| Cannabis cultivation has ballooned in California and winemakers worry about its impact.
Grapegrowers and wine producers are pushing back against the cannabis industry’s push into prime California wine country.
California winemakers are scrambling for survival as the biggest cannabis farms on earth make their way into wine country, bringing a broad range of cultural and logistical challenges in their wake.
Factory-style cannabis farms have not been allowed in much of wine country, mind you.
Napa has banned cannabis cultivation within its bounds; in Sonoma, there are strict measures in place to limit the size of the operation, how far outside grows can be from property lines, regulations involving odor and water use. Those rules are currently under review.
Even Humboldt County, ground zero for illegal grows from the 1960s onward, limits the size of cannabis grows outside of industrial zones. The largest grow there is in the process of being erected, and hoop-house-style greenhouses are planned over 22.96 acres.
It’s Santa Barbara, one of the most dynamic and exciting – and increasingly critically acclaimed – wine regions in the world, where ganja is going gangbusters. Some of the biggest cannabis farms on the planet – not just California, not just the United States but the world – are in the works. Just last month, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission approved a permit for SFS Farms to grow 80 acres of cannabis on their property. That’s 60-plus football fields, lined up, brimming with the chronic along Highway 246.
“It’s horrifying what’s happening here, and it’s affecting everything,” says Debra Eagle, general manager at Alma Rosa Winery in Santa Ynez Valley. “Who is going to want to come sight-seeing in beautiful Santa Barbara wine country with these operations, which are often surrounded by chain-link fences and guarded by men with guns?”
It’s a community issue too, Eagle says. “One of the high schools in the county is surrounded on all sides by grow operations, and the classrooms smell like pot, all day every day,” she explains. “I am deeply concerned about the reputation of the county, and I’m worried about public safety.”
It’s worth noting that most counties that actively court cannabis growth operations are fiscally challenged, remote, inland and rural, not luxuriant coastal enclaves that can claim Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Oprah Winfrey as tax-paying residents.
Under the radar
How did this happen? When Proposition 64 passed in 2016, 57 percent of voters in California were in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana; the regulation on the size of grows, and where they could be, was left up to county governments. More than half banned grows altogether.
But in Santa Barbara, in February of 2017, county supervisors began allowing growers to drive Mack trucks through the loophole in Prop 64 that forbids growth operations of more than one acre of land until 2023, by allowing them to snag multiple licenses for the same area of land. In other words, if they want to grow 45 acres of open cannabis on 50 acres of land, growers can, as long as they have 45 licenses. Today, there are reportedly at least 1133 licenses issued for cannabis in Santa Barbara, with 260 acres under cultivation.
Eagle, also a board member of the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, objects not to cannabis cultivation per se, but the industrial size of the grows allowed in Santa Barbara, and more to the point, the manner in which they were passed.
“They allowed these massive grows to move forward without engaging members of the community,” Eagle says. Dennis Bozanich, the deputy county executive officer at the time, crafted the regulations in lock-step with cannabis lobbyists, members of the coalition argue.
The main motivation seems to be financial. After depending on lucrative oil production for decades, by the early aughts, that revenue stream had dried up. In 2020, the last oil-processing facility was converted to a renewable fuels facility. Since 2018, cannabis tax revenue has generated $1.8 billion for the state, and for the first quarter of the 2020-21 fiscal year, Santa Barbara has raked in $4.2 million alone, a 50 percent increase year over year. In comparison, wineries pay $15.2 billion in state and federal taxes annually, and the 275 wineries in Santa Barbara County created a $1.7 million annual economic impact in 2020; many winemakers worry that if the untrammeled growth of cannabis farms continue, wineries will close or relocate.
There are more licenses coming down the pike, says Kurt Ammann, general manager at Melville Winery in the Sta. Rita Hills, and many are being issued to would-be farmers in plots right next to vineyards. Less than 500 feet from Melville’s 40-acre property in Sta. Rita Hills, for example, the 80-acre SFS Farms grow operation is set to go in. And that’s not all.
According to Santa Barbara County’s Cannabis Cultivation Cap Tracking, there are applications for grows to take up 1085.44 acres in Sta. Rita Hills. Already, of the 684.3 acres approved already for cannabis grows in Santa Barbara, 389.04, or 56.8 percent, are in the Santa Rita Hills AVA. This region, with an east-west mountain range that allows for long growing grape-growing patterns, delivering superior flavors and aromas, accounts for just 1.3 percent of Santa Barbara’s total land.
| Most wineries were supportive of the cannabis industry, but many are having second thoughts.
An area once defined by grape cultivation and wine culture, could become, in a few years, pot country.
One might ask, why is a pot farm, even right next to a vineyard such a big deal? A winemaker might respond: remember what college smelled like?
Wine tasting is a sensory activity, involving not just taste, but smell. Depending on the study, smell is responsible for between 75 and 90 percent of what we taste. Many wineries forbid staff members from wearing perfume or cologne, and some even discourage scented deodorants and creams.
Amman says that a cannabis farm in close proximity will “conflict with our visitors’ ability to smell and taste wines, and could have a significant negative financial impact on our tasting room and others in the area”.
Then there’s terpene drift. The effect of certain volatile organic compounds – such as smoke or eucalyptol terpenes – have been known to have a significantly negative effect the aroma and flavor of grapes. Widespread studies on the effect of large-scale cannabis terpene emissions from industrial grows simply have never been done. Professors at the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis are conducting research, but the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis argues that the county should have done the due diligence before approving massive farms in wine country.
“We have 40 acres, 16 of which are under vine,” says Matt Naumann, Newfound Wines in the Sierra Foothills, where there has also been an uptick in cannabis activity. “My wife and I poured our entire life and our savings into the business and, when we came here in 2018, we came with the expectation that we’d spend our lives here. But now, we have one cannabis farm going in next door and more in the area. I have zero issues with marijuana, but yes, I’m very concerned about the potential for odor issues, and the possibility that terpenes could affect my grapes.”
Tyler Thomas, winemaker at Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards in Santa Ynez and Lompoc respectively, echoes Naumann’s concerns. Thomas has three ranches in three different viticultural areas in Santa Barbara with 200 acres under vine, and he produces estate wines and then sells about 55 percent of his fruit. Several cannabis farms are approved to go in around his ranches, with four potential grows – one of which is 45 acres, another is 70 acres – going in near one ranch.
“There are several potential problems,” Thomas says, adding that thus far, his dialogue with his would-be new neighbors has been positive. “The first issue is that cannabis cultivation is highly regulated. So even organic sprays near their farms are an issue, forcing wine-growers to either risk a huge fine or lawsuit for spraying, or possibly lose an entire crop to disease. The other big issue is that we just don’t understand the science of yet, is the effect of terpenes on grapes. We know that cork taint is detectable in wine if it’s two parts per billion. But most of the studies on terpenes haven’t gone below 500 parts per billion.”
Like Eagle, he’s concerned about the trickledown effect for growers who sell to Napa and Sonoma wineries. “I’m worried that wineries in the north may not want to risk buying Santa Barbara fruit.”
Not a single winemaker or grower Wine-Searcher spoke with wants cannabis outlawed. What they want, instead, is limits on growth size, research on the effect of terpene drift and measures put in place to help wine and cannabis farms deal with odor and spray issues.
Some winemakers even see an opportunity.
“Before Covid hit, we actually had a wine and cannabis tasting in the works,” says Jake Stover, co-founder of Sans Wine, which works with growers in Lake, Napa and Mendocino. “We were going to serve our wine at a private pairing dinner in San Francisco, and work with a chef who was creating a meal that incorporated cannabis. When the public voted down a cannabis dispensary in Yountville, I felt like there was a lost opportunity for wine country to work with cannabis in a positive way. Terpene drift and odor are an issue, and they have to be dealt with. But it would be foolish to ignore the potential synergy between wine and cannabis.”
The bud industry is no longer budding; it’s a powerful, well-funded behemoth, and it is here to stay. The question of how it will change wine country, meanwhile, is hanging like a skunky haze in the air.