Turning wine into weed: what legalization could look like for Ontario’s wine industry

Cannabis tourism is rivalling the wine industry in California, and Ontario wine country is taking note with legalization on the horizon

With all the hysteria in the news about cannabis consumers (and investors) having trouble crossing into the U.S., you’d think I’d be the first to be stopped at the border with a WeedMD hat and laptop covered in stickers from cannabis companies.

I wasn’t number one on anyone’s suspect list, it turns out, as I boarded a flight to the second annual North Coast Wine & Weed Symposium last month in Santa Rosa, California. No one checked my phone or computer for dirt on the now legal weed industry! 

Cannabis tourism is beginning to rival the wine industry in California, as craft cannabis companies negotiate with municipalities cannabis tasting rooms, tours and cannabis restaurants. While the California regulations aren’t perfect by any means, there’s a lot that Ontario’s $4.4 billion wine industry could learn, from farm tours to (almost) infused dinners elevating cannabis culture. California is like taking a peek through the looking glass to see Canada’s legal future less than a month away.

Just like in Canada, you don’t have to be a resident to purchase cannabis in California, but you do need to bring your passport as ID to get inside a legal dispensary. You might find the shelves are a bit empty as craft cannabis companies struggle with new regulations mandating childproof packaging and labs deal with a backlog of product testing. 

You’re also not able to give out samples or serve cannabis at events yet, but this isn’t stopping cannabis tourism companies. The Sonoma County Experience and Emerald Farm Tours even offer overnight adventures at craft grows in the famous Emerald Triangle, the largest cannabis-producing region in the U.S. 

Day one of our adventure brought us on a combined weed, wine and craft beer tour of Sonoma’s finest. California’s largest extraction facility, Canna-Craft, was one of the first stops. 

The facility was a stark contrast to the private tours I’ve been on of Canadian Licensed Producers – no Hazmat suits, gloves or beard nets required as we were brought into a room with large CO2 extractors. Other machines put together gel caps, stirred chocolate and we ooh-ed and ah-ed at the variations of Satori Chocolates coming off the assembly line. 

We learned about CannaCraft’s latest collaboration with Lagunitas beer, a hops- and cannabis-infused water, as we stood around a bar sniffing terpenes from vials and salivating over all of the products we couldn’t try yet, including AbsoluteXtracts vape cartridges and CBD tinctures. 

Plumes of smoke of a different kind hung over the trip as wildfires grew to the largest number on record in the state. CannaCraft played a huge part in the fire rescue effort. The sense of solidarity in the California cannabis community is enough to touch anyone’s soul, despite all the legal trouble companies have faced to get to where they are today, including a DEA raid in 2016. Just like cannabis companies face stigma from neighbours, there were protests in Sonoma when prohibition against alcohol ended. 

In between our cannabis stops we visited one of the original wineries in the region, Hook & Ladder, as well as local craft brewery Barrel Brothers. While security protocol for licensed grows is high, we were still able to visit Sonoma Hills Farm, which was awaiting licensing while running a local organic CSA. 

While us Canadians think of the area as wine country, dairy and fruit farmers originally settled in the region. A few smart trailblazers were the first to plant grapes, a huge risk seeing as it takes years to produce a decent vintage. Likewise, a few brave individuals are investing their life savings to be some of the first cannabis farmers in Sonoma. 

But unlike grapes, cannabis grows quickly and requires less water. Pesticides in cannabis are strictly banned, making it a more ecological crop. 

Our group was really starting to warm up to each other and we reunited the next night for the Terpenes and Terroir dinner hosted by The Herb Somm and TSO Sonoma. 

Flowers adorned two long tables, and each guest received a glass of rosé. Every glass of wine was paired with a local farmer, who shared some words about either the wine or cannabis.

By the end of the night, we started breaking into the jars packed with craft cannabis, which were only meant for smelling. The women around me were seasoned cannabis consumers, but not one of them knew how to roll a joint – pre-rolls and vape pens are more common here. 

The next day, after checking Google’s fire map, we chanced travelling to Flow Kana, the Disney World of craft cannabis. 

Started as a San Francisco delivery service, Flow Kana purchased the original Feltzer vineyard to create one of the largest cannabis processing facilities in the state. Many of Flow Kana’s farmers are beyond organic, using restorative soil and biodynamic farming techniques. The newly formed Flow Kana Institute will feature classes on restorative farming with accommodation on site. 

As the lines between weed and wine blur in California, more and more winemakers are getting on board and, in some cases, even collaborating. Benziger is one example of a famous biodynamic winery now producing some of the finest-quality organic cannabis in California.

Just as micro licences allow California businesses special privileges, Health Canada will soon be launching our own micro-licensing program. Canada has thousands of craft growers waiting to be licensed. 

While our dreams of seeing rolling fields of cannabis stretching for kilometres like California may not be realized, these new micro facilities have laxer security requirements than licensed producers and could easily open the doors for cannabis tourism in Canada. 

Communities like Prince Edward County, Muskoka and Niagara are already gearing up. Even small towns like Strathroy are welcoming tourists for events like WeedMD’s #FirstHarvest recently. It’s clear to see that cannabis tourism could revitalize small towns. The economy depends on it.

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Lisa Campbell is CEO of Lifford Cannabis Solutions, chair of the Ontario Cannabis Consumer & Retail Alliance and Chief Marketing Officer for Vindica Cannabis Corporation.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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