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Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Part 2: Eric Sklar On Cannabis Cultivation In The Golden State

June 8, 2021

In the second part of this interview, Wine Spectator senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec chats with wine and cannabis veteran Eric Sklar to get his views on terroir, banking, water use, and other key topics in California’s cannabis industry.

MW: What are some of the misconceptions that people might have about the cannabis industry and what it’s like to be in it?

Sklar: One of the biggest and most persistent misconceptions is that we’re awash with cash. That was true when it was illegal. But the idea that we can’t bank, use bill pay and ACH transfers, or deposit checks is just plain wrong. It is true that because it’s federally illegal, to bank cannabis money banks have to do extra due diligence, because otherwise they could be contributing to money laundering. They just want to make sure they’re doing the right thing and that the licensee is collecting money from legal customers: adults in legal states that allow it. But we bank like any other business. That’s the single biggest misconception, and it creates a lot of fear among local officials because they’re wary of all the crime that can be associated with lots of cash going around.

MW: What makes a good terroir for cannabis and why might it overlap in some cases with wine?

Sklar: What cannabis really likes is long, hot days and a long, hot growing season—very dry conditions. In Napa, as well as in Lake County, just north of us, we have just those sorts of growing seasons. Additionally, both places have really terrific aquifers, good water supply that’s actually unique to that watershed. It’s not fed by the Sierra snowpack like most California areas are. So we have great water. We have great sunlight. And both Napa and Lake County have an incredible array of soil types because of the volcanic activity, because of the erosion that’s gone on. And so all three of those things combine to create a great terroir.

MW: Using gross generalizations, an acre of cannabis can yield a crop worth up to a million dollars or more, while a prestigious wine grapes can get only about $20,000 to $40,000. Does that create a lot of competition for land and other resources?

Sklar: The most important thing to remember is even though the dollar value that we get for an acre of land is so much greater, we don’t need nearly as much land. We can get 1,800 pounds of cannabis from a single acre, which is an enormous amount of cannabis. So, for instance, we’re proposing a ballot measure in Napa to allow cannabis growing. We’re limiting it to only one acre per parcel of land and 100 acres total for the whole county. By contrast, there are 45,000 acres of grapes in Napa. So it’s really a small amount of land. It won’t be competing with grapes.

MW: It’s estimated that it takes about 100,000 gallons of water per acre to grow wine grapes, but an acre of cannabis requires closer to a million gallons of water. Do you want to clarify that a little bit for us?

Sklar: It’s important to note that in cannabis water is only used for irrigating the plants. Wine production uses a lot of water for other steps of the process that isn’t counted in that estimate. One example is for frost protection, which is only a couple of days a year but uses an enormous amount of water. And then in post-harvest and production winemakers use somewhere between four and eight gallons of water per gallon of wine produced. It used to be 13 gallons of water for every gallon of wine, because it’s so sticky and there’s lots of cleaning that goes on in both tanks and barrels and the floor. So when you adjust it that way they’re much closer. And, as I said earlier, we’re proposing only 100 acres in Napa. So the amount of water we’re going to use for cannabis is a rounding error. The water used for cannabis will be less than a hundredth of a percent of the water used for 45,000 acres of grapes.

MW: Since cannabis is delicate and sensitive to pesticides, is smoke taint a potential problem for cannabis growers?

Sklar: It’s counterintuitive because you would think smoke would really affect this wide-open flower versus a grape that’s sealed in a skin. Our farm in Lake County has been through three summers and each of those seasons had a period of time where there were enormous forest fires nearby and there was smoke to the point where we had to shut down. We put the watering on automatic and got everybody out of there for days at a time. And each of those three years we tested at the end of harvest, both from a contamination perspective but also sensory, and in no instance did the smoke taint the cannabis. There is a threat if you build a cannabis garden in the middle of a forest and it gets cooked, but smoke taint does not seem to be a problem in the cannabis industry.

MW: What is the significance of cannabis as a revenue stream for Napa County?

Sklar: The jobs cannabis creates tend to be pretty well paying. And the tax revenue will be new revenue in every city and county, Napa included. Furthermore, we want to do the same thing that wine businesses do: we want to have tasting rooms that are near the garden so people can see how the plant grows. Maybe we do a greenhouse so they can see different stages just like some folks do with grapevines. We want to show why the soil matters, why the climate matters, and have them experience the different plants. It’ll be a little different—we don’t want people smoking a lot in the tasting room, but they can smell it, they can take a small puff to see what it tastes like just like you do in a tasting room. And when we do that, our visitors are then in the area for the day, or spending the night at our hotels and spending money at our restaurants. They’re inevitably going to try our wine because it’s part of the experience as well. And we think that would be beneficial to everybody concerned.

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