"Cannabis and wine have both been around for thousands of years," Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and dedicated medical marijuana activist Melissa Etheridge tells me. "But the notion of a commercial cannabis wine industry is brand-new. Even the idea of ganjapreneurs is still relatively new. So we're on the front line of this thing."
Etheridge let leak her plan to serve as spokeswoman for a high-end line of marijuana-infused "wine tinctures" last month, during an appearance on Bloomberg TV that later generated quite a buzz online. Naturally, The Weed Eater got in touch to hear the whole story, and hopefully have a taste of an elixir she describes as "delicious" and "outstanding," with a "slight herbal taste that doesn't change the structure of the wine, or overpower the taste of the grapes."
Pounds of homegrown, outdoor, organic cannabis buds are all harvested, dried, cured, and weighed out in advance, so as to greet the grape juice the moment it arrives.
Of course, while selling such a product to the public may be unprecedented, the practice of blending two of humanity's most popular and enduring intoxicants actually has a long history. According to Carl Ruck, a professor of classical mythology at Boston University who studies the way psychoactive substances have influenced humanity's spiritual development:
Ancient wines were always fortified, like the 'strong wine' of the Old Testament, with herbal additives: opium, datura, belladonna, mandrake and henbane… [so] the easy availability and long tradition of cannabis use would have seen it included in the mixtures [too].
More recently, this process has become something of an open secret among cannabis-friendly vintners, particularly in California's wine country, where the "easy availability" of grapes and ganja dates back to at least the early 1970s. And so in these heady days of big victories for marijuana legalization, it was only a matter of time before someone took the next logical step.
"Up until now, I was doing it more for myself and to share with friends," says Lisa Molyneux, the cannabis-grower-turned-pot-infused-winemaker who's enlisted Etheridge to help get the word out about this new endeavor. "Now I'm really serious about the whole process. Where in the past I've always just been grateful that it's worked out and tasted amazing."
The process starts with buying juice from a well-known biodynamic vineyard in central California immediately after the grapes are crushed, then transporting it directly back to Molyneux's home—where she's got French oak aging barrels waiting, along with pounds of her own homegrown, outdoor, organic cannabis buds that are all harvested, dried, cured, and weighed out in advance, so as to greet the grape juice the moment it arrives.
Molyneux won't divulge her recipe, but a Daily Beast article by top-flight wine writer Michael Steinberger advises "dropping one pound of marijuana into a cask of fermenting wine, which yields about 1.5 grams of pot per bottle; the better the raw materials—grapes and dope—the better the wine." From there, just age the wine like any other, tending it frequently and waiting for just the right moment to move it from the cask into bottles.
"However long the wine sits in the barrel, the cannabis sits in there too," Molyneux says, "from six months to two years, they're in there together doing their thing. And that's just lovely."
Since the cannabis is never heated, a "cold extraction" takes place during fermentation, meaning the marijuana plant's unique compounds—called cannabinoids (including THC and CBD)—are transferred into the wine in an acidic form (THC-A, CBD-A) that's far less psychoactive than the decarboxylated cannabinoids found in marijuana smoke and edibles.
"So our wine offers the many benefits of cannabinoids, without all the euphoria," Molyneux explains. "It all works together in harmony."
Etheridge adds that "about ten minutes after you start sipping, a certain warmth starts to spread" that's more comforting than inebriating. In fact, she hopes the profound mellowness of the wine will appeal to those seeking a certain kind of stress relief, without taking things too far.
"I've seen people who typically drink a whole bottle of wine solo—and then wake up the next morning really wishing they hadn't—stop after one glass of the cannabis wine," she says. "And so, they wake up the next morning feeling much better. Which, to me, is really good medicine."
'I don't think most traditional sommeliers will be interested in this for a long time, because they'll see it as somehow impure,' Etheridge says.
Etheridge's fondness for medical marijuana famously made headlines in 2005, when she went public with her personal story of how cannabis helped her endure chemotherapy during her battle with breast cancer. Molyneux is also a cancer survivor—one of two things they initially bonded over.
"I started going to meet with her at her concerts, in hopes that she'd get more involved in the medical cannabis movement and maybe even perform at a fundraiser," Molyneux recalls. "It was a really slow process, but in time we became friends. And then I brought her a case of the wine as a gift. Well, she loved it, and so did everybody who tried it with her. So it wasn't ever really an intention, but that's how it all started."
At first, Molyneux made only Grenache (infused with Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel) and Syrah (infused with Blueberry OG), but last year she experimented with a white wine for the first time, infusing a Marsanne with a mix of Harlequin and Jack Herer.
"A lot of vintners make this kind of wine for themselves, which is how I found out about it, and fell in love with it. The ones I work with won't make a white, though, because they're afraid it will come out green, but mine finished an absolutely beautiful dark honey color."
This year she expanded the whites to include an Albariño and a Chardonnay, and also added two different Pinot Noirs, a Tempranillo, and a Cabernet. But that juice just went into the barrel (along with buds from this year's cannabis harvest), and still needs to age—about six months for the whites, and a year or longer for the reds. Her celebrity spokeswoman, in the meantime, can hardly wait.
The first sip of each variety jarred the senses with a taste that's not at all unpleasant, just unfamiliar when delivered by a glass of wine.
"I'm a huge foodie, so I'm really looking forward to pairing all of these new varieties with a good meal," Etheridge says, prompting The Weed Eater to ask if she foresees a time when the world's leading sommeliers will have to learn to identify the subtle flavor notes that distinguish Super Silver Haze from Headband and so forth. "I don't think most traditional sommeliers will be interested in this for a long time, because they'll see it as somehow impure. And I understand that, but there's going to be some hip, young, cool person who will see the potential. Meanwhile, I'd love to enter our wine into a blind competition without telling the judges about the cannabis, so they're not prejudiced when tasting it, but obviously we can't do that."
So instead (with their full knowledge and consent), The Weed Eater assembled a panel of eager tasters perhaps more steeped in the burning bush than the fruit of the vine, but still no slouches when it comes to drinking vino. At a Sunday afternoon courtyard party, we snacked on small plates while sampling small glasses of both the Syrah and the Grenache, each of us taking in a total of about five ounces of wine before waiting an hour to gauge the effects.
The first sip of each variety jarred the senses with a taste that's not at all unpleasant, just unfamiliar when delivered by a glass of wine. Usually, such flavors and aromas reach the palate only when we lower our noses into a large bag of well-cured cannabis. But man oh man, did that taste ever grow on us as we proceeded to finish our glasses, until most (but not all!) agreed that high-end cannabis wine might indeed have legs.
As for the effect, the cannabis buzz is subtle but quite present and very pleasantly soothing to both body and mind, particularly after a good strong dose—and yes, the Weed Eater went back for seconds, before ultimately falling asleep contentedly on the couch.