In some regions of California, former vineyards are being converted to cannabis farms, wine conferences are having sessions about marijuana, and an up-and-coming job is cannabis sommelier.

While the wine and marijuana industries are similar in some ways, blending those worlds isn’t always easy. Winegrowers and cannabis cultivators increasingly square off over customers, land and workers. And lingering stigmas have kept some of the state’s wine-growing regions from being open to the newly legalized marijuana market.

Now it seems Temecula Valley Wine Country is on track to shut out the cannabis industry. Opposition from local winegrowers and government officials is making it unlikely that marijuana businesses will be allowed to operate in one of the most important agricultural and tourism regions in Riverside County.

“My fear is that you would see vineyards pushed out and there would be outdoor cultivation with chain-linked, barbed-wire fences,” said Danny Martin, board president for the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association.

“We want to be the Temecula Valley Wine Country. We don’t want to become the Temecula Valley Weed Country.”

The message is clear, according to Micah Anderson, president of the cannabis cultivation trade group Southern California Responsible Growers Council.

“Wine is socially acceptable here,” Anderson said. “Cannabis isn’t.”

Ordinance carves out Temecula Valley

Though passage of Proposition 64 in 2016 made it legal in California for adults to consume cannabis, the law also gives cities and counties the authority to regulate most other marijuana activities within their borders.

All marijuana businesses are currently banned in unincorporated Riverside County. However, county leaders are considering an ordinance that would be among the most permissive in California, allowing businesses to grow, manufacture, test, distribute and sell marijuana products in most of the county’s unincorporated areas.

Grape vineyards in Temecula Valley Wine Country on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.(Frank Bellino, The Cannifornian/SCNG)

But, as proposed, the Riverside County ordinance would block marijuana businesses from two key areas — residential areas and the Temecula Valley Wine Country. The popular wine-tasting destination has a few dozen wineries spread over more than 17,000 acres of county-controlled land, just east of Temecula’s city limits.

Riverside County Planning Department staff said via email that cannabis cultivation is “not compatible” with the long-term planning for that area, which they said provides a “significant tourist attraction” and “economic benefit” to the region.

Supervisor Chuck Washington — whose district includes Temecula Valley and who once invested in an area winery — also opposes cannabis cultivation in the area because he doesn’t believe it would “further the goals” of the region, according to his chief of staff, Jeff Comerchero.

In a June 20 letter, Martin told Washington that the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association board supported a ban on all commercial cannabis activities in wine country and asked the Board of Supervisors to “continue to deny all inconsistent land uses within this special agricultural area in our county.”

County staff said the first listed goal for the wine region is to “encourage agricultural cultivation.” Cannabis cultivation is an agricultural activity, Anderson said, with growers licensed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. And cannabis, he added, should be treated as an agricultural product by local regulators.

But Martin insists that adding cannabis-related businesses in Temecula Valley Wine Country would be inconsistent with the existing zoning plan for the area.

Lessons learned

The wine and cannabis industries have coexisted for decades in places such as Mendocino and Sonoma counties, pointed out Josh Drayton, spokesman for the California Cannabis Industry Association.

But now that the state is licensing cannabis businesses for the first time, he said marijuana farmers can come out of the shadows to fight for the same rights and business opportunities wine growers have worked to secure.

“I think the cannabis industry has learned a lot from the wine industry,” Drayton said. “A lot of the challenges they have faced, and found solutions for, are guiding forces for our industry.”

That includes trying to brand cannabis products with appellations of origin. Meaning only marijuana grown in Humboldt County can have that label, just like only wines grown in Napa Valley can boast that origin.

Mom-and-pop wineries have also found creative ways to compete with bigger, corporate vineyards, Drayton said — a struggle that’s just starting for smaller and medium-sized marijuana growers. Transferable strategies might include tax incentives for small operators, boutique tours, paired dinners directed by sommeliers and direct-to-consumer sales that give owners a chance to sell the stories behind their products.

In Temecula Valley, Anderson said cannabis farmers would love to have tasting rooms just like the vineyards do. The county could permit such spaces, known generally as cannabis lounges, but hasn’t chosen to include that option in the proposed ordinance.

Competition is fierce

The industry overlap does pose some common challenges.

Labor costs are going up for growers of wine and cannabis, even as the size of the labor pool is shrinking, Drayton said, with the Trump administration’s immigration policies squeezing things even more.

“The wine industry has struggled with labor for a while,” said George Christie, president of the Wine Industry Network trade group. And with the growing cannabis industry able to offer some workers more money and better working conditions, he said, wineries are feeling the pinch.

Also, in many parts of the state, agricultural land is limited. And once a city or county votes to allow marijuana businesses, land values typically skyrocket, a phenomenon that has already forced out some wine growers.

Flow Kana CEO Michael Steinmetz addresses attendees at a grand opening celebration for Flow Cannabis Institute on a former winery in Redwood Valley. (Chris Pugh, Ukiah Daily Journal)

In early 2017, San Francisco-based cannabis distributor Flow Kana announced it had purchased 80 acres in Redwood Valley that were once home to the Fetzer family winery. The company is transforming the property into Flow Cannabis Institute, which is being billed as a “one-stop facility” for marijuana processing, storage and distribution.

Ampelos Vineyard and Cellars in Lompoc said in its June 24 newsletter that they were moving after their landlord of 12 years got a “high offer” for their property from cannabis producers.

“Sad to see how this new business is rolling into the valley and taking over land and buildings,” wrote Ampelos’ owner Peter Work.

Those threats have come up during the Wine & Weed Symposium, a conference Christie’s group will host set for its second year in Santa Rosa on Aug. 2. But Christie said a “much larger percentage” of the conference’s roughly 500 attendees — including a number of “older, conservative wine industry people” — is interested in hearing about opportunities available in cannabis.

Christie sees overlap not just with business models between the industries, but also with the type of people they attract. Wine growers, he said, are typically hard-working, passionate, strategic entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid of a challenge. He sees many of the same qualities in cannabis entrepreneurs, he added, and nothing of the stoner stereotype he once expected.

“As that stigma sort of erodes,” he said, “there are more and more people in the wine industry that are kind of open to what opportunities this may bring.”

There are already wine growers in the Temecula area who are experimenting with small marijuana grows, according to Anderson. And he said there are many more entrepreneurs waiting on the sidelines, hoping the county will open the region to licensed marijuana businesses.

Laws limit overlap

The trend of literally mixing these two worlds by infusing wine with cannabis was becoming fashionable a couple years ago, with singer/cannabis entrepreneur Melissa Etheridge touting a “wine tincture” in her line of Etheridge Farms products.

Then California issued the first draft of its still-evolving rules for the marijuana industry. Those regulations included a strict ban on products that mix alcohol and cannabis and severely limited public events where marijuana is consumed, such as the wine and weed pairing dinners that had begun popping up everywhere.

Since cannabis remains illegal under federal law, wineries could also be jeopardizing their federal licenses if they start making or selling cannabis products on the same property.

“There are a bunch of people that thought they were going to go that road,” Anderson said. “That left a lot of broken dreams.”

Rebel Coast Wine is marketing a sauvignon blanc infused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. (Photo courtesy Rebel Coast Wine)

Some companies, such as Hermosa Beach-based Rebel Coast Winery, are navigating the regulations by making cannabis-infused wine that’s alcohol-free. And event companies are trading infused dinners for tours that stop at both wineries and cannabis businesses.

Such ventures show that it doesn’t have to be a “zero sum game,” Christie said, where either the wine or the cannabis industry wins. And in Anderson’s view, they also show that marijuana entrepreneurs will work with any reasonable regulations that are thrown their way, including rules that he says could mitigate whatever safety, aesthetic or odor concerns neighbors might have.

That’s something he hopes Riverside County will take into consideration as officials write the playbook for how wine and weed will mix in Temecula Valley.

“We all want to be good neighbors,” he said. “Give us options, don’t just shut us out.”

The issue will be decided when the Riverside County Board of Supervisors takes up the proposed cannabis ordinance sometime later this year.