June 13, 2019 – Will the Napa Valley continue to flourish as the USA’s premier wine appellation or will the lure of big bucks from cannabis cultivation prove irresistible? That is the question that promises heated debate between now and the March 2020 ballot.
A group known as the Napa Valley Cannabis Association has gathered more than 8,000 signatures, well over the 5,635 required to qualify a ballot measure to allow cultivation and sale of marijuana in the county.
A statewide ballot initiative, Proposition 64 legalizing marijuana, was approved by voters in the November 2016 election. In Napa County it passed by 61-39 percent, four percentage points above the state average.
However, there is plenty of opposition to cannabis cultivation on a commercial scale. The Napa County Board of Supervisors has been reluctant to jump into the fray. After Prop 64 passed, the Board issued a temporary ban on pot farming and renewed the ban last year. Tired of waiting for the Board of Supervisors to act, the Napa Valley Cannabis Association composed its own ballot measure, gathered more than the required number of signatures and submitted it for review by Counsel for the County Registrar of Voters.
Also opposing commercial cannabis cultivation is the Napa County Farm Bureau. Unlike Sonoma County, for example, Napa County’s agricultural revenue is 99.2 percent from grape growing. Virtually every available acre is planted to vineyards with heated debate occurring every time there’s an application to expand vines up the hillsides. Another cash crop will tax resources such as water, transportation and labor, the latter being in short supply already.
The effects of cannabis on grapes are also unknown. For example grapes planted near eucalyptus trees often pick up eucalypt flavor which comes through in the wine. This distinct flavor is sometimes present in Australian wines. There is a risk of cross-contamination with cannabis, which could devalue a crop. And while one pro-pot argument promotes the idea of additional tourism, a group reeking of pot was recently asked to leave a tasting room. The same goes for women wearing heavy perfume, by the way. Competing scents do not work well with wine tasting.
The siren song of cannabis is the amount of revenue that can be produced by just one acre which could be as high as $1.9 million. Compare that with an acre of high priced cabernet sauvignon grapes that can fetch approximately $55,000 according to Eric Sklar, one of the Cannabis Association movers and shakers.
The growing conditions in the Napa Valley of hot days and cool nights that favor winegrapes are also ideal for growing marijuana. Will allowing limited cannabis cultivation be the camel’s nose under the tent? Will the Napa Valley as we know it be a thing of the past as grapevines get ripped out and replaced with pot plants and plastic hoops?
As respected author and wine educator Karen MacNeil told the San Francisco Chronicle recently: “Cannabis would radically change the mission and vision of the Napa Valley. Do we think that Bordeaux would start planting cannabis? No. They’ve worked too hard to become the place they are.”