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Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Part 1: Eric Sklar On The Intersection Of Cannabis And Wine In California

June 1, 2021

Eric Sklar is in a unique position to assess the intersection of the wine and cannabis industries in California. Sklar, whose family has been growing grapes in Napa for four decades, founded Alpha Omega Winery in the Rutherford district in 2005. He’s also a founding member of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association and CEO of Napa Fumé, a vertically integrated cannabis company he started in 2017. Sklar recently joined Wine Spectator’s Straight Talk series on Instagram Live to discuss the confluence of winemaking and cannabis cultivation with Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec.

MW: The big question is: Can wine and cannabis be good neighbors, especially in prestigious California winegrowing regions like Napa?

Sklar: The Napa Valley Cannabis Association has names like Mondavi, and Honig, and Hills, and Sklar on it—folks who’ve been growing grapes in Napa for a very long time. I think it’s generational. Not to stereotype too much, but I think the opposition is mainly older white men who just don’t like cannabis. They come up with a lot of reasons why cannabis shouldn’t be grown in Napa, but none of them are very valid. Whereas the younger generation believes that this is now a legal product for adults, it should be grown properly, and that it can really complement what’s going on in Napa. Particularly, we’re losing millennials in the wine business to craft cocktails and craft beers. We think that having cannabis alongside wine in Napa will bring those millennials up to Napa where we can introduce them to not just cannabis but the whole Napa lifestyle including our great Cabs.

MW: What do you say to people who argue that cannabis could dilute the Napa name in relation to its wine tradition?

Sklar: First of all, we’re not going for mass production, but a very limited footprint. We don’t want to do volume, we want to do quality. Our ballot measure to allow cultivation calls for 100 acres in all of Napa County compared with 45,000 acres of grapes. But I’d also say to those folks, what about Napa Auto Parts or Napa nuts or olive oil? There are lots of businesses that use Napa in their name. I think the fact that it will be very limited acreage, and an elite product, means that the Napa name will be enhanced, not hurt.

MW: A major concern from vintners is cannabis odor. If there’s a grapevine planted next to a cannabis farm, is there any concern about the odor drifting and affecting the flavor of the grapes?

Sklar: I understand that some grape growers fear that, but all evidence is to the contrary. It’s very interesting, because grapes and cannabis get all their aroma from the same compounds, from terpenes. If terpenes could pass through grape skin then wine would have no flavor, it would all taste like Welch’s Grape Juice. But the grape skin actually holds the terpenes quite well and doesn’t allow other terpenes to enter through the skin. So odor really isn’t a problem. You might smell it if you’re a neighbor and there’s an enormous cannabis farm next to you, but it’s not affecting the grapes.

MW: But there’s another side of the drift issue which is about pesticides. Can you explain how wine grapes might not be a good neighbor for cannabis in that sense?

Sklar: That’s really the problem. Cannabis should be more worried about grapes nearby than the other way around. For better or for worse, grapes involve a lot of pesticides and some chemicals, particularly sulfur, to prevent powdery mildew. And the cannabis laws in California, as they should, require that all the cannabis be tested several times including right after packaging for levels of contamination that are so low that they’re in the parts per billion. That makes cannabis cleaner than an apple from a health food store. So the risk really is pesticide drift from vineyards onto cannabis, which would make that cannabis unsellable. Anybody who wants to invest in cannabis cultivation is going to make sure they’re a good distance from a vineyard for that reason.

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