Napa Valley sells most of its wine to Gen X and baby boomers. If the valley wants to keep thriving as millennials become a more important part of the market, it will have to add cannabis.
This was one of the points made Wednesday during a panel called "Is Cannabis a Good Thing for the Napa Valley," part of the annual Wine & Weed Symposium.
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Currently, commercial cultivation of cannabis is not allowed in unincorporated Napa County, though the city of American Canyon recently approved indoor cannabis grows. Of more interest to tourists is that cannabis retail sales in Napa County are limited to medical-use dispensaries in the city of Napa, or delivery to county residents. Unlike in Colorado, where tourists go to spark up, visitors to Napa County cannot easily buy cannabis while they're there.
"We need diversification," said Stephanie Honig, who is both director of sales and communications for Honig Vineyard & Winery, and president of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association. "Napa is about wine primarily and will always be that way. But in marketing, people think that cannabis will hurt the Napa Valley brand. I feel like it's the opposite. Millennials see cannabis as part of their lifestyle. If we're not offering cannabis, they'll go somewhere else."
Honig is planning to force the issue sooner or later. The Cannabis Association had prepared a ballot initiative for the March 2020 election, and quickly gathered the necessary signatures, but she said they retracted the initiative expecting the county board of supervisors to take action. When that didn't happen, the association thought about putting the initiative on the ballot for next month's election but was unable to gather signatures in time because of the lockdown caused by the pandemic. They're looking at the 2022 election if the supervisors don't take action beforehand.
That does not seem likely. This week, Napa's board of supervisors moved cannabis off of a list of priority items that the county is working on.
"They determined that cannabis was not a priority of the county and they would not keep it as such," Napa Valley Vintners spokesperson Rex Stults told Wine-Searcher. "There are too many other pressing items."
Napa Valley Vintners is very powerful politically in Napa County and it is dead-set against cannabis, especially after a fact-finding trip to Santa Barbara County that a group of Napa county officials and vintners took together last year, Stults said.
"The executive director of Santa Barbara Vintners told us had she known what a disaster it would become, she would have fought every step of the way against (cannabis)," Stults said. "The first problem is the smell: not of smoking, but of growing cannabis. And how far that smell travels depending on the direction and the strength of the wind. In Santa Barbara it's miles. Wine is a sensory product. How enjoyable is (wine tasting) going to be if everything just smells like cannabis?"
Honig said Wednesday that wine tasting is only one reason people visit Napa Valley, and she sees an opportunity for canna-tourism, especially for visitors for whom cannabis is not legal in their home state.
"To me, cannabis would add to the Napa name," Honig said. "When we have people come here and stay and pay premium prices for our hotel rooms, they want what they want. They want to go to dinner in Yountville and have a great spa experience. We're just adding to the experience."
Cannabis attorney Kyndra Miller said, "When I went into spas in Napa Valley in 2019, I was shocked that they were offering CBD massages. Cannabis is already there with the CBD massages and CBD oils that some of the spas are already doing."
With the wildfires that damaged this year's grape crop fresh on everyone's mind, Corey Beck, CEO and winemaking chief for The Family Coppola, said cannabis gives growers a backup plan.
"The grape market has been pretty good for a while, but we know these things are cyclical," Beck said. "When it's in a downturn, and growers can't sell their fruit, this is an opportunity for them to survive to live for another day. They don't have the option that growers do in the Central Valley to plant almonds or tree fruits. If you can provide another opportunity for a grower to put food on their table, why can't we look at this?"
Beck said a lot of winemakers very quietly support cannabis. Coppola was one of the first wine companies to move into cannabis shortly after it was legalized for recreational use in California.
"I'm in a wine-tasting group and the majority of the group are Napa winemakers," Beck said. "For Christmas, I gave them all a package of cannabis and they couldn't thank me enough. We have over 9000 club members and when we announced we were getting into cannabis, we heard from just two members who said they were going to leave the club."
Several speakers mentioned the millions of dollars in tax revenue that Napa County is missing out on. The state of California still has a huge illegal cannabis market, and Beck reminded the seminar's virtual attendees that even when it was illegal, cannabis was estimated to be the state's largest cash crop.
"Cannabis has been growing in California for a very long time," Beck said. "What we have to say is, what can we do as a community to make it work for everyone?"
Beck said Napa should avert its eyes from Santa Barbara's experience, where weed and grape growers have been at odds, and look instead at Sonoma County.
"We've got 88 licenses (for cannabis)," Beck said. "It's about 1 acre per license, in places that make sense."Location is crucial in wine country, and not just because of terroir. One of Napa Valley Vintners' biggest objections is the appearance of cannabis grows.
"Cannabis farms will turn into mini prison yards with barbed wire, lighting and other security," Stults said. "The fact of the matter is people will go in there and steal cannabis. They don't do that right now with clusters of Cabernet. Do we want to clutter the Napa Valley with mini-prison yards?"
Honig said the solution to that is simple: license only small grows over the ridgelines of the mountains that define Napa Valley, so that they are not visible from either State Route 29 or Silverado Trail.
"If done correctly, you won't even know that these acres exist," Beck said. "We are producing product from Humboldt County. We've made multiple trips up there to source this and we have never seen the barbed wire and the armed guards. That's a little bit of a myth."
Stults said that grower Andy Beckstoffer recently shared with him his concern that terpenes from cannabis growing near wine grapes will affect the flavor of the wine, much as vineyards near groves of eucalyptus trees can produce wine with a eucalyptus flavor.
But Honig, a wine marketer, says Napa Valley Vintners are missing out on an opportunity that should be more obvious to them than to anyone else.
"We're not looking to grow huge amounts of cannabis," Honig said. "We're not looking to compete with Santa Barbara or Humboldt. We make 4 percent of the wine produced in California. We should make 1 percent of the cannabis produced in California. Make it the premium, top shelf, cannabis in California."
Special reserve single-vineyard cannabis with a $150 price tag that's made only in the best years from only the best plants? It hits your brain upon inhalation like an iron fist in a velvet glove? Half the marketing is already in place!
"Santa Barbara did not do anything like we're planning on doing," Honig said. "We're looking at limiting to 100 acres in the entire Napa Valley. When you look at 50,000 acres of wine grapes, it's not even a rounding error. We're looking at putting it in the ag watershed, where you wouldn't see it. We're talking about maximum one-acre parcels. We're looking at not allowing greenhouses."
"We're Napa. We don't look at Santa Barbara and how they make wine. I'm not sure why we would look at how they grow cannabis either."