep into the rows.”

But the reluctance to talk about the weed-and-wine connection may be changing, and changing fast. A recent story in the New York Times focused on Sonoma Valley wine grower Phil Coturri, showing photos of him tending marijuana seedlings.

“As Nero Wolfe would take care of his orchids in his brownstone, I would spend a couple hours a day cultivating cannabis,” the paper quotes him.

Coturri is quick to note that his hobby-sized garden is compliant with California and Sonoma County medical cannabis laws.

According to the article, Coturri’s cannabis is as valued as his varietals – and the latter are biodynamic, grown without glyphosate and highly prized by winemakers including Reprise, Arrowood, Stone Edge and Kamen Estate Wines – the neighbor next door to Coturri on a mountaintop north of Sonoma.

Screenwriter Robert Kamen is not shy about his marijuana enthusiasm, though his attention is on the aroma as much as the effect.

“There are different bouquets to different strains, and different ‘flavors’ the same way there are for different cigars,” he said. “But there is no correlation between aroma and effect – just as there is none in wine or whiskey.”

For the wine connoisseur, too, the aroma of cannabis or the “nose” is one of the key elements of appreciation and study, with its own vocabulary of descriptors ranging from “orange blossom” and “cassis” to “tobacco” and “grapefruit” – terms a consumer frequently finds on a wine label.

Interestingly, many of the same terms can and are also applied to cannabis flowers: skunk, diesel, mushroom and the like.

Which raises an interesting question: Which came first, the wine-lovers’ appreciation for marijuana, or the bud-lover’s interest in wine?

Decades ago, this reporter covered a wine-tasting river trip where the sommelier introduced the passengers to a dizzying array of fine wines to accompany the riverside feasts. With the fading campfire, he admitted to a few of us that he first got interested in wine aromas from his own interest in cannabis scents, not the other way around.

It may be just a coincidence that the explosion in the wine industry, and in wine tourism, followed the hazy bubble of the Boomers.

“Both industries attract individualistic people,” observed Christie. “But I’ve learned you’re not going to be seeing vineyards ripped out to plant cannabis. For one thing there are more regulations on what chemicals can be used in a commercial marijuana grow than in a vineyard.”

While it may be unlikely that a grape grower is going to tear up his vineyards and put in cannabis plants, things are changing fast.

Cervantes said in 2015 that cannabis could be more lucrative than grapes on any given plot of land, with its potential for multiple harvests a year, though he thought florists would be more likely to adjust to the new crop.

Rebel Coast’s Forsythe learned winemaking at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he says everyone made cannabis wine.

“You can’t learn about it in school or a book – it’s a really tight knit community; you don’t really talk about it – but everyone made it.”

Interestingly, cannabis wine has a deeper history in the central state – where it’s often called “green wine” – than in the North Bay.

But since Proposition 64 passed, Rebel Coast decided to jump in and become the first winery to widely market a cannabis wine legally.

“It can’t be done in Colorado or Washington because there are laws on the books that prevent it; those laws aren’t written in California yet,” said Forsythe, who said all their sales are direct-to-consumer to avoid illegal sales.

Rebel Coast has already made and sold its first batch of legal cannabis wine – Cloud Colony, a marijuana-infused Sonoma Valley sauvignon blanc. Flowers of the marijuana plant are heated to “activate the THC,” Forsythe says, then immersed in the partially-fermented wine for three to five days.

The goal is a wine with the aroma of cannabis and the flavor of wine, with a bit of a buzz: Forsythe is convinced the first release of Cloud Colony achieved that goal. It may well have – at $69 a bottle, it sold out quickly and there’s a waiting list for the next release.

“You’re going to get a little giggly,” he says of the effect of the cannabis-infused wine, but are unlikely to overdose on the THC. “You can ‘accidentally’ eat two brownies and have too much, but you can’t accidentally drink four glasses of wine.”

Rebel Coast isn’t the only winery looking at marketing cannabis wine. San Francisco’s Mary Jane Wine, from a medical marijuana collective, is made for its mail-order cannabis club, and singer Melissa Etheredge, a cancer survivor, has sold No Label to her in-state fans. “There’s a little flush after the first sip, but then the effect is really cheery, and at the end of the night you sleep really well,” she reported.

Forsythe said that Rebel Coast is committed to a legal cannabis wine.

“We will 100 percent be the first winery in California to do this. If anyone does, it’ll be us.”

And the wine, if the recipe for Cloud Colony holds, will be grown in the Sonoma Valley – and perhaps the cannabis, too.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.