Trading wine for weed? Experts say trend likely to accelerate thanks to legal pot

A marijuana plant is pictured as a bartender opens wine at a cannabis food event in Tacoma, Washington.
Jason Redman | AFP | Getty Images
A marijuana plant is pictured as a bartender opens wine at a cannabis food event in Tacoma, Washington.

DENVER — Would you trade your wine for weed?

Legal pot may reshape wine sales across the country as professionals, particularly women seeking to cut calories, set down their wine glasses and switch to cannabis, concludes a new analysis by one of Europe's biggest banks.

Conventional wisdom has long held that brewers have the most to lose under cannabis legalization as young men switch from beer to marijuana. But the new Rabobank analysis suggests women who have avoided illegal marijuana are likely to begin consuming pot more consistently once it's legalized. The analysis specifically highlights professional women looking to relax after work without consuming calories from a glass or two of wine.

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"The guys, the young men, we say, they're already smoking," said Steve Rannekleiv, Rabobank's global beverages strategist. "It's the people who are the more educated, more affluent, they are saying 'if it's legalized, I'll give it a try.' And that's definitely the demographic of the wine consumer."

Rabobank's analysis doesn't specify how much risk the wine industry faces, but cannabis businesses see the liquor industry as a target ripe for disruption. California's wine industry alone employs more than 780,000 Americans, generates $114 billion in economic activity annually, and pays $15.2 billion annually in state, local and federal taxes, according to the trade group the Wine Institute of California.

The alcohol industry has long segmented its market by gender and age, targeting young men with inexpensive beers like Coors Lights and Bud Light, and wealthier demographics with premium vodkas and whiskies, along with wine.

The marijuana industry is copying that approach, building welcoming dispensaries to dispel the lingering cloud of disreputability that comes from buying cannabis, infusing pot into calorie-free drinks and powders, offering gluten-free snacks and distributing vape pens so people can discretely consume without any lingering smell. Those edibles and vape pens are also seen as healthier than smoking a joint, and more socially acceptable than pulling out a bong.

John Kagia, the executive vice president of industry analytics at cannabis analytics firm New Frontier Data, said the overall alcohol industry has little to fear from legal pot in the near future, although he agreed with Rabobank's analysis that the wine industry is ripe for disruption.

Historically, Kagia said, men have tended to use cannabis at rates twice as high as women, but that gap has been narrowing as more and more states legalize marijuana. Nine states and the District of Columbia now permit adults to use marijuana recreationally. And 30 states, plus D.C., permit some form of medical marijuana use.

"Wine is particularly vulnerable," Kagia said. "The number of women users, their share of consumption is growing quite quickly. They see cannabis as an easy, natural substitute."

Across the marijuana industry, there's a trend away from smokeable marijuana and toward other products, including marijuana beverages. This fall, the the inventor of Blue Moon beer is launching three marijuana-infused drinks promising intoxication without the alcoholic headache.

The drinks, served chilled and initially only available in Colorado will be infused with special marijuana formulas designed to mimic the effects of booze. Its developers say the drink will "hit" the user at the same pace as if they were drinking a beer.

Rannekleiv said Rabobank is still trying to understand exactly how cannabis will reshape the alcohol industry, especially winemakers and retailers. He said there's a broad diversity of opinion within the industry, with some winemakers rushing to embrace the opportunities of cannabis and others trying to ignore it.

The California Wine Institute said it was too early to tell how legal pot might change things.

California is home to the country's largest grape- and marijuana-growing regions, and cannabis firms are even angling to slice off some of the dollars spent by tourists on wine tours by launching pot tours.

And there's an even more basic challenge: farmhands. "There's frustration right now in the wine industry with the growth of cannabis taking off. They were already short of labor and now they've got to compete with the cannabis growers who are willing to pay workers more for easier work," Rannekleiv added.

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