Are wine and weed on a collision course in the North Bay?

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Like a complicated dating relationship, the wine and cannabis industries in Northern California have long cohabitated, but whether or not they’ll find harmony in a long-term relationship is still anyone’s guess.

And no one’s quite ready to commit.

Legalization of marijuana has changed the landscape, literally, setting the two agricultural powerhouses in the North Bay on a potential collision course of epic proportions unless they find common ground.

Speaking to some of the challenges as well as the potential synchronicity between the two, Nick Caston, Vice President of Public Affairs and Policy at Sonoma’s CannaCraft spoke to the North Bay Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference on April 28, 2017.

Though the conference was solidly focused on wine industry issues—labor, financial and manufacturing primarily—the intersection of cannabis and wine was a wild card on the roster, and something that many vintners and growers have been sniffing out.

In a brief presentation, Caston laid out some key issues:

“We are all part of the same agricultural industry,” said Caston, acknowledging the similarities in expressing terroir, working within age-regulated markets, taxing and regulation, as well as copping to the significant knowledge gap many cannabis growers have with a strict regulatory system.

“We are having to learn it all today, without years of experience to handle it,” he said. “We share a consumer base and market with many of the same considerations.”

“We don’t have pinot noir, we have Sour Diesel,” he told the audience, who laughed at the reference to a particularly potent strain of marijuana. But the base forces are the same, he said, comparing budtenders with tasting room staff at wineries to help guide purchasers through the process.

Caston summarized issues the two industries would be facing in the coming months of city, county and state regulatory laws as well as the years ahead:

LABOR: In the past, marijuana growers were paying workers “enough to not get ratted out to cops,” he said. The industry will face much stricter labor regulations come Jan. 1, but Caston said collaboration between wine and cannabis growers could allow for almost year-round harvest opportunities (indoor plants can be harvested several times per year), along with the possibility of longer-term retention and better training of of laborers. But, “the cannabis industry needs help to navigate this.”

Conversely, Caston noted that the two do compete for labor resources already stretched thin in a region with high housing costs. “There is an opportunity for synergy and crop diversification,” he said.

APPELLATIONS: State government will soon establish particular cannabis appellations, or growing regions, similar to wine. A premium wine appellation like Stag’s Leap or cannabis region like the Emerald Triangle will likely want to keep their individual brand recognition, Caston said, but the Sonoma Coast, Russian River and other regions could combine forces to attract tourism.

PESTICIDE USE: Drift from chemical pest management in vineyards could have devastating effects for cannabis growers.  Because cannabis is typically combusted, testing is far more rigorous, testing in parts per billion rather than parts per million. Even a small amount of contamination from a neighboring vineyard could render an entire cannabis crop worthless. “We have a 70 percent rejection rate in our labs,” said Caston of marijuana being tested in recent months. (Read more about some serious issues facing pesticide testing)

TAXATION: Cannabis is facing the possibility of heavy taxation by both state and local governments, with a 10 percent maximum tax on sales just in Sonoma County. “Regulators introduced them in our industry and that will spread out,” Caston said, indicating that such taxes could be levied on wine.

Read more at the North Bay Business Journal