Terry Wheatley, president of Vintage Wine Estates, delivers the keynote address at the Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa on Thursday, August 5, 2021.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The lines between the wine industry and the cannabis sector are blurring as more wine companies enter the market as marijuana legalization at the federal level appears inevitable, a senior local wine manager said Thursday.

Terry Wheatley, president of Santa Rosa’s Vintage Wine Estates, said winemakers are increasingly looking for prospects in the cannabis drinks business, which had US sales of $ 421 million last year. This beverage segment is expected to have annual sales of $ 1 billion by 2025.

“There are so many similarities between wine and weed,” Wheatley said at the 5th Annual Wine & Weed Symposium, held in person at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Wheatley should know. In addition to her leadership role at Vintage Wine Estates, which recently became a shareholder owned company, Wheatley serves on CannaCraft’s board of directors. This is the Santa Rosa company, which processes cannabis into oils, beverages and food and sells it to licensed cannabis pharmacies. It is the second largest cannabis producer in California.

The wine and cannabis industry has overcome the worst pandemic with different courses. The wine industry, which had long been dominant on the north coast in the last few decades, struggled with stagnating sales, greater risks from forest fires and renewed pressure to consolidate on wineries trying to remain viable in the long term.

In contrast, investors are flocking to the cannabis market to capitalize on the main growing region of the Emerald Triangle Counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity. Meanwhile, Sonoma County has developed into an important hub for processing the plant into various consumer products.

U.S. sales of legal marijuana have risen during the pandemic and are set to rise as 19 states have legalized recreational cannabis to date. Nevertheless, the industry is being held back by bans at the federal level.

Local beverage companies have already found access to cannabis. Lagunitas Brewing Co. from Petaluma produces a cannabis drink from CannaCraft. In 2018, famous film director Francis Ford Coppola added a line of cannabis products alongside his wine business, which he sold to the Delicato Wine Family earlier this summer. Similar moves are expected as local wine and beer companies view cannabis companies as collaborators rather than competitors.

For example, Vintage Wine Estates is working on a drink fortified with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which provides the psychoactive effects of the marijuana plant. However, these efforts depend on state legalization of cannabis.

Wheatley also reminded the audience on Thursday that Vintage Wine Estates is “very interested” in another dimension of cannabis by using the cannabidiol (CBD) compound in the plant in making pain relievers that consumers won’t get high make.

Ingredients such as CBD oil can now be found in many products on the supermarket shelves because they do not have to be sold in a marijuana pharmacy.

New York-based Constellation Brands Inc., a giant beer, wine, and liquor maker that owns the iconic Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley among other wineries, has a large financial stake in Canadian marijuana company Canopy Growth. Recreational use of cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2019.

But Wheatley said efforts to capitalize on cannabis in Canada have failed and so far disappointed investors.

However, California has a natural advantage over other regions when it comes to harnessing its agricultural roots and infrastructure to turn cannabis business opportunities into successful ventures.

“The people up in Canada who went out and thought they could be farmers and planted all that grass, they weren’t farmers. They didn’t know how to grow, and the same thing happened in Nevada, ”Wheatley said.

“The same things are happening across the country because they are not farmers. For me, that’s the advantage that the California cannabis business has. “

The winery underscored this notion, saying the state has “amazing” pot growers and winemakers.

The growth projections for the cannabis market are enticing for wineries and breweries to purchase $ 67 billion worth of wine.

“Who in their right mind wouldn’t care?” Wheatley said of the enormous potential of cannabis.

This is the case despite the federal ban forcing wineries to set up separate marijuana businesses or work through a cannabis maker to create a cannabis-infused wine.

There are additional hurdles, including removing alcohol from wine and infusing cannabis into the drink. This is a process some wineries have moved away from while others remain interested, said Tracy Mason, chief executive officer of House of Saka in Napa, a maker of non-alcoholic wines that are infused with cannabis and sold in licensed cannabis dispensaries .

Mason pointed out the consumer benefits of House of Saka wine over traditional wines: a glass of their wine has 11 calories per serving compared to the 226 calories of a typical serving of rosé. “It’s a big, big difference,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or [email protected] On Twitter @BillSwindell.