People at a forum in Buellton focused on uniting the wine and cannabis industries.
A forum focused on uniting the wine and cannabis industries to benefit both was held Wednesday night in Buellton. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The local wine and cannabis industries should unite to catapult Santa Barbara County into a spot as a top tourism destination, speakers said Wednesday night during a forum in Buellton. 

“Together We Thrive” attracted more than 100 people from both industries, along with community members, to discuss ways to work together to promote tourism and develop strategic partnerships.

“The main message is that Santa Barbara County has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, literally right now, to be the world leader in wine and cannabis tourism,” said Dan Fox, “a very big advocate” of the cannabis and wine industries and chief marketing officer for Private Reserve, a cannabis operation.

The county’s vintners have long lamented the fact that consumers pass by their region en route to Paso Robles for the wine industry, speakers said. 

“The guys in Paso are eating our lunch and bedding our customers,” said vintner Steve Pepe, from Clos Pepe Vineyards. “Is it because the wine up there is better? No, they make very good wine, but so do we.

“Paso basically offers, encourages and promotes a wine culture. Santa Barbara does not,” Pepe added.

Paso Robles allows restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfast inns at vineyards or on ag land, while Santa Barbara does not, Pepe said. 

Winemaker Wes Hagen talks as the cananbis industry’s John De Friel listens.

Winemaker Wes Hagen talks as the cananbis industry’s John De Friel listens during a special forum in Buellton aiming to unit the two groups. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Cooking classes encouraged in Paso are discouraged in Santa Barbara County, ironic consider it was home to Julia Child, “the woman who taught a generation how to cook,” Pepe added.

“I could go on and on with the list, but if we’re going to talk tourism, we have to talk serious reform and the county’s attitude on tourism,” Pepe said, as the crowd applauded. 

Proclaiming “dirt matters,” Wes Hagen, winemaker and admitted intoxicant enthusiast, suggested creating California Cannabis Cultivation areas, much like the wine industry uses appellations to identify growing regions. 

He called for “Santa Barbara County to lead the charge to show that our dirt, our sunshine and our environment is not only conducive to growing some of best cool-climate grape varietals on the planet … but to say what can our dirt and our sunshine do to make us famous in another industry.”

Both sides should focus on science, he added.

“As we look at numbers and we look at science, we’re going to start taking out emotion. And as we take out emotion and look at this as a purely scientific, agricultural and economic issue, we are going to open our minds as to what this can actually do for us in the community,” Hagen said.

Former Congressman Jeff Denham, forum moderator Sara Rotman and Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne.

Former Congressman Jeff Denham, forum moderator Sara Rotman and Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne participate in a panel discussion about how the local wine and cannabis industries can work together. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

One wine industry representative in the audience asked why the cannabis industry hasn’t studied terpenes, a compound responsible for cannabis odor.

“Why isn’t the industry showing us that terpenes don’t affect us? If you guys all believe in science, show us, prove to us the power of terpenes, which are 50 percent more powerful than they’ve ever been, aren’t going to affect grape tissues,, grape skins, grape soils,” said Stephen Janes from Pence Winery & Ranch. 

Pepe said his vineyards sit near 150 acres that had been used for growing row crops that emit their own distinctive odor.

“Never had any of our customers tell us our wine tasted like broccoli or Brussels sprouts,” he said. “We sold our grapes to a dozen or more wineries and nobody ever complained about the crop saying it smells like Brussels sprouts and broccoli.”

A second concern centered on substances used for wine grapes tainting nearby cannabis should not be an issue, Pepe said, suggesting cannabis growers could leave a buffer to reduce chances of contamination. 

Speakers noted the similarities between the cannabis industry today and the wine industry arrival in the county decades ago, meeting resistance 

Wednesday night’s panel also included Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne, Jennifer Zacharias from JZPR public relations firm, and former Congressman Jeff Denham, who maintained the federal government could soon pass legislation easing objections to cannabis, including laws affecting the banking industry. 

The forum fell on the same day as Turlock law enforcement officers raided an allegedly illegal marijuana farm of nearly 4,000 plants at property partially owned by Denham, according to the Modesto Bee.

Organizers of the Buellton forum expect to hold other similar events in a bid to bridge the divide between the two ag sectors, according to moderator Sara Rotman,

“What’s needed is a lot more breaking bread, shared wine and walks on the farm fields, farmer to farmer, friend to friend,” Rotman said, calling for an open conversation for the community. 

“We are optimistic that the county’s wine and cannabis industries share more similarities than differences,” she said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.