It’s hard to imagine now, but not all that long ago—as recently as the 1960s—the Napa Valley wasn’t considered particularly special, save perhaps for some of the spectacular views from the rugged mountains that encircle it. It was, wrote James Conaway in Napa: The Story of An American Eden, “an agricultural backwater given over to prune and walnut trees, pastures, and some vines.”

The vines were grapevines, of course. Wild grapes grew naturally in the area, and the area’s first vintner, George Calvert Yount, planted his first grapes in 1839. A wine industry flourished in the decades after, but it didn’t initially change the essential character of the place. Until the late 20th century, wine was “considered the dubious beverage of immigrants, made in basements,” Conaway wrote. As the years progressed on from the Kennedy Era, though, wine would quickly be “transformed into a symbol of high culture, and winemakers would be heralded as artists.” In the 1970s, vintners in Northern California, and Napa County in particular, took their place among the best-regarded winemakers in the world.

This didn’t happen without dissent. Many of the locals were suspicious of the monied newcomers who descended on the area, buying up huge tracts of land and erecting ornate wineries, eventually attracting gaggles of tourists.

But now it’s the winemakers’ turn to be suspicious, as cannabis entrepreneurs are looking to   buy land and turn it over to weed. Proponents of allowing cannabis cultivation in Napa County say it’s really the only crop that would yield a decent return, given how high land prices are. Salad greens and strawberries won’t do it, and even many winemakers look for cheaper land elsewhere these days.

Nevertheless, efforts to allow commercial cannabis cultivation have been stymied. A planned November voter initiative to allow growing in unincorporated areas of Napa County, which seemingly had widespread support, was pulled thanks mainly to the Covid-19 pandemic making it impossible to collect enough signatures in time. On Election Day, voters in Yountville, in the heart of Wine Country, decisively rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed retail cannabis shops. As things stand, the only city in Napa County to allow commercial cultivation is American Canyon, on the southern end of the county. And even there, only indoor grows are allowed.

In 2019, the Napa County Board of Supervisors, under pressure from some local vintners and from the Napa County Farm Bureau, voted to ban cultivation in unincorporated areas. The voter initiative was meant to reverse that decision.
Many longtime Napa denizens worry that their brand would be hurt by the presence of “Napa Valley” branded weed. They further worry that the terroir—the environment in which wine is grown, which is thought to affect aroma and flavor—will be sullied by pot farms. 

“You have to protect the Napa name,” Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said when the initiative was being debated earlier this year. “Napa is an internationally recognized brand, and you don’t want anything to disrupt the brand.”

At the same time, however, there are wine people who are open to cannabis cultivation. The Napa Valley Cannabis Association (NVCA), in fact, was founded by Stephanie Honig, a wine-industry veteran and director of communications for the Honig Vineyard & Winery. She advocates cannabis cultivation as a way to diversify the region’s economy. The fact that wine sales have softened in recent years makes this more urgent, she says.

The research firm IWSR recently reported that U.S. wine consumption fell in 2019 for the first time in a quarter century. Millennials, in particular, are favoring other kinds of alcoholic beverages such as hard seltzer, the sales of which grew by an eye-popping 50% last year. That doesn’t mean the wine industry is tanking—total sales in 2019 were $38.3 billion in 2019, actually higher than the previous year thanks to a shift toward more premium wines. 

But the consumption trend should give the wine industry pause, Honig says. 

“Millennials are looking for other things,” she says. “Something new and different from what their parents did.” She said the wine industry has nothing to fear from cannabis, and much to gain.

Promise and Risk

The NVCA was the main backer of this year’s voter initiative, which would have included fairly severe restrictions on how big pot-cultivation operations could be, and how much space should be left between them and vineyards. Opponents of allowing cannabis in Napa point to Santa Barbara, which has seen explosive growth in its cannabis industry since Proposition 64 passed in 2016, legalizing cannabis for adult use. The backlash from the wine industry there has been enormous.

But Santa Barbara “rushed through” its regulations, said Corey Beck, CEO and chief windemaker for the Family Coppola, one of the handful of large Napa vintners that favor pot cultivation in Napa. Santa Barbara placed barely any restrictions on cultivators, allowing them to go hog wild—abutting vineyards with pot grows, for example. 

“The community feels like it just kind of got shoved on them,” Beck says. 

But that doesn’t mean Napa should reject cannabis, he adds. Just the opposite, in fact. He thinks it’s essential to embrace the plant and continue to evolve. “We evolved from walnuts and prunes because if we were to have relied on them, the Napa Valley would not be where it is today,” he says.

Honig insists that what happened in Santa Barbara won’t happen in Napa. The regulations her group proposes “are extremely restrictive.” There’s little chance, she says, that Napa pot would ever eclipse Napa wine. It would be more of a complement, as it is for many imbibers. Millennials, she says, could be enticed to Napa by pot tourism, just as wine drinkers are enticed to tour vineyards now—a huge business. In fact, that’s already happening in Sonoma County, which allows pot cultivation, and where some tourism operations combine wine and cannabis tours.

The idea, Honig says, is to make sure that Napa cannabis is seen as a high-end, premium product, just like the county’s wine and food is. “You should be able to go into a Napa dispensary and buy Napa cannabis,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s like going to a restaurant in Yountville and finding out they only have Italian wines.”