California Winemakers: We’ll Grow Marijuana Instead

Photo by Nico Escondido

The Mediterranean climate enjoyed by much of California—long, hot and dry summer days, followed by cool nights, freshened with ocean-fed breezes—is ideally suited for wine grapes. This is also a textbook description for the ideal conditions in which the cannabis plant will thrive.

Across the state, once-moribund agricultural reasons are experiencing profound renaissances following marijuana legalization.

In the Salinas Valley, home to John Steinbeck’s imagination and part of the inspiration for the Grapes of Wrath, abandoned flower farms are being converted into massive cannabis greenhouses.

And while times were good in California wine country, well before voters legalized recreational cannabis in November—the state’s vintners recorded a record-high $32 billion in sales in 2016, according to the Wine Institute—some grape growers are more than happy to rip out Chardonnay and Cabernet and replace it with O.G. Kush, because cannabis could be even better.

A literal gold (green?) rush, even.

As the Sacramento Bee reports, an acre of prime vineyards is worth at most $185,000 in Sonoma County and $365,000 in tonier and slightly more famous Napa County. But an acre of cannabis? Think $1.1 million, according to some marijuana industry estimates.

“There’s a new agricultural product coming to town,” said John Bergman, an area real-estate broker. “If you can plant one acre of cannabis and make… a million or more per year, that’s a hell of a lot better than vineyards.”

(As it happens, one acre is the largest farm that can currently be licensed under California law—for five years, anyway, when the state will license cannabis farms of “unlimited” size.)

This new reality isn’t really new.

Sonoma County has had a thriving, out-in-the-open cannabis industry since medical marijuana was a regulated, legal activity, and it is naive to think that Napa doesn’t have its share of cannabis farms—but it’s one that mainstream farmers are only recently copping to.

“As a sustainable farmer, you have to be willing to change with the market, and with crops that are profitable,” Steve Dutton, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, told the Bee.

Predictably, forward-thinking investors are already snapping up wine country properties and converting them to cannabis, the newspaper reported.

At least one historic winemaking complex has been purchased by a cannabis outfit: Flow Kana, a Bay Area-based “farm-to-bowl” marijuana firm that links small growers in the Emerald Triangle with savvy consumers in urban San Francisco and Los Angeles, bought the former estate of the Fetzer winemaking family in a $3.5 million deal.

The company plans to convert the 87,000 square-feet once used to produce one million cases of wine a year into a regional marijuana processing and shipping facility, to be used by “80 to 100” small farmers to get their cannabis crops trimmed, cured, and prepared for market.

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If everything goes to plan, the former Fetzer property will be a first-of-its-kind “marijuana vineyard,” with space for conferences and weddings, as well as daily visitors, who would be able to patronize Napa Valley-style tasting rooms. But with weed.

At least some wine country farmers view marijuana as a way to stay in business and avoid the fate of Steinbeck’s Joad family, which lost their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl and encountered more hard times in California. [Editor’s Note: We’ll just forget that Grapes of Wrath had one of the creepiest endings of a book ever… IMHO.]

“My family has grown every crop that you can grow here in Sonoma County,” said the farm bureau’s Dutton, who listed prunes, hops, walnuts and apples as predecessors to wine grapes—which, by any estimate, the region has more than enough of.

Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents the area (and whose hometown, Healdsburg, is a craft-beer destination, as well as a winemaking haven), believes that marijuana could one day supplant wine as the area’s top crop.

“Today, some farmers see cannabis as the natural transition from grapes to what I believe is going to become the largest agricultural crop in California in the years to come—marijuana,” he told the newspaper.

At the same time, marijuana may have more in common with grapes than being an agricultural product suited to the area. It could follow the same cycles of boom-and-bust.

As Mike Martini, a former mayor of Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat, told the newspaper, the price of grapes fell as soon as the area became inundated with vineyards. There’s reason to believe that if there’s a sudden rush to grow acres of cannabis—and there is—supply could overwhelm demand with marijuana just as easily as it did with wine.

Not that history or economics have ever stopped anyone.

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