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Northern California is famous for two intoxicants - wine and marijuana. Recreational marijuana is about to be legal here in California, so some marijuana entrepreneurs are looking to the wine industry as a model. NPR's John Burnett reports that not everyone is convinced this is a good idea. His story starts at a wine and weed dinner.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The scene is an elegant terrace of a winery overlooking the vineyard-covered hills of Sonoma County north of San Francisco. A dozen invited guests are drinking wine, nibbling hors d'oeuvres and taking hits off a water pipe.
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BURNETT: They've come for a farm-to-table meal of kale salad, roasted vegetables and grilled flatiron steak paired with wine and certain types of marijuana.
SAM EDWARDS: What we've found so far is the sativas go well with whites. Indicas go well with reds. Flowers go well mostly with reds.
BURNETT: That's Sam Edwards, president of the Sonoma Cannabis Company. He's part of the emerging pot-for-pleasure industry that seeks to grab a share of the nearly $2 billion tourism business in Sonoma Valley with events like this.
EDWARD: What we're beginning is melding cannabis with wine and food in a curated meal that offers the best of all worlds.
BURNETT: Recreational marijuana is now legal in eight states and the District of Columbia. But the prize is California, where American cannabis has the deepest historical, cultural and agronomic roots. California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana 21 years ago. In November, voters gave the green light to cannabis for fun.
Northern California's legendary Emerald Triangle - Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties - produces some of the world's most sought-after pot. As it happens, just south of the triangle lie the state's famed wine growing counties of Sonoma and Napa. Domi Heckei is a 32-year-old special ed teacher who attended the wine-and-weed dinner.
DOMI HECKEI: I think that the wine industry is going to really want to be a part of the cannabis industry because I feel like there's probably, like, a secure future in that.
BURNETT: While cannabis people are excited to co-market with wine, wine people are taking a wait-and-see approach. Few of the wine trade associations contacted for this story wanted to comment on the coming of cannabis. One longtime Sonoma wine maker acknowledged a certain level of apprehension among his peers. Erin Gore markets cannabis-infused confections for women under the name Garden Society. She married into a family of grape growers, and this is her take on why those in Sonoma County may be apprehensive.
ERIN GORE: Going down 101, are you going to see marijuana grows? And all the vineyards are going to get ripped out, and it's only going to be pot. How bad is it going to smell? I know a big thing is everyone's going to get robbed. And a lot of people worry about marijuana-stoned driving.
BURNETT: In fact, Sonoma is already struggling to accommodate its 469 wineries. The wine tourism is the lifeblood of the economy. Residents complain about the endless special events at wineries, the congested roads and tipsy drivers, says County Supervisor Susan Gorin.
SUSAN GORIN: We have some challenges, some cumulative impacts from wineries, tasting rooms.
BURNETT: And now here comes cannabis.
GORIN: And here comes cannabis.
BURNETT: Oregon, where recreational pot has been legal for two years, has had some cross-pollination between wine and cannabis. But the big experiment is here on the north coast of California. Sonoma County expects so many applications for cannabis land use permits that it's hired 14 additional regulators. The vineyard's own all the good land, and no one knows if they'll want to expand into cannabis cultivation as a handful have done in Oregon.
TOM RODRIGUES: All right, this is our estate's chardonnay. This won the double gold in the San Francisco Wine Competition.
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BURNETT: Tom Rodrigues owns Maple Creek Winery in the hills of neighboring Mendocino County. He's so bullish on the regulated commercial cannabis market that he sits on two advisory boards - one for cannabis, one for wine. Rodrigues grows pot for personal use, but he has no plans to slap his Maple Creek label on the green, resinous buds.
RODRIGUES: My first passion is the wine. If the laws were different and I could grow on - because I have 164 acres here - but I would have to move my tasting room off the property because the law is that you cannot be selling alcohol and growing cannabis on the same property.
BURNETT: In terms of the market, he thinks fine wine drinkers are the same clientele that may want to try gourmet cannabis.
RODRIGUES: I speak to people every day here in the tasting room. It's no longer hush; hush. I'm from Iowa; I've heard Mendocino County has great cannabis; where can I get some?
BURNETT: They'll have to wait until January 1. That's when retail recreational marijuana opens for business in California. A preview was available at the recent Cannabis Business Summit and Expo down the highway in Oakland. Vendors were there hawking the latest in cannabis farm security, insurance, fertilizers, grow lights, potting soils and consumables.
BERTO TORRES: My name is Berto Torres. I'm the COO of GFarmaLabs. And we are a company that infuses chocolates, lemonades. And we also sell marijuana bud.
BURNETT: In Sonoma County, the talk is all about the marriage of wine and cannabis, but here at the trade show, Torres sees alcohol as the competition.
TORRES: Instead of coming home and pouring myself a glass of chardonnay, I would make a tea, 2.5 milligrams and take that and kind of take the edge off.
BURNETT: He means taking the edge off with 2.5 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive substance in pot. The two industries will come together next month for the first time at the Wine and Weed Symposium in the city of Santa Rosa to explore cooperation and competition. What will north coast tourists be looking for, a wine with notes of berry, leather and a hint of quince or a joint that delivers a calming body buzz with a cerebral creative boost or both? John Burnett, NPR News, Sonoma County.
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