For thousands of years, the world's most well-heeled wine lovers have gathered together amid runny cheese and rare truffles to discuss the relative merits of various fermented grape juices. Arguing over a particular vintage's "notes of sandalwood" and "hints of elderberry" with an air of insufferable pretension so palpable it's a shop-worn cliche, those at the upper echelons of power and influence routinely pop the cork on bottles that cost more than the rest of us spend on rent for a month—or a year.
Meanwhile, with a few notable exceptions, those blessed to possess the world's finest pot palates remain unheralded by all but the plant's most dedicated aficionados. Largely relegated to smoking joints behind bowling alleys, they fill internet forums with passionate debates over the lineage and provenance of such legendary underground herb varietals as Sour Diesel and Cat Piss.
You'll have to decide for yourself which sounds like a better scene to break into, but either way, rejoice! Because this past weekend, oenophiles and cannaphiles intersected in a new (and, no doubt, mutually beneficial) way at Tannins and Terpenes—an inaugural event in Portland, Oregon, that promised weed snobs and wine snobs a chance to "explore the complex world of cannabis and alcohol pairings in a safe, fun, and regulated environment reminiscent of traditional wine pairings."
Such bringing together of the burning bush and the fruit of the vine for a best-of-both-worlds experience makes perfect sense to Wes Abney, founder and editor-in-chief of Northwest Leaf, the regional cannabis publication behind Tannins and Terpenes.
"We want to start a conversation and open people's eyes to the fact that weed isn't just weed," Abney tells The Weed Eater, touting the thousands of distinct cannabis varieties and sub-types currently in circulation. "Connoisseurs from craft wine and beer are going to absolutely love the world of craft cannabis, because there's so much genetic variety, and each strain has its own unique smell, taste, and psychoactive effect. Also, the way you grow a plant, when you harvest, and how the buds are cured all bring out different flavors and aromas. So the potential for new experiences is really endless."
Northwest Leaf first began exploring the possibilities of pairing wine and weed back in 2011, with a special issue that proved so popular it turned into an annual tradition. And now Abney is hoping his organization's first-ever ticketed tasting will become a tradition, too. He admits that many privately enthusiastic vintners remain apprehensive about publicly endorsing marijuana, even in a fully legalized state like Oregon. But he predicts that within a few years—as cannabis liberation continues to spread and marijuana continues to mainstream—they'll realize the upside far outweighs the risk.
Meanwhile, to stay in compliance with the state's pot and alcohol regulations, attendees were required to join a private club (complete with membership dues). In exchange, they earned entree to the event and five tokens redeemable at 12 different pairing stations—sufficient to sample the equivalent of two full glasses of local wine, plus enough high-grade herb to keep seasoned stoners satisfied without risking over-saturation.
"We're not trying to intoxicate people—we want to educate them," Abney says. "We want them to really savor their chance to experience this for the first time."
Previously, this column reported on sampling Melissa Etheridge's weed-infused wine tincture, which is made by adding cannabis buds (later filtered out) directly into the barrel during the fermentation process. Such THC-meets-alcohol concoctions are actually a longstanding underground tradition among Northern California's groovier winemakers, but Etheridge's small batch efforts aside, they remain almost exclusively head stash, not readily available to the public.
Anybody with access to weed and wine can try pairing them, however. And so, sadly unable to attend the Tannins and Terpenes event due to a prior engagement, The Weed Eater recently hosted a small private home version of the extravaganja instead, with the help of a wonderful cannabis couple—one of whom happens to be a certified sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the other a top-shelf cannabis grower and marijuana industry consultant.
Put in touch by a mutual friend in the weed biz, Kelly Jones, the wine-expert, and her pot-growing beau Calisto Bertin dropped by and offered up their combined acumen in the form of a expertly curated wine/weed pairing flight.
Kelly and Calisto started dating a few years ago, and "immediately began an interchange of passions." Calisto had enjoyed wine many times, but had never fully experienced it. Kelly indulged in an occasional toke, but had no idea a few puffs of the right strain right before bed could cure her insomnia. He told her about Sour Diesel, the first bud he could ever recognize by smell. She described how a fateful pairing of steak and cabernet turned her on to wine forever.
"I'm lucky to have a lot of different kinds of cannabis at my ready disposal, so I smelled them all and thought, 'What does this remind me of?'" Kelly replied when asked her method for matching vintage and varietal. "For example, with the Obama Kush I got a strong pine aroma and that made me think of Gaia's Ritinitis [a retsina from Greece], a wine that's actually infused with pine resin."
Kelly also played with contrasting flavors, as when pairing a "zesty" Lemon Kush with an "unctuous" 2013 Sequillo White Blend, from Swartland, South Africa. After leading a small gathering of enthusiastic neophytes through the ritual of observing the wine's legs, inhaling its bouquet, and swishing air into the glass, she encouraged us all to take a hit off a joint of Lemon Kush, then chase it with the wine, while striving to fully experience the complex interplay between the two.
"The first thing you learn as a sommelier is how to taste," Kelly told us, which brought to mind a recent scientific study that proved cannabis not only increases your appetite, it also makes food smell and taste better. Which is actually highly ironic, because so much of wine connoisseurship stems from pairing the right bottle with the right meal to enhance the flavor of each—and yet while fine wine and haute cuisine may certainly mesh well, alcohol in aggregate tends to dull the taste buds.
So does that mean we'll soon have weed sommeliers at fine-dining restaurants like Delfina in San Francisco, where Kelly works as a server? Calisto, for one, thinks it's only a matter of time before cannabis connoisseurship fully comes of age. He says that true cannabis connoisseurship has become possible over the last two decades due to legal retail marijuana (medical and recreational), the internet, and rapidly changing societal norms.
"All of the access and transparency that started nearly 20 years ago when California legalized medical marijuana has allowed for documentation of new strains and their lineage," he says. "Everything related to that before the mid-1990s was basically folklore. Some of the best-known and most sought-after strains on the market today have origin stories that sound like something straight out of The Hobbit."
Kelly and Calisto both worry that the downside of of all this progress will be cannabis entering its "jug Chianti phase," referring to the mass production of California wine that began in the mid-1970s and led to a lot of painful consolidation among the state's small vintners. That history appears likely to repeat for growers of the state's other celebrated agricultural intoxicant, as the marijuana industry become more tightly regulated, and increasingly controlled by ever larger entities.
"We're going to see mass-produced cannabis in states with legalization," Calisto acknowledged. "But it's really hard to achieve peak quality in even a moderately large commercial setting. So that creates an opportunity for the truly boutique growers to stick around and earn a premium, even in a market where prices are generally trending downward."
As for the pairings, for the record, we also enthusiastically matched a Fire OG with a 2010 Domaine de LA Chevalerie Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley in France—two lovely products that Kelly felt found common ground in their shared notes of bell pepper.
But don't take her word for it. Do a bit of reading up on the finer points of pairing these two well-loved inebrients, and then dive right in—being sure not to overdo it. Because if you love wine, and you love weed, you really can't go wrong enjoying them together in appropriate amounts.