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Wine Industry Veterans Envision Napa Valley As Leader In Luxury Cannabis

July 2, 2019

Grapes aren’t the only crop suited for the soil of the prestigious Napa Valley. The cannabis plant can also thrive in the valley’s microclimates and absorb the nuances of its terroir. Eric Sklar and Stephanie Honig, both wine industry veterans and founders of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association (NVCA), believe that Napa cannabis could be just as prestigious as Napa wines, and they’re leading an effort to allow commercial cultivation in the valley.

Following California’s formal legalization of recreational cannabis in 2016, the Napa County Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium on commercial cannabis activity and cultivation and extended it through 2019. For Sklar, previously of Alpha Omega Winery and the founder of luxury cannabis company Fumé, and Honig, NVCA president and director of communications and exports at Honig Vineyard and Winery, the situation has been frustrating. Both are long-time participants in the wine industry who now see the Napa’s potential to be a leader in prestige cannabis. After an unsuccessful attempt at persuading the county Board of Supervisors to enact an ordinance opening up cannabis activity, they decided to put the issue to a vote on the ballot next March.

“We wrote an ordinance,” Honig told SND. “And we took it to the Board of Supervisors, and they decided they did not want to work on it, weren’t able to, were too busy. And it was really unfortunate because that’s their job and we wanted them to legislate. We really didn’t want to put it on the ballot.”

The prospect of allowing cannabis cultivation in Napa’s vaunted soil is widely popular among residents, according to the NVCA. A survey they commissioned found that 55% of residents support cannabis cultivation there and 64% supported using a ballot initiative to force the issue. When the NCVA hired a signature gathering company, they were told it would take 40 days to gather the 5,635 signatures necessary to get on the ballot. Instead they gathered more than 8,200 signatures in just 8 days.

Sklar doesn’t believe Napa grapevines will be supplanted by bud. “I don’t think anybody’s going to take out these valuable grapes, which take years to perfect,” he says. “More likely, it’s going to go on properties that have never been ideal for grapes, like hillsides.”

Still, the economic benefits of cannabis farming might prove difficult for some winegrowers to pass up. “An acre of Napa Cabernet is ultimately worth around $50,000,” Honig estimates. “But right now an acre of cannabis would probably yield $2 million.”

“We could be the premier U.S. grower for cannabis in Napa, because we know how to do this; the climate is perfect for cannabis,” Sklar says. “Cannabis and grapes can coexist. And particularly in an industry where there’s a real worry right now about millennials and wine, if we can draw them to Napa with cannabis and it leads them to discover our wines, everybody wins.”

The County Registrar has until July 10 to certify the NCVA’s petition and collected signatures. After that, the Board of Supervisors will have until the end of August to formally place the measure on the ballot.

While the NCVA is moving forward with the ballot initiative, other local groups say that if cannabis is coming to the valley, it should be through the ordinance process. The Napa Valley Vintners association hasn’t taken a formal position on cannabis cultivation in the area, but would prefer an ordinance to the planned ballot initiative. Rex Stults, senior director of industry relations at the Napa Valley Vintners association, told SND, “If this is to be handled by an ordinance versus an initiative, the time to take it up is now. The clock is ticking. The benefit of an ordinance is that it may be amended if we don’t get it right.” The Napa County Farm Bureau, meanwhile, opposes the ballot initiative but says it could support an ordinance process on the issue.—Danny Sullivan

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