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Could marijuana give wine a run for its money?

A man smokes marijuana during the a 4/20 rally this year on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. (LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Is weed the new wine? Or at least, wine’s new competitor?

As marijuana use — medicinal but especially recreational — becomes legal in more jurisdictions, an unusual relationship is becoming increasingly apparent between the wine and cannabis industries. There’s symbiosis, but also competition, often with a whiff of humor.

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 in a website and associated media materials called “Weed Spectator.” The complaint said Weed Spectator mimicked Wine Spectator in its appearance, including a similar font in a trademark application, and was intentionally trying to confuse readers by having Weed Spectator 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.

The lawsuit, aside from copyright issues, reflects the wine industry’s unease about the legalization 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 various virtues of different strains of marijuana — With point scores, even! And medicinal benefits! — much the way wine geeks suss out the nuances among appellations of Burgundy. It’s 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 labor shortage, in part because of a federal crackdown on illegal immigration that started during the Obama administration. Legalized pot farms are competing for laborers, with year-round harvest and easier working conditions. So wineries are competing with pot farms for laborers.

And legalized marijuana could lure 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,” says Tom Wark, the Napa-based author of the Fermentation wine blog, as well as a publicist and advocate for wineries. Wark thinks 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,” Wark said. “There is a limited amount of ‘inebriation dollars’ in the economy, and with the legalization 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 U.S. 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 U.S. alcohol beverage producer, has invested more than $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. (Coming soon to an all-night convenience store near you: A Cheetos-flavored drink to help with those post-pot wine munchies.)

These investments are clearly designed to position the companies to move into the U.S. cannabis market as cannabis becomes legalized in more jurisdictions here. 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 legalize, license and regulate cannabis through the same channel as alcohol.

But that synergy won’t ease the discomfort of those who don’t want to suffer the secondhand effects of legalization. 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.

The restaurant’s owners said some customers mistakenly thought the bistro was distributing pot after an article about Napa Valley Fumé ran in the Napa Valley Register. One of the owners huffed about the confusion to the paper, saying, “It’s such a drag.”

Dig Deep: Consumer culture + Weed

Legal weed is changing how we do business. Want to know more? Check out our curated list of stories below.

Context matters How marijuana became mainstream

The number of people older than 26 who occasionally use marijuana increased by 3.2 million in three years, and the industry has grown to accomodate its new clientele.

Understanding where the war on weed still rages

A swath of mostly conservative states, running from North Dakota through Texas, is home to many counties where marijuana enforcement accounts for 10 percent or more of all arrests — well above the national average.

Get smart about how marijuana is competing with wine — and not just for customers

Already faced with a labor shortage, wineries are now competing for workers with legalized pot farms, who have year-round harvests and easier working conditions. 

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