What Pairs With Pot? Sonoma County wineries ponder ties with cannabis industry

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  • “Just as drinking a beer doesn’t mean someone is a drunk or an alcoholic – simply consuming cannabis doesn’t make him or her a zoned-out stoner.”

A crowd of more than 200 people representing both the local wine and cannabis industries turned out at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds during WIN Expo to listen to a discussion on possible business collaborations between the two, once marijuana is legalized for recreational use in California.

The message was clear during a forum at the conference that while there needs to be rules written at both the state and federal level, businesses in both sectors already are thinking about the opportunities.

Local wineries publicly have kept their distance from the cannabis industry, especially as no vintner wants to risk his federal permit to sell wine by offering for sale or consumption a drug that is still illegal under federal law.

 But vintners are still excited about joint marketing ventures with cannabis, particularly as a recent Gallup survey found 13 percent of Americans use marijuana. Rebecca Stamey-White, an attorney at Hinman and Carmichael law firm in San Francisco who specializes in alcoholic beverage law, said she has received calls this year from winery clients interested in the ideas and issues that legal cannabis presents.

“A big one is the on-premise use and figuring out a way to do these events; to be able have consumers in that bar environment and tasting room environment where they can try new things with experts and be educated and learn how to pair with food,” Stamey-White said.

That’s the pitch that Philip Wolf is making. Wolf is chief executive officer of Cultivating Spirits, a Breckenridge, Colorado business. It has offered visitors a food, wine and cannabis tasting tour for $249 per person since the Rocky Mountain state legalized recreational use in 2014.

The almost four-hour event features a limousine tour and cannabis tasting, a wine-and-cheese pairing, and then a private three-course dinner where a particular marijuana is paired with a certain dish. The customers buy the cannabis at a dispensary during a tour visit. Cultivating Spirits doesn’t sell it.

can-2“It’s a really high-end experience for people,” Wolf said. “We really see getting a lot of senior citizens coming on the tours. These are people who don’t need to worry about the scrutiny of cannabis usage because they are not necessarily focused on a career anymore.”

Wolf came out to the North Coast earlier this year to explore the idea of working with wineries on such a tour. Napa and Sonoma counties would be a good fit for his service, he noted, rather than Humboldt and Mendocino counties, where the focus would be primarily on the cultivation, usage and history of cannabis in the Emerald Triangle.

Indeed, the tourism and hospitality aspects are a driving force for many even if they are not directly tied to either industry. Todd Roll, founder of Pedal Bike Tours in Portland, Oregon, for example, started a cannabis biking tour for $69 per person once it became legalized in that state last year.

During the 9-mile bike ride, customers will stop at two dispensaries as well as some shops that sell pot-related paraphernalia. They do not consume while on the tour, he said.

Pedal Bikes also offers wine and beer bicycle tours, like many Sonoma County operators.

“We kind of hit all the vices,” Roll said.But he has found that many who cultivate the plant still do not want visitors to their farms, unlike those in the wine industry who use vineyards as a key part of the experience and a selling point.

Figures so far have shown that the legalization of marijuana has not hampered wine sales. In Colorado, wine sales did dip during the first year after cannabis was made legal, but they have since recovered. Through August, taxes collected by the Colorado Department of Revenue on wine sales were up 3.1 percent for the previous 12 months.

A general skepticism across the wine industry should subside once winemakers actually explore how the cannabis industry handles the visitor experience, said Michael Kelly Brown, vice president of Sokol Blosser Winery, in Dayton, Oregon, which opened the first tasting room in the state in 1978.

Brown noted that the nine pot dispensaries around the McMinnville area, which is a key wine region in the Willamette Valley noted for it pinot noir, offer a much better customer experience than the state-run liquor store.

“The little liquor store that I have to go to to buy any spirit is one of the dodgiest in the city. Most of the cannabis dispensaries are some of the nicest, most well-done places you can go,” Brown said.

He said he has found no downside to having the cannabis dispensaries in the area, noting that many visitors are coming for medical purposes.

“There is a wide range of people who visit them,” Brown said, “but a large portion of them are consumers over the age of 50 years old, who are looking for pharmacological benefits to a lot of ailments that they have … and not your stereotypical old-school pothead.”