High demand for California vineyards

15 March, 2017

In November 9, 2016, an historic change happened in the us that could have far-reaching ramifications for the wine industry.

No, not that historic change. As far as I know, the new teetotal incumbent of the Oval Office has no plans to shake-up the three-tier distribution model and, as I write, he has not yet imposed 30% import tariffs on all French wine.

The change I’m talking about concerns a vote that was, not surprisingly, overshadowed by other electoral events. At the same time as they were rejecting Trump’s candidacy, California’s inhabitants voted by a majority of 57% to 43% to legalise the cultivation and consumption of marijuana for personal use by adults over 21 years old, and to pave the way for the drug’s commercial production and sale, which will be taxed and regulated like alcohol, from 2018.

In doing so, the world’s fifth-largest economy began the process of turning itself into the world’s largest legal marijuana market.

There’s been a healthy (if that’s the right word) illicit market for marijuana in the Golden State for decades. Indeed Humboldt County, the remote, forested corner of Northern California, is all but synonymous with high-quality weed. So much so the area’s hippie and redneck inhabitants actually campaigned against legalisation, fearing it would bring down the price of their product and force those involved in the trade to pay taxes on their profits.

The state’s wine producers, too, have been known to dabble in weed cultivation (and consumption), hiding plants in plain sight among the vines in distant parts of their vineyards. Since the legalisation of marijuana for medical use in the state in 1996, and with no law in California stating they can’t do it, a steady stream of producers have attempted to marry the grape and the bud in the same product in weed-infused wines.

It remains to be seen how many more California wine producers will attempt to diversify into weed production in anticipation of next year’s change in the law. But one effect of marijuana’s move out of the black economy is already forming in the purple haze – increased competition for prime growing land. In February, it emerged that a company from the Bay Area known as Flow Kana was in the process of buying an 80-acre former vineyard in Mendocino County with a view to starting up a high-quality commercial marijuana business.

That the vineyard just happens to be the place where Bernard and Kathleen Fetzer started the family wine business only adds to the sense of symbolism. With many more investors buying up land in Mendocino and further afield, there is a real sense that marijuana, with its high-value returns, high yields and fast turnover, could prove a far more profitable business than the fruit of the vine.

The weed business is even borrowing wine’s vocabulary as it transforms from outlaw drug to respectability. Flow Kana, for example, “prides” itself on being “sustainable” and “sun-grown”, focusing only on “small-batch, boutique strains”. No wonder the American press is talking about a “green rush” in them thar hills. And no wonder some in the state are worried the likes of Headband, Master Bubba or Copper Rhino may one day outsell Zinfandel.

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