When California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, many of the state’s wine producers started getting nervous about weed muscling in on wine’s turf. Here in Napa County, the local government was quick to ban any commercial activities related to cannabis in an effort to protect the region from, shall we say, unsavory elements.
At first, I didn’t give the situation much thought. I’m not a marijuana user—it’s just not a part of my daily life the way wine is. But in 2018, I was asked by a family friend—vintner-turned-cannabis-grower Eric Sklar—to be a cofounder of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association (NVCA). I didn’t know anything about the cannabis business at the time, but I am a big believer in legalizing and regulating substances so they’re not misused or abused. I saw in NVCA an opportunity to help shape the local cannabis industry in what I saw as the right way.
From Wine to Weed
I’ve spent most of my life in the wine industry, working in sales for Clicquot Inc. in New York City and Rudd Winery in Oakville, California, in the early 2000s, then importing my own wine brand from Argentina and teaching wine classes at the French Culinary Institute in New York. In 2006, I married Michael Honig, the president of Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford, California, and moved to Napa Valley, where I became the winery’s director of sales and communications.
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Some may think my current role as NVCA’s president puts me at odds with local vintners, including my own husband, whose family has been growing grapes in Napa since 1964. However, I strongly believe that developing a thriving cannabis industry is in the best interests of Napa County—including the interests of its winemakers.
Counting the Benefits
Napa is deservedly famous for its wine grapes, but this strength is also a drawback. Grapes make up 99 percent of the county’s agricultural crop, and a monoculture is not a good thing. Growing a variety of crops within a region fosters biodiversity and is healthier for the soil and the environment. In Napa County, the best use of the land is agriculture, and cannabis is an agricultural product.
“Crop diversification is inherently good for the economic sustainability of Napa Valley,” explains Sklar, who founded Alpha Omega Winery in St. Helena and now cultivates cannabis under the Fumé brand, which also functions as a cannabis delivery service. “Cannabis is a high-value crop and is therefore a real value-add.”
Legalizing the cultivation and production of cannabis would also help eliminate the illegal black market, which still accounts for the majority of marijuana’s sales in California. “The immediate benefit will come in the form of further pushing out illegal grows,” says Robert Mondavi Jr., the winemaker and cofounder of Michael Mondavi Family Estate and the founder and president of winemaking at Folio Fine Wine Partners, both in Napa Valley. “These grows are devastating to the environment because they strip land and use pesticides and herbicides without any regard for the consumer’s health or environmental impacts.”
Under a legal system, cannabis production would move from the black market to a “green market” that produces lab-tested cannabis grown using environmentally beneficial practices. What’s more, legal sales would bring in tax dollars and create local jobs that would benefit the community.
Establishing a welcoming cannabis culture in Napa Valley could also help convert younger generations into wine drinkers. Silicon Valley Bank’s 2019 State of the Wine Industry Report points out that the average wine drinker in the United States is between 58 and 61 years old and that millennials are more interested in craft beer, spirits, and cannabis than wine.
“If we can draw millennials to the Napa experience with cannabis,” Sklar says, “we have the opportunity to introduce them to our world-class wines and, hopefully, turn them into lifelong Napa devotees.”
Measuring Public Support
The majority of Napa County residents already recognize the upsides of allowing a legal cannabis industry. According to an online poll commissioned by NVCA in December 2018 and conducted by Change Research, a public opinion polling company based in Berkeley, the community strongly supports legalized cannabis. Seventy percent of those polled said they approve of adult-use cannabis, and 55 percent said they believe that cultivation and retail sales should be allowed in the county. Those who support the idea of a Napa cannabis industry cited several benefits to the community, including tax revenue, job opportunities, economic diversification, and agricultural diversification.
While many local vintners also support legalization, others have expressed concerns. Some worry that opening the door to cannabis cultivation and production will damage the beauty of the region, or that cannabis sales will eat into wine’s market share. However, according to Rob McMillan, the author of the Silicon Valley Bank report and the executive vice president and founder of the bank’s wine division in St. Helena, most of the people buying cannabis are not newbies.
“Most reports suggest that only about 13 percent of American adults consume marijuana regularly, and of that number, 64 percent say they’ve been consuming it for more than 10 years,” says McMillan. “So if you’re saying people are smoking pot instead of drinking wine, you have to ignore the fact that 64 percent of them have been doing it for 10 years.”
Many vintners I’ve spoken to, including Mondavi, aren’t worried about competition from cannabis. “We have distilleries and breweries here and they have been a positive contributor,” says Mondavi. “I can’t fathom cannabis cannibalizing or competing with the Napa Valley wine experience. Napa Valley is a mecca for world-class luxury wines and dining, and cannabis is certain to complement that.”
Jennifer McPherson, a co-owner of Promise Wine in St. Helena, agrees. “As the cannabis business gains momentum and governments figure out how to manage it,” she says, “California will want to be front and center on that stage. With the prestigious reputation Napa Valley has to offer, we should engage the cannabis industry with the same commitment and care as we do with wine.”
Setting the Parameters
With the aim of letting voters decide whether or not to allow cannabis cultivation, distribution, and processing in Napa County, NVCA created a detailed ballot initiative for the March 2020 election.
The provisions limit outdoor grow sizes to 1 acre per parcel, with a minimum lot size of 10 acres within the county’s Agricultural Preserve and Agricultural Watershed zoning districts. This regulation ensures that there will be a significant amount of land surrounding any grow area. Most of the valley floor is already planted to vineyards, so cannabis would have to be grown mainly on hillsides. No cultivation would be allowed on the same property as a licensed winery.
Cannabis delivery services, distributors, and manufacturers would be required to operate within an industrial zone near the Napa Airport. (Whether or not to allow retail sales is up to individual cities.)
Setbacks for cannabis cultivation sites would have to be at least 500 feet from homes, 1,000 feet from schools and parks, and various distances from roads.
The same strict conservation regulations that apply to Napa County’s vineyards would also apply to cannabis cultivation.
Security plans, including lockable gates, would be required for all cannabis grows, and fencing would have to meet specifications for height and type and include a plan for wildlife corridors.
And for any cannabis to be allowed to carry the Napa Valley name, 100 percent of it would have to be grown in the region’s soil, not in greenhouses.
One of the biggest challenges in this effort has been educating people in the community and changing perceptions of cannabis. People over the age of 40—myself included—didn’t grow up in a world where cannabis was viewed as mainstream, and some have a hard time thinking of marijuana as anything but a federally illegal drug.
To combat misconceptions and destigmatize cannabis, NVCA has hosted community events that have addressed a myriad of topics, including the various types of cannabis and the current state of regulations at the state and county levels.
By collaborating with our neighbors and embarking on a thoughtful and strategic plan, we in Napa County, I believe, can become a model for smart cannabis business development in other California counties.
Many regions have said that they want to become the “Napa Valley of cannabis.” My response is that Napa—not Mendocino or Sonoma—should be the Napa Valley of cannabis. We have the climate and soils, we have the precision farming skills, and we have the experience to grow some of the world’s finest cannabis. So why shouldn’t we?
—As told to Tina Caputo
Stephanie Honig, DipWSET, is the director of sales and communications for Honig Vineyard & Winery and the founding president and a board member of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association. She serves on the marketing and international ambassadors committees of the Napa Valley Vintners association and is a member of the international program committee of the Wine Institute of California. Honig, who is also a certified Feng Shui consultant, lives on the Honig property in Rutherford with her husband, Michael, their daughters Sophia and Lola, sons Sebastian and Santiago, and dogs Raisin, Hunter, and Dulce.