No beverage has escaped an infusion of cannabis — even wine. Infused though today’s “weed wine” is a much different product than what may have been drunk in early Egypt. And the production of modern infused wines comes with unique challenges, as infrastructure is created alongside developing laws.
During the days of Prohibition, federal law decreed the production of alcohol to be illegal, but it was not illegal to consume it, so one of the ways drinkers could get their fix was by obtaining a prescription for medicinal use. Today, another medicinal substance—cannabis—stands on complicated legal ground, caught in the contradictory crosshairs of federal and state regulations, while on the brink of contributing to whole new categories of consumable products, including cannabis-infused wine.
In the race to capitalize on all the ways cannabis can be consumed, only a handful of companies have set their sights on cannabis-infused wine, and only a few, it seems, have been successful in actually bringing a product to market.What is cannabis-infused wine, exactly? Of the few examples in the marketplace, each begins as an alcohol-based wine before being dealcoholized and blended with a CBD- or THC-infused emulsion.
Weedmaps News spoke with entrepreneurs and weed winemakers to better understand the emerging world of cannabis-infused wine and the challenges this new and innovative industry is facing.
What is weed wine?
The history of cannabis-infused wine may be surprising. Cynthia Salarizadeh, founder and president of House of Saka, points out, “Cannabis-infused wine has been around for thousands of years, it’s one of the original marijuana products … less of a trend and more of a resurgence regulations and industry have matured enough for people to bother doing it again.”
Weed wine that can be found in a dispensary is dealcoholized wine, mostly from California, blended with a THC or CBD emulsion, meaning the alcohol is removed from the wine before it gets infused with cannabis. It looks and is served like a regular bottle of wine, but with a slightly different flavor because of the dealcoholization process, and optional additives to reintroduce flavor and texture. The cannabis, rather than any alcohol, gives the beverage its effects.Were combinations of the plant and alcohol, current regulations prohibit the mixing of cannabis and alcohol. Laws also prohibit the use of the term ‘wine’ for packaging and marketing. Weed wine, like infused beer, must be dealcoholized before it comes into contact with cannabis.
How cannabis wines are infused
The chain of weed wine production is convoluted, involving a minimum of three separate companies: the company providing the cannabis solution, the beverage producer and the distributor before arriving at a dispensary for sale. New companies have popped up, blazing a trail of infrastructure to support the infused beverage category for the long term.
Ben Larson that specializes in cannabis nanoemulsions explained that nanoemulsions are not a one size fits all technology, noting that the solution acts differently depending on what it is going to be mixed with and even packaged in. Vertosa customizes each client’s unique emulsion, tailoring it to the needs of their specific product. Wine is delicate on the palate and you don’t want to offset that with any off-putting flavors or textures.
While efficient — and the preferred method for most beverages — nanoemulsions are not the only way to go. They opt for a process that encapsulates cannabis molecules to prevent clumping.
Once a non-alcoholic beverage and cannabis solution are ready to be combined, they are both transferred to a company like who is legally allowed to infuse products with cannabis before shipping them to distributors for eventual sale in dispensaries. Spacestation is in a unique and important position, ensuring the synthesis and cooperation of three different companies for one final product.
Bigger bottles, bigger problems
In addition to the challenges shared by other infused beverages such as marketing language and navigating muddy legal waters, the logistics of large bottles presents challenges unique to wine. Salarizadeh laments, “Restrictions on infused beverages are crazy to begin with, but any beverage similar to wine is even more restricted … regulations are very favorable to single-serve jars, [for example] in terms of childproofing closures.” In 2020 the bottles will need to be re-sealable and child-resistant for the life of the product.
Tracy Mason, co-founder and CEO of House of Saka shares the extreme challenge this represents by explaining “that technology is being developed, it doesn’t exist…[we have] to meet a standard that doesn’t exist yet, even in any other industry.”
The standard 750-milliliter bottles, which contain five servings each, are also more difficult to work with in facilities licensed to distribute cannabis beverages that are typically packaged in single-serve bottles and cans; the infrastructure to get these bottles from point A to point B had to be created by pioneering brands in California, and still doesn’t exist in most states.
Many of the first cannabis wines produced in the past couple of years focused on infusions rather than blended emulsions. The two differ in that infusion requires cannabis plants to be submerged directly in wine—like making tea—while emulsions are oil-based, water-soluble solutions that are more smoothly incorporated into other liquids, like wine. Infusions extract all kinds of terpenes, good and bad, and some of the first wines made this way exhibited pungent, off-putting, skunky pine flavors and aromas. New technologies have made it possible to strip away those unwanted flavors to produce aromaless and colorless THC- and CBD-rich emulsions.
The culture of weed wine
What sets cannabis wines apart? First and foremost, the audience. People want a delicious and relaxing non-alcoholic beverage that won’t give them a horrible hangover. Alana Bursteir puts it simply: “Our whole mission is to provide a solution for people who don’t drink alcohol, like myself … women between 35 and 65 is our target market.” This particular audience may be underserved by the abundance of other soda and beer infusions. Just like regular wine, there is an element of luxury and social conviviality that these brands embody.
A great pull for cannabis-infused wine is the ability to control the dose. Like other infused beverages, weed wines offer a low-dose serving that sets on relatively quickly — within 20 minutes — and lasts about an hour. This is a far cry from some of the early prototypes, as Larson pointed out that “a lot of the infused beverages that people might have been familiar with in the past were sugary and high potency, very much like a liquid edible: you take it, it’s a long onset and a very heavy, long experience, not very social and not a real beverage experience.” Contemporary wines offer a consistent relaxing buzz similar to a glass of regular wine.
Rebel Coast takes things to the next level by combining different strains with different varieties, customizing the feel and flavor of each wine. Their sauvignon blanc is infused with sativa for a euphoric, giggly, and active feeling, and it includes proprietary terpenes that play off the naturally grassy flavors of the wine itself. The rosé is infused with an indica leading hybrid, intended to be mildly body-focused in effect, for a chill vibe that isn’t over-the-top.
“We’re all about the consumer experience, not just something to get you high. We add specific wine-derived terpenes to interact with the THC to give you a different high. We are crafting the high and crafting the experience, not just getting people stoned” says Lizotte.
Does it taste good?
Unlike beer, wine does not share any obvious flavor compounds with cannabis. Many backyard and DIY experiments have yielded wines that offer a great high, but are a struggle to sip. “…Up until about a year ago, [cannabis wines] were disgusting, they tasted like swamp water mixed with bong water. Whoever was coming out with it was dumping enough sugar in it to kill a small farm animal,” says Salarizadeh, without mincing words. Now that the technology of relatively neutral cannabis emulsions is available, the biggest hurdle is having enough flavor to satisfy a wine drinker.
Viv & Oak adds tannins, the mouth-drying element of red wine, back into their products to preserve the mouth-feel and body of regular wine. But while the infusions may be a delicious beverage, it would be unfair to compare them with regular wine, as Lizotte admits, “…you’re not going to get world-class wine … we are trying to mimic the taste of wine, [but] the alcohol has so much mouth-feel and flavor … it’s a spin on classic wine.”
Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, agrees and points out that this is good news for the quality-driven wine industry: “…if you’re selling premium quality wine, you shouldn’t feel threatened [by cannabis-infused wines] … thus far no one is producing top-flight wine infused with cannabis.”
What’s to come?
As pioneering brands continue to build out infrastructure in compliance with rapidly evolving laws, they open the pathways for more products. As CEO of the first legal cannabis-infused wine, Lizotte welcomes newcomers. “Competition is good for the industry overall,” Lizotte said. “The more people that come into the space, the more user awareness and education.”
Bradley Mora, CEO of Spacestation, sums up some of the reasons he and others have gone all-in on the cannabis beverage industry, “[beverage] is the most approachable format for new [cannabis] users: it removes all the detrimental health considerations of smoking, it allows new users to dip that toe in … and assimilates better into people’s social habits.” His company is committed to normalizing cannabis beverages as a premier form of consumption in the coming years.
In addition to being enjoyable and approachable, Mason points to the element of safety and responsibility that beverages offer, “because you are constantly aware of where you are on the sober-intoxicated spectrum at any point.” As a wine industry veteran, she recognizes the importance of consuming responsibly, “it’s important that we talk about cannabis in the same vein that we talk about alcohol. It is enjoyable, beautiful and meant for relaxation, unwinding and celebrating, but it has to be enjoyed responsibly.”
Ultimately, the goal for people behind the scenes of production, like Larson, is to see cannabis wine be embraced as a full beverage experience. Based on what has been accomplished so far in the nearly two years of legal reform, this reality seems closer to fruition.