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Wine Spectator: Cannabis In Wine Country

May 26, 2021

A crop potentially more lucrative than wine grapes is taking root in California’s wine countries: cannabis.

The passage of California Proposition 64 in 2016 legalized the commercial and recreational growing of cannabis, and with calls for federal legalization mounting, cannabis farmers are gaining traction. It’s no surprise that many are looking to farm in California’s top wine regions, with their long-established track records for thriving agriculture.

Adding to cannabis’ momentum is that many see it as a bankable addition to agriculture in regions where wine grapes dominate. Startup costs and plantable land prices (relative to region) are comparable for both industries, yet cannabis gives a much faster return and earns significantly more. An acre devoted to cannabis can easily yield a crop worth in excess of $1 million. In contrast, one year’s harvest from an acre of even the most elite wine grapes, such as Napa Cabernet, typically fetches in the $20,000–$40,000 range, with less prestigious grapes and terroirs falling in behind.

But cannabis isn’t getting a warm welcome from all grapegrowers. Clashes are escalating over natural resources, land use, zoning, crop compatibility and tourism.

With each county left to legislate its own rules, regulations covering cannabis vary greatly. Santa Barbara County has been in the spotlight for unchecked development of cannabis and outcries from residents, many of them vintners. Opponents there cite intense odors, cyclone fences, gun-toting guards and ugly hoop houses (a type of greenhouse using PVC pipe in a bending system, with thin plastic over the top to shield plants from intense sunlight) among their objections.

Cannabis opponents in Napa County point to Santa Barbara County as a cautionary tale in protecting the pastoral image of wine country, resulting in an abolitionist approach there.

Vintners in Sonoma and Monterey counties, on the other hand, appear content to coexist with cannabis cultivation. Sonoma has 126 active permits and strict regulations; Monterey cannabis “grows” are indoor-only operations. Mendocino County, highly regarded for both its premium cannabis and wine, has allowed a sizable legal industry in an effort to relieve the county’s economic straits. Wine Spectator has a full report on the intersection of cannabis and wine in California.

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