By Mitchell Colbert
Cannabis has long been grown in the shadows, under the canopies of the Emerald Triangle, while wine grapes were grown in the neighboring counties of Sonoma and Napa in the open, under the warm California sun. Now, cannabis, a plant whose flowers can be worth as much as gold, is beginning to emerge from those shadows and venture into the mainstream. The same can be said for business professionals who are also emerging from other industries, like wine, to embrace the opportunities that the cannabis industry presents. I spoke to two women who have a foot in both wine and weed, starting their careers in the wine industry, and more recently stepping into the cannabis industry, while still maintaining their work with wine.
In 2006, Erin Gore finished her degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which led her into a decade-long career with Henkel. Along the way, she met her husband, a second-generation grape farmer, and married into the wine industry. While she has been behind the scenes for longer, in 2016, Gore left her corporate career to run Gore Family Vineyards, a boutique winery nestled in Healdsburg, Sonoma County. In addition to producing wine, Erin and her husband Tom have expanded the estate’s products to include olive oil, honey and more than 70 varietals of fruits and vegetables. Also in 2016, Gore founded Garden Society, a cannabis confection company specializing in microdosed edibles.
Alicia Rose was born and raised on a horse farm in Vermont before the big city called her name and she moved down to New York, where she stayed before making the trek out west to California. When she arrived she felt that the wine industry was a nice way to marry her farming roots with the sophistication she picked up in Manhattan. She did that by founding Earth and Ethos, a holistic marketing and business practice, where, working from experience and with intention, she helps to create world-class brands by focusing on the end consumer. Rose has done business with many big names in the wine industry, including the Marc Mondavi Family and Folio Fine Wine Partners. Rose has a mind for sustainability and carried that over to her work in the cannabis industry when she founded HerbaBuena, a virtual medical cannabis collective which offers private events for members, as well as organic and biodynamic cannabis products delivered statewide to their patients. In 2015, HerbaBuena was the country’s first-ever Demeter Certified Biodynamic cannabis. In the words of one HerbaBuena farmer, “Biodynamic farming is…all about fostering biodiversity to attain a healthy balanced system.”
What made you want to make the jump into the cannabis industry?
AR: As a consultant, it’s your job to help other people leave their mark on the world. Then you reach a point where you want to leave your mark. Cannabis has always been my first love, for the feelings of therapy, healing, well-being it provides. I choose cannabis as my way to leave a mark, through embracing plant medicine.
EG: I needed two hip replacements, which is what first caused me to begin researching the medical effects of cannabis and explore them for myself. Step forward, I was running a $100 million dollar business and traveling a lot, it was very stressful, cannabis would help me sleep, relax, and it was better than alcohol. At the time, there wasn’t any product on the market that was what I was looking for, nothing was organic, nothing tasted good, and dosing was a problem. Cannabis is a therapeutic product for women and we set out to create products designed for women and the education to go with them. When I began making edibles for myself, I also made some for my mom’s best friend, who has stage 4 breast cancer. While she is a former DARE teacher, she’s become a real advocate for cannabis. When I talked to her about leaving my old job, and starting this company, and she grabbed my arm and said “You have to do this now.”
What do you see as being the biggest parallels between these two industries?
AR: They’re both highly prized and highly regulated agriculture commodities, that can be made into something more sensual to the human experience. Both weed and wine are responsible for elevating and enhancing the human experience.
EG: There are a lot of directions to take this. The value to terroir, terpene profiles, the nuances of different appellations that cannabis connoisseurs appreciate are the same things valued in the wine industry. Just like everyone has their favorite bottle of wine, everyone has their favorite strain.
Where do you see the biggest differences between wine and weed?
AR: Cannabis is spirit plant and a healer, though wine can make you feel good, cannabis can actually improve your health in a way that wine cannot. It’s a much more rewarding experience than just wine itself.
EG: The most obvious is the stigma. If you look nationwide, cannabis is much less accepted than alcohol, and at the macro level, perception is one of the major challenges. Regulation is also a real issue, the industry is writing the regulations while moving forward, whereas with alcohol the rules are mostly settled. One of the biggest differences is that cannabis has such a potential to be medically beneficial, the potential to revolutionize how we treat ourselves and improve our health, and alcohol does not have this potential. That is a very significant difference the community needs to talk about in order to change this stigma.
What do you see as the biggest regulatory issues facing cannabis in the next year? What about the next ten years as it matures?
AR: The biggest issue in the next year for me is what local permits are available and actually having access to them. So many cities and counties have bans there is a scramble to secure a permit to stay in business, it’s also unknown how it will transition to state licensing. Operating in that way is incredibly stressful. I agree with Sir Richard Branson that, over the next ten years, the cannabis industry will become as accepted as wine industry. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be viewed like wine. I’m not afraid of compliance, I’ve dealt with it from wine industry, just give me the rules so I can follow them.
EG: Within the next year, local permitting will be a major issue. There aren’t enough cannabis community members advocating for policy, so many regulations are being written without industry input. In the next three years, banking will be a huge problem. We need a solution for banking so we can be legitimate and successful, with access to loans and credit; currently, it looks like it will be solved at the state level. We are likely to see federal legalization in the next ten years, but what will that look like? Before federal legalization we will see more states becoming adult-use/medical states, creating some chaos for the Feds, until things change and new players come in, like Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco.
What are your thoughts on the rising trend of microdosing? Do you feel it could be the cannabis industry’s version of the alcohol industry’s “drink responsibly?”
AR: I am a huge proponent of microdosing. One of my first products was our Rock & Roll tincture, and while two years ago people looked at me like I had two heads for selling something with a 3mg dose, now people are seeking it out. I have always been a supporter of microdosing and so has my clientele, they want to access the healing benefits of THC without the high. Many of the strains we carry, due to being heritage strains, have lower THC and more balanced cannabinoid profiles. People keep pushing THC up into the 20’s and 30’s, but one of my most popular strains is a Pakistani Chitral Kush which only has 6% THC and is so dark purple it’s nearly black.
EG: It absolutely will be. It will be the socially acceptable trend and how cannabis goes mainstream. I am surprised it took this long to catch on, but this is where we need to be as an industry. Some say Garden Society isn’t micro enough at 5mg, and we should go lower to 2.5mg. Most women have lower THC thresholds than men and we need to educate women to use this medicine effectively as it goes more mainstream. It also depends on what the desired effect is. I like to be in the moment and a small dose of edibles, for me 7.5mg, it helps keep me present. When I was having hip surgery I was experimenting with cannabis and have no idea what doses I was taking, I just wanted pain relief.
Has anything changed in your talks with wine clients since Prop 64 was passed in November?
AR: Most of my high-end wine industry clients are very supportive of what I am doing, and this is a dialogue that has only really been happening in the past two months. The conversations we are having are magnificent. They are excited about it, whereas before they didn’t want to talk about it. It brings an element of hope for therapeutic benefits to something that before would have just been a wine tasting. Prop 64 was a big part of this because it let people know it was okay to talk about it, it brought people out of their cannabis-closet.
EG: Agree with everything Alicia said, people are way more open than they were before Prop 64. People are curious, whether they are curious concerned or curious interested, we have yet to find out.
Erin Gore and Alicia Rose will be speaking at the Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa August 3, 2017. For more information visit wine-weed.com.