Cannabis beverages—long imagined as the holy grail of mainstreamed marijuana—are finally coming into their own. Breakthroughs in infusion science have yielded a new generation of products that are shelf-stable, taste good, and begin working more quickly. While the creation of new cannabis-specific beverage categories remains a long-range prospect for larger companies, numerous winemakers are stepping in to meet the canna-curious with a recognizable entry point.
As the preeminent winegrowing region in the U.S. and the largest legal cannabis market in the world by sales, California has taken the lead in pioneering cannabis wine, despite some uneasiness in certain parts of the wine community. Regulations preclude mixing THC and alcohol, so all cannabis wines are dealcoholized prior to infusion. Companies are also not allowed to call their product “wine,” so branding and label design are required to work overtime to draw the right associations with potential consumers.
House of Saka, a cannabis wine label that launched its first releases in California in October 2019, was co-founded by Tracey Mason, a veteran of Diageo, Foster’s Wine Estates (now Treasury Wine Estates), and Purple Wine + Spirits, among other drinks companies. Mason touts her industry connections as a competitive edge, as she’s able to source top-quality grapes from Napa Valley for Saka’s portfolio, helping to offset the loss of flavor caused by dealcoholization. The brand first released a Napa Valley Pinot Noir rosé in still ($50 a 750-ml.) and sparkling ($75) varieties that both contain 25 mg of THC and 5 mg of CBD a bottle, meaning that a single glass contains around 5 mg of THC, which is considered to be a relaxing and approachable dosage.
Saka most recently bolstered its lineup with a dealcoholized Napa Valley Chardonnay ($50 a 750-ml.), and the company has a Napa Bordeaux-style red blend debuting later this year. While the Chardonnay will have the same dosage as the rosé, Mason notes that the infusion won’t be the same. “The cannabis formulation will be slightly different, because the terpenes—the aroma molecules that cause the distinct cannabis smell—that complement the individual grape varietals are different,” she says. The red blend will be stronger, containing 40 mg of THC and 10 mg of CBD a bottle.
Los Angeles-based Rebel Coast has also embraced terpenes as a way to open up possibilities totally unique to the category. In addition to infusing its wines with THC and CBD after dealcoholization, Rebel Coast then adds wine terpenes to compensate for flavor loss. But co-founder and CEO Josh Lizotte says they also inflect the character of the wine’s effects, allowing for a new dimension in winemaking. “Not only do the new terpenes add more flavor and aroma, but they actually have a synergistic effect with our THC,” he says. “People don’t know that other cannabinoids and flavonoids—terpenes—interact with the THC to bring on different types of high, like a sativa or indica high”—that is, the classic dichotomy between an energizing “head high” and a soporific “body high.”
Both House of Saka and Rebel Coast—which first launched its Sauvignon Blanc in September 2018 and its rosé (both $45 a 750-ml.) in August last year—see their wares as appealing primarily to women, as does Woodland, California-based Viv & Oak, which debuted with a rosé in December. Much of the aesthetic around cannabis culture is oriented toward young men, but statistics from legal states show that the largest growth among consumers has been among women and those older than 35. Cannabis wine has the potential to tap into this burgeoning market, where sophistication and quality are a priority and justify the higher price point.
Cannabis wine is still a nascent category. Rebel Coast produced approximately 2,400 cases last year, according to Lizotte, and Viv & Oak produced just over 830 cases, according to founder and president Alana Burstein, though she expects that volume to double in 2020. It appears that cannabis wine is poised for a breakout year as distribution capacity and on-premise consumption expand.