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Attendees at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium nearly filled a ballroom Jan. 29 to hear about cannabis' potential impact on their industry.

Cannabis a threat to wine? Color me skeptical

Marijuana and hemp are the shiny new objects in western agriculture today.

Cannabis – marijuana and hemp – is the shiny new object in Western agriculture today. Ballot initiatives legalizing pot in California and other places, followed by Congress’ recognition of hemp in the latest Farm Bill, have major companies shelling out real money to develop cannabis-infused products and cash in on the craze.

Among those products are lots of different types of drinks, including non-alcoholic beer and wine-type beverages. They essentially substitute different levels of cannabis’ two most popular ingredients – the intoxicant tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) – for the alcohol, since it’s illegal for businesses to mix the two in a drink or even on the same sales premises.

One entrepreneur who’s wading into the waters is Cynthia Salarizadeh, whose Saka wine-like pink beverage infuses cannabis into unfermented Napa Valley wine grapes. Salarizadeh was part of a panel of speakers touting cannabis’ potential at this week's Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Calif.

“I believe this is the future of the industry – drinks,” she told wine industry professionals who nearly filled a main ballroom, curious about the subject. “In 2019, this is when you’re going to see a confluence of your industry and our industry.”

Panelists described the legalization of cannabis as a “game-changer” for the wine industry, but the problem as I see it is they didn’t exactly explain how. It’s true that cannabis-infused teas, soft drinks and other value-added products have sought to appeal to some of the same educated, affluent consumers that have been drawn to wine.

But they’d have a long way to go to make a serious dent in California’s $1.53 billion wine industry, and I’m not yet convinced they’ll get there, at least in the near future.

For one thing, I don’t think the two products – cannabis and wine – have much crossover appeal. As one grape grower at the conference pointed out, while wine eases social inhibitions, one generally doesn’t think of marijuana as a social drug. A person who takes an edible is more likely to curl up on the couch than be the life of the party.

Further, I think of my mother, who grew up accustomed to seeing spirits at her parents’ dinner table in the ‘40s and ‘50s and has spent a lifetime becoming a wine connoisseur. She actually knows how a $20 glass of wine is supposed to taste. She and her friends aren’t going to give up their $65 bottle of merlot for some marijuana-laced fruit juice.

And while it’s understandable that the wine industry would make a big push to court Millennials, it’s older, high-end wine drinkers that are driving the industry’s growth right now. Premium wines have become so popular that name brands have sought to get in on the market.

The nascent cannabis industry is sure to grow. Cannabis-infused beverage consumption rose by 61 percent last year in states where it’s legal. But I see it filling its own niche, not toppling – or threatening -- California’s world famous wine empire.

TAGS: Grapes
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