Though once known primarily for pinot noir and chardonnay, the Sta. Rita Hills is now a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, with hoop houses full of green buds lining the remote canyons along Highway 246. Just down the road in Lompoc, wineries are being pushed out of their longtime warehouse homes to make way for cannabis processors, who are willing to pay such high prices that current property owners can’t help but sell.
“The cannabis situation in Lompoc has created a challenge for many wineries,” said Peter Work of Ampelos Cellars. He said that the city’s generous zoning to cannabis businesses changed the commercial real estate scene “dramatically” and that the current availability of wine production and storage space is virtually nil. “We are forced to look at alternative cities, which will increase our costs and present more transportation issues,” explained Work, who’s been in his current facility along Central Avenue since 2005 but is now preparing to leave.
On top of that, both the wine and cannabis industries are after the same labor — and not just the already stretched-thin farm crews that power American agriculture, but the white-collar branding, marketing, and distribution professionals as well. And no one yet knows whether legal marijuana is going to cut into the wine world’s bottom line at the consumer level, or whether they’ll emerge as happy friends.
Altogether, concerns over this convergence are growing riper by the day. Given that Santa Barbara County is both a thriving wine region, with nearly 300 wineries, and has also granted more cannabis cultivation permits than anywhere else in the state — more than 730 as of late March — we’re likely to be ground zero for whatever happens, good, bad, and everything in between.
Trying to clear this haze is the Wine & Weed Symposium, Central Coast, a daylong conference in San Luis Obispo on May 10. Last summer, nearly 500 people attended the first Wine & Weed Symposium, North Coast, which went down in Santa Rosa and will happen again this August.
The series was founded by George Christie, a New Jersey native who moved to California 26 years ago to work in the wine industry, primarily Sonoma and Napa. Nine years ago, after leaving corporate life, he started the Wine Industry Network (WIN, wineindustrynetwork.com). Among other initiatives, WIN hosts the Wine Industry Expo, which is now the second-largest wine trade show in North America, hosting more than 3,000 attendees each December in Santa Rosa.
In 2016, the expo included a one-hour workshop on cannabis legalization. “In the six years we had been doing the conference, it was by far the busiest session we’ve ever had,” said Christie. “We realized that one hour barely scratched the surface in addressing the questions the wine industry had.”
So last August, he hosted the inaugural North Coast symposium. “The curriculum was designed to educate the wine industry about what was happening, from the history to legalization to regulations,” said Christie. “People were there to talk about the risks as well as the opportunities.” He was immediately inundated with calls to do something similar on the Central Coast, which is now rivaling the Emerald Triangle of far Northern California in cannabis growth.
“There is certainly a lot of fear around competing at the consumer level: Are people going to start replacing that glass of wine they have after work with a cannabis product?” explained Christie, noting that similar concerns surround “cannatourism,” which could help or harm winery visitation. “On the flip side, in the long run, there are some opportunities for collaboration, and not just on wine and cannabis events, which is the first thing that comes to people’s minds.” That includes working together on farmworker housing, managing water usage, and sustainable farming practices.
Right now, as the state, counties, and municipalities hash out their rules, Christie admits that there are way more questions than answers. But he expects them all to be asked at the Wine & Weed Symposium, which is open to the public but geared toward wine-industry professionals. There will be about 30 exhibitors, networking opportunities, and five speaker sessions.
Among such topics as “What You Can & Can’t Do” and “Cannabis Use for Wellness,” I am hosting the last panel of the day: “The Wine Industry’s New Neighbor: Predictions for Wine & Weed,” featuring three cannabis experts, two of whom also worked in wine. Come watch us peer into this cloudy crystal ball on May 10.
ROSÉ ROCKS AGAIN: It’s the pink juice that wouldn’t quit: Rosé sales remain on the rise, and four top Central Coast wineries will release theirs on Sunday, April 29, 3-5:30 p.m., at Wine + Beer in the S.B. Public Market. On hand will be reps from Joyce Vineyards in Monterey as well as this county’s Ampelos Cellars, Liquid Farm, and Presqu’ile Wines. It’s only $10, and there may be sips of the rare Chateau Musar rosé from Lebanon, of which only 30 cases exist in the U.S. See wineplusbeer.com/calendar for future events.
BEER FESTS: With Buckles ’n’ Brews just happening last weekend, beer-fest season is officially upon us. Mark your calendar for these sudsy affairs: Roar & Pour at the S.B. Zoo (sbzoo.org/roar-and-pour) and Buellton Brew Fest (buelltonbrewfest.com) at River View Park, both on May 5; Lagerville (lagerville.com) at Figueroa Mountain Brewing in Buellton on May 19; and Surf ’n’ Suds (surfbeerfest.com) in Carpinteria on August 11.
THOUGHTFUL PAIRING DINNER: Support our Channel Islands branch of the YMCA by attending a remarkably thought-out dinner on Thursday, April 26, at the Rockwood Woman’s Club. Overseen by the Valley Club’s Chef Vincent Vanhecke, but featuring a number of star chefs from around town, the pairings include spring onion flan with Alma Rosa’s El Jabali chardonnay, Salmon Wellington with Babcock Radical pinot noir, bison short rib with Buscador’s WaveSlider red blend and Brander’s Cuveé Nicolas sauvignon blanc, the cheese course with Lumen Santa Maria Valley pinot noir, and dessert with Flying Goat’s Goat Bubbles Blanc de Noir. Tickets are $250. See independent.com/ymca18.
DRINK OF SANTA BARBARA COCKTAIL CONTEST: For the second year — and rescheduled due to the Thomas Fire and resulting mudslides — the Santa Barbara Independent and Visit Santa Barbara are presenting the Official Drink of Santa Barbara Cocktail Contest. All bars, restaurants, lounges, and legal public purveyors of booze are encouraged to submit a unique cocktail that embodies the spirit of our fair town (and that includes a Cutler’s Artisan Spirits liquor). Entrants will serve their drinks during the contest period, May 21-June 6, and then five finalists will battle on June 21 at El Paseo. See all the rules and enter by visiting independent.com/officialdrinkofsb.