Can marijuana farms affect the aroma or taste of wine from neighboring vineyards?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Driving through Sonoma recently, I noticed the smell of marijuana in the air. Subsequently I was told that west Sonoma County is now being called “Cannabis County.” As I understand, this is where very delicious Pinot Noir is grown. Will the taste of marijuana invade the taste of wine in future years?

—Jai, San Francisco, Calif.

Dear Jai,

The legalization of marijuana is relatively new, so we’ve yet to really understand its impact on communities and the wine industry. The whole issue is very complicated—after all, marijuana is still federally illegal.

I have heard some stories here and there about farmers replacing small vineyards with marijuana farms (it’s a lucrative cash crop), but I’d be surprised if that became more widespread.

Why? It’s my understanding that cannabis actually does better in controlled growing environments like greenhouses. Regulating temperatures, light sources, humidity and CO2 allows cannabis farmers to produce perpetual harvests (outdoors, they’d be at the mercy of Mother Nature and only get one harvest per year). Greenhouses also provide better security and odor control.

But in Sonoma County and elsewhere, cannabis farmers are trying to figure out how to be good neighbors, and local governments are defining where cannabis cultivation, processing and sales can take place.

While you might smell marijuana in the air, I don't believe that growing marijuana next to a vineyard will affect the flavor of wine. We know the eucalyptol oil from eucalyptus trees in the vicinity of vineyards can attach to the waxy surface of grapes, particularly when leaves fall into grape bins. And we also know that wildfire smoke can impact the flavor and aroma of grapes. But marijuana plants aren’t tall trees dropping leaves, and the oil from marijuana is more difficult to extract. And wildfire smoke only influences grapes when it hangs heavily in the air for a suspended period of time, usually weeks; I don't think even Cheech & Chong could manage that. If you believe local lore, there have been rumors for years of winemakers who grow cannabis in or near their vineyards, without any anecdotal evidence of flavor impacting the grapes.

I don’t think there’s any reason to worry about west Sonoma losing its reputation as prime Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay!) country. But it will be interesting to see if and how the influence of cannabis changes the landscape.

—Dr. Vinny

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