Pairing dinners have long been a staple in the wine world, and now that adult-use cannabis is legal in California, pot-focused culinary events are starting to pop up around the state. This has many people in both industries wondering: Is there a way to combine wine and weed at the same event?
Representatives from Northern California’s worlds of wine and cannabis explored the possibilities at the 2018 North Coast Wine & Weed Symposium, held last week in Santa Rosa. A panel discussion on wine and weed events featured Rebecca Stamey-White, a partner at the law firm Hinman & Carmichael; Jamie Evans, the founder of The Herb Somm; Allison Kosta, the COO of TSO Sonoma, a marijuana producer, and SAKA, a forthcoming marijuana-infused nonalcoholic wine brand; and Devika Maskey, the founder and CEO of TSO Sonoma and president of Ellipsis Wine Company.
It turns out that bringing wine and weed together at events is tricky business. On-premise cannabis consumption is highly regulated, and not only are event licenses restrictive but they can cost thousands of dollars. Under current California regulations, public events at which cannabis may be consumed can only be held at fairground locations, and events can never allow alcohol and cannabis to be consumed on the same premises.
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Even so, creative entrepreneurs are finding ways to combine wine and weed. Evans conducts sensory aroma pairings of wines and cannabis aromas that focus on education, and because no cannabis is consumed at these events, she can host them at any wine-licensed location. “I talk about terpenes and terroir and growing practices,” she says. “It’s a great introduction to cannabis for new consumers.”
Evans, who used to work in public relations for wineries, also hosts dinners that pair wine with cannabis-infused foods. This is legal only for small private events that do not charge guests for admission.
“If you’re making money [by] selling tickets, it’s not a private event,” says Stamey-White, whose law firm represents both the alcohol and medical cannabis industries. Asking for “donations” is a gray area, she says, and may be permitted if event organizers collect money at the door rather than online. “Think,” advises Stamey-White, “about how your lawyer would build a defense case.”
Risk Taking for the Canna-Curious
In the early days of the legalization of recreational pot, California wineries took a wait-and-see approach to cannabis. But according to the Wine & Weed panelists, vintners are becoming increasingly curious. “They’ve been opening up a little bit to the idea of participating in nonconsumption events,” says Kosta, the former co-owner of Kosta Browne Winery in Sonoma County. Along with running a luxury cannabis business, she’s planning to launch SAKA, a marijuana-infused nonalcoholic wine, this fall. “There are a lot of questions that are open ended,” she says, “but I haven’t seen any pushback myself.”
Stamey-White cautions vintners to tread carefully into the events space. “If you have an 02 [winery] licensed premises, I would not recommend doing cannabis events [there],” she says. “But if you have an unlicensed event area or you have vineyards or areas of your property that do not have that license, [it might be] something you’d be interested in trying out. There is no safe harbor under federal law to do this kind of stuff, so if you’re interested in collaborating, to a certain extent you need to have a tolerance for risk.”
Until California laws loosen up, Maskey recommends that wineries participate in cannabis events held at off-site locations. “We can purchase wine from them,” she says, “and they can come to [our] events and talk about their brands and their wines.”
Stamey-White predicts that as California’s legal cannabis industry matures and regulations evolve, wine and weed events will eventually become commonplace. She says, “I think there’s a lot more interest and a lot more involvement from the wine industry than people know about.”
Tina Caputo is a writer based in Northern California who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. She was formerly the editor in chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Visit California, Sonoma magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. She also produces the podcast Winemakers Drinking Beer.