The Wink In Weed: Lessons From The Grape Trade

By David Rheins

There are many lessons the legal cannabis business can learn from studying the evolution of America’s wine industry.

As agricultural products with inebriating properties, wine and weed have much in common. Like cannabis, wine has been an integral part of human society since pre-historic times. Wine like cannabis is used in many different ways, including medicinally, recreationally and ritually. Like cannabis, the qualities of wine vary widely from region to region, and age to age.

Both cannabis and wine are social drugs – used to lubricate the tongue, loosen inhibitions and facilitate fun. Like cannabis cultivation, winemaking was often done at home for personal use, flourishing first as a cottage industry before morphing into big business.

Before prohibition shut down the industry in 1920, America boosted some 2,500 commercial wineries – more than 700 in California alone. Only 100 survived to see the end of Prohibition. It took many decades for the wine industry to rebuild after prohibition but today, Americans consume more wine than any other nation, with US wine sales topping $37 Billion annually.

The country had to be re-educated how to consume alcohol responsibly before the industry could achieve that scale of success.  Once tainted by ties to mobsters and gangland violence, wine had to redefine itself as a sophisticated product used by responsible adults.

Back when I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, wine was something you had primarily at fancy dinners, or special religious occasions. Beer was something you had at the end of the day or on the weekends. Weed was something we smoked furtively.

Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet taught me, and much of middle class America how to entertain – schooling us on how wine could be paired with meals to create a better dining experience. At first that education was basic. We learned to sort grapes into colors before we got to varietals: Red vs. White. Red wine was for meat, served at room temperature. White was for fish or fowl, best consumed chilled. Over the years, the public became more sophisticated and popular brands began to emerge.

galloping gourmet

It is not hard to see familiar parallels with legal cannabis’ big buckets: Sativa vs. Indica. Budtenders (our industries sommeliers) teach the neophyte that Sativa delivers a head high, and is best smoked during the day; that Indica gives one a body high best smoked at night on a comfy couch. For edibles, we learn the golden rule: “start low, go slow.”

Like Red and White in the wine industry, Sativa and Indica are entrée points for the novice in cannabis. Through consumption and experience, the palate is educated. Subtle preferences emerge – not just for chardonnays or cabernets, but for brands and vintages.

Wine has gone big time and is now every bit as American as apple pie.  We bring a bottle of wine when we’re invited to dinner –  not the cheapest, or the strongest – but the one that expresses something about ourselves and the occasion.  When selecting the right bottle of wine at retail, the consumer cannot usually taste or smell the product, and so makes the purchase decision based upon visual appeal of the package – the bottle, the label, the brand – and the price.

Patrick Bennett has made a fine living and a great reputation doing commercial photography for the wine industry: shooting farms, farmers and gorgeous grapes.  For the past two years, Bennett has been capturing the early days of the legal marijuana marketplace, photographing Washington’s top cannabis producers, processors and retailers as they establish a new industry.  The techniques he perfected in his work with the wine industry transfers seamlessly into cannabis. He recently showed off some of his work at Hot Box: The Best of Marijuana Design and Packaging 2016, where he was a featured presenter, including these images of the iconic Farmer Tom Lauerman.