One year ago, voters in Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives to legalize recreational marijuana. Since then, both states have adopted their own rules for regulating the sale of the substance. In Colorado, sales are expected to begin in early 2014; sales are expected to begin in Washington by mid-2014. And, in October, the ACLU announced the formation of a power panel led by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom to study marijuana legalization in California. At the same time, the ACLU released numbers from a recent poll, which suggest strong support for legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana among likely 2016 California voters.
All of the buzz surrounding marijuana prompted me to take a closer look at marijuana-infused wines and cocktails. A simple Google search yields plenty of home recipes, along with marijuana cookbooks with chapters dedicated to Mary Jane cocktails. But counterculture marijuana is starting to look a lot more mainstream. In July 2013, GQ let it all hang out when they included a recipe for cannabis-infused vodka lemonade as part of "Amped-up Drinks for an Open-Air Rager." In August 2013, reports surfaced of Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies pulling over a man in possession of weedy booze as part of a routine traffic stop. And, in The New York Times article "Marijuana Meets Moonshine," author Ben Detrick offers his account of a Los Angeles loft party complete with these seemingly stylish libations. Furthermore, he writes, "For decades, farmers in places like Northern California and upstate New York have made private batches of wine steeped with marijuana."
Which made me wonder: Is marijuana wine in my own New York City backyard, where we city-dwellers smugly like to think we can get anything at anytime? Surely if I just asked the right people, doors would swing wide open for me. But potential sources either didn’t have answers, or they weren’t talking. So I reached out to Crane Carter, president of the Napa Valley Marijuana Growers, and the first declared marijuana grower in the nation to join a major agricultural association when he was accepted into the Napa County Farm Bureau.
In an email, Carter said of marijuana wine, "It is not common and is made by certain winemakers and kept secret. Since there is so much marijuana grown in California, it is easily accessible to experiment with, so it can be made by adding wine to an aging barrel or to fresh juice." And in regard to New York producers, Carter noted, "I doubt they have such easy access to locally grown marijuana, but I could be wrong."
Despite the apparent difficulty, I was still eager to find a bottle and a willing source. I contacted a winemaker from a well-known winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. He revealed he was the winemaker for a custom job for a company that put hemp oil from Amsterdam in wine. As it was hemp oil, it was not technically marijuana wine, but the product was marketed to the marijuana subculture. The founder of the company, according to the winemaker, was originally from California. The winemaker said, "The white was made from Cayuga white, and the red was from caco noir and Geneva red… the product was pretty successful for a while and they got quite a bit of publicity. They eventually went out of business; I think they didn’t understand the distribution system very well."
Hemp and cannabis are related but different, and hemp contains little or no THC (the psychoactive constituent in cannabis). In describing the wine, the winemaker said, "They tested the oil to be sure there was no THC. It was incredibly aromatic, not necessarily in a pleasant way. Two agents from the [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] came by asking about it, then in the end asked me what it tasted like. I said, 'I don’t know, I never swallowed it,' and we all started laughing because it was only a few years before when Bill Clinton said he never inhaled."
Marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, there are currently 20 legal medical marijuana states, with Illinois and New Hampshire joining the list in 2013. On Election Day this year, Nov. 5, voters in Portland, Maine, and three Michigan cities voted to legalize recreational marijuana in small quantities for residents 21 and older. The growing numbers of medical marijuana states and the groundbreaking recreational marijuana initiatives suggest that consumers will have more, though regulated, access to the drug in the near future. Is the marijuana-infused cocktail and wine trend just a lark, a sensational Prohibition-style digression with its popularity based solely on the fact that it’s not exactly, for the moment, legal? Will access remove the mystique of these drinks? Time will tell.
Before I started looking for marijuana wine, I expected to find it. So far it has eluded me. Until this becomes more mainstream, I may have to go to California for a hemp-inspired horizontal tasting. The search continues.