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Could marijuana give wine a run for its money?

In competition for 'inebriation dollars' as pot use gets wider legal nod in US, some big drinks firms are investing big bucks in cannabis trade


COULD marijuana knock wine off its throne?

As pot use - medicinal but especially recreational - is legalised in more US jurisdictions, an unusual relationship is becoming increasingly apparent between the wine and cannabis industries. There is symbiosis but also competition, often with a whiff of humour.

Earlier this month, M Shanken Communications, publisher since 1979 of Wine Spectator magazine, sued Sacramento-based Modern Wellness Inc for "passing off" Wine Spectator's name, image and reputation on a website (and in associated media materials) called Weed Spectator. The complaint said that Weed Spectator mimicked Wine Spectator in its appearance, including a similar font in a trademark application, and was intentionally trying to confuse readers by arranging for Weed Spectator to come up in Web searches for the wine publication.

"M Shanken has no interest in associating Wine Spectator and the Wine Spectator marks with cannabis, a largely illegal drug," the complaint said, according to Reuters. M Shanken Communications, through a publicist, declined to comment.

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The lawsuit, aside from copyright issues, reflects the wine industry's unease about the legalisation of marijuana. The industry, with Wine Spectator among the media vanguard, has spent decades promoting wine as part of the healthy, luxurious good life, fighting the stigma of alcohol as a drug. It succeeded for a while, but recent health studies have increasingly questioned the idea that even moderate alcohol consumption (including wine) might be good for you beyond its spiritual qualities. Now come the potheads, assessing the virtues of various strains of marijuana - with point scores, no less, and medicinal benefits - in much the same way that wine geeks suss out the nuances among appellations of Burgundy. It is a very inconvenient parallel.

The rise of marijuana threatens wine in ways other than image, especially in California, where relaxed laws took effect early this year. Wineries were already dealing with a labour shortage, in part because of a federal crackdown on illegal immigration that started during the Obama administration. Legalised pot farms are competing for labourers, with year-round harvests and easier working conditions. So wineries are competing with pot farms for labourers.

Legalised marijuana could likewise lure away some of wine's customer base. "We are going to see a number of people who would normally reach for a glass of wine reach for cannabis instead," said Tom Wark, the Napa-based author of the Fermentation wine blog, as well as a publicist and advocate for wineries. Mr Wark thinks that lower-priced wines will suffer from the competition from weed more than higher-priced, artisanal wines.

"There are a number of people who use wine as a means of taking a load off when they get home from work, with dinner or after they put the kids down, who will switch to cannabis," Mr Wark said. "There is a limited amount of 'inebriation dollars' in the economy, and with the legalisation of a new way to become inebriated, you'll see a migration of some of those dollars from wine to cannabis."

That threat to the market may explain why some large companies in the alcohol trade have invested in cannabis. Breakthru Beverage, one of the largest US distributors of alcoholic beverages, signed a deal this month to be the exclusive distribution partner for CannTrust, a Canadian marijuana producer. Recreational use of cannabis will become legal in Canada in October.

Constellation Brands, a leading US alcohol beverage producer, has invested more than US$4 billion in Canopy Growth, a Canadian firm breaking into the marijuana market, with an idea of producing a potpourri of weed-infused beverages for the Canadian market. And eventually, of course, to sell in the United States.

These investments are clearly designed to position the companies to move into the US cannabis market as pot becomes legalised in more jurisdictions there.

This is logical: Beverage alcohol is highly regulated in the United States. We can argue about the virtues of that, and whether the current system allows consumers access to the wines or other beverages they want to buy. But this is an industry ready to distribute a regulated product through approved distribution channels. From a regulatory standpoint, it makes sense to legalise, license and regulate cannabis through the same channel as alcohol.

But that synergy will not ease the discomfort of those loath to suffer the secondhand effects of legalisation. The owners of a Napa Valley restaurant called Fumé Bistro recently complained about a new marijuana distribution company called Napa Valley Fumé - sort of an Uber Eats for wine-country stoners. The word "fumé", from the French word for "smoke", has a long history in Napa Valley, where Fumé Blanc is a synonym for sauvignon blanc, a popular white wine. WP

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