There’s been a lot of buzz about pot and wine recently. It’s hard to separate the toga party contingent’s thirst for a potion into which two psychoactive substances have been crammed, from the more sober, scholarly consideration of the 3,700+ year history of fortifying wine with cannabis. And the allegedly potent healing powers of cannabis-wine are almost always overlooked, advocates complain.
Come on. Isn’t pot-wine just an elevated partying tool? Or can it actually help people who suffer from various maladies? Also – is it any good? And where can we get it?
Historically, wine fortified with cannabis hasn’t been guzzled at the average Thirsty Thursday happy hour. Instead, pot-wine has been consumed during religious rituals and used as a form of anesthesia in surgery. Yes, it’s that powerful.
Records of the marijuana plant being utilized for medicinal purposes date back to the 28th century B.C. In China during the second century A.D., archeologists found records showing that the founder of Chinese surgery, Hua T’o, used wine fortified with cannabis resin to reduce pain during surgery.
Religious initiates of various stripes also drank psychoactive wine as part of their practice. Participants in the Eleusinian Mysteries (initiations held yearly for the cult of Demeter and Persephone in ancient Greece) and early Christians (including, allegedly, Jesus Christ) are two of the most noted groups of cannabis-wine enthusiasts, but far from the only ones, according to Carl Ruck, a professor of classical studies at Boston University. He coined the use of the term “entheogen” when discussing the use of psychoactive substances during sacraments to free the topic “from the pejorative connotations for words like drug or hallucinogen.”
And unlike the sophomoric Cheech and Chong-esque cackles of glee greeting most discussions of weed-wine, the professor’s pronouncements on the subject are refreshingly staid, reeking more of damp tweed than patchouli oil. The tradition of adding “fortifying herbal additives to wine [have been] documented by archaeological evidence” he says, noting that “entheogens were at the very origin of religion.”
Don’t worry: not everyone whipped out the pot-wine for the E.R., temple and church, even back in the day, Dr. Ruck explains. There were a few Bronx agers who are thought to have used pot-wine as a shortcut to fun. (Toga! Toga! Toga!)
A personal wine cellar in a palace in modern day northern Israel was discovered a decade ago. Dating back to 1700 B.C. it’s the oldest (and probably the coolest) cellar that has ever been found, with a personal stash of more than 500 gallons of wine (it would fill about 3,000 modern bottles) infused with cinnamon, honey, mint and … psychotropic resins.
About 572,762 Californians are thought to be card-carrying cannabis users (out of a population of more than 38 million).
And though he refrained from commenting on the “advisability” of renewing the practice of brewing weed-wine, he did say that “cannabis would be one of the less dangerous additives” to make a comeback, of which there are a few other less promising entries in the wine fortification market. “Evidence for the additives comes from folkloric traditions and the practice is apparently often employed in the making of home brews,” Professor Ruck explains. “One with salamander venom is marketed in the Balkans. Modern Greek retsina is fortified with toxic terpenes.”
Let’s all agree to forget the salamander venom Balkan wine, shall we? Unless you’re up for making a home brew yourself, Marijuana wine is (somewhat) available and legal in America, and probably will become increasingly so in the years to come. (About 53% of Americans support marijuana legalization now, compared to roughly 42% of Americans in 2010, according to Pew Research). Four states – Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska – and the District of Columbia have passed measures legalizing marijuana use, 14 states have decriminalized certain amounts of possession and 23 states plus D.C. have legalized medical marijuana.
While the exact recipes for the pot-wines of yore aren’t available, a commonly used manufacturing method now is cold-pressed, never heated. It may not have the exact psychotropic effect one would expect. Instead, cannabis acts more like an herb would, adding depth of flavor and structure to wines. Melissa Etheridge, who became an unlikely, vociferous advocate of medical cannabis after going through a bout of chemotherapy, has created a line of pot-wine through Greenway in California, called “No Label.”
In California, it’s legal to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal medical use given the recommendation or approval of a state-licensed physician. Patients are commonly issued a cannabis ID card. About 572,762 Californians are thought to be card-carrying cannabis users (out of a population of more than 38 million). Greenway, founded in 2005 in Santa Cruz, the first dispensary in California to be backed by both the city and the state, embraces both the medicinal and the recreational possibilities of cannabis, and is at the forefront of making cannabis consumption as delicious and sophisticated as possible.
“Cannabis is highly medicinal,” Lisa Molyneux, Greenway’s founder-farmer says. “And even when people think they are just using cannabis recreationally or to relax, it probably has an underlying medical or psychological component. Personally, I abhor grain alcohol. Many years ago, I tried cannabis-infused wine that a winemaking friend of mine made for his own personal consumption and I loved it. I got the recipe from him and I started working on my own batch seven years ago. As it turns out, I misunderstood his directions, but even he agrees that my results are better.”
Ms. Molyneux’s products – which consistently win accolades from patients and the press, including coveted awards in the annual High Times Cannabis Cup – come in many forms, including edibles, concentrates, balms and capsules. Her cannabis-wine, developed for her own personal use initially, became a secret cult favorite among California’s in-the-know cannabis consumers who are more interested (or at least just as interested) in the medical uses of the plant as they are in the blissed-out high the toga contingent is after.
Getting the benefits of cannabis from edibles and tinctures are popular alternatives to just smoking the stuff, but Ms. Molyneux’s disdain for the taste and effects of grain alcohol prompted her to try to get her wine tincture on the market, especially when Melissa Etheridge got ahold of her brew and approached her about turning it into the first commercial cannabis-wine available in the U.S.
The Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter is eagerly embracing her role as a “ganjapreneur” and it’s hard to think of a better place on earth than California to launch another wine revolution. California wines are known for their robust, daring flavors and vertiginously high alcohol content (consumers are demanding fuller-bodied flavors from wines, so producers are leaving grapes on the vine for longer to ripen, which ends up imparting more flavor but also packing more alcohol) and California culture is known for it’s paradoxically assertive and laid-back approach to launching and then dominating new, upstart markets and ideas. And winemakers in Northern California have allegedly been making it for decades – it was probably just a matter of time before someone canny capitalized on the opportunity.
“I am a wine-lover and I truly believe that a glass of wine a day can be medicinal too,” she explains. “The problem is, few people stop at one, so the health benefits kind of fly out the window when you’re downing three or four glasses a night. Once I got clearance from my legal team and was able to sell a wine tincture at Greenway, I heard from a lot of wine-loving customers that two ounces of the tincture was all they needed to get the relaxing effects of wine. Ironically, my wine tincture is probably helping people drink and smoke less!”
It tastes just like wine, but you get the herbal kick in the back of the throat from the cannabis.
Ms. Molyneux, who grows Greenway’s roughly 20 strains of cannabis in her backyard in Santa Cruz herself using organic, sustainable growing methods, pairs carefully selected “hybrid” strains with specific varietals. (At last check on Leafly, there were 1,548 strains of cannabis, categorized as Indica, Sativa or hybrid). She has been making cannabis-wine for several years, but because it’s so expensive and time-consuming (her secret recipe and method involves barrel-aging and extraction for about one year), she can only experiment with pairings and batches one barrel at a time; still, at any time, she has about a dozen different tinctures to choose from, and she always has core customer favorites (hers is the Syrah and the Viognier, Ms. Ethridge’s is the Grenache, she believes) on tap.
Every strain of cannabis, like any herb, imparts different flavors and Ms. Molyneux pairs them accordingly with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet, Grenache, Chardonnay and Viognier varietals (she uses grapes from wine-makers who grow their grapes organically, but she won’t reveal their names and says that in five years she hopes to have her own organic wine vineyard). Ms. Molyneux says always use hybrid strains because many people report anxiety or rapid heartbeat after consuming sativa strains and pure indica strains can have a somnolent effect.
“Because of the way I make the tincture, it’s much better for you medicinally than grain alcohol tinctures, and it tastes incredible,” she says. “It tastes just like wine, but you get the herbal kick in the back of the throat from the cannabis. The process of making the wine tincture is also superior to grain tinctures because it’s not heated, it’s just cold-pressed, so the slow process of extraction reacts differently in your body. The TCH in the cannabis isn’t activated in the same way as it is in edibles and tinctures that are heated. It’s slower, longer lasting, and more subtle. You won’t feel the euphoria, it’s more like a full-body and mind happy relaxation. My patients with sleep issues, gastro-intestinal problems, especially Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and anxiety problems have told me that the tincture has helped them enormously. Seriously, two ounces at dinner is perfect, and while it won’t make you sleepy, people tell me it delivers the best night of sleep four hours after drinking it that they’ve had in years.”
Anytime a rock star is involved in marketing a legal drug, interest, both genuine and of the gawking variety, will ensue. Ms. Molyneux reports that they’ve had so many inquires from the whole state, her legal team is currently focused on how to ensure that more people in California can legally access it. “It’s a gray area,” she sighs.
But while her lawyers attempt to slash through the red tape cordoning off intra-state cannabis-wine transportation, Ms. Molyneux is tinkering with a new pet project: “I’m working on a cannabis beer now!” she exclaims. “So far, I’ve made an IPA and a Kolsh, both were incredible. Of course, I am only making them in 40-bottle batches and everyone’s mad at me for not making a larger sampling. As soon as it goes through corporate, I should have some on the shelf.”
The beer will likely be much less expensive than the wine, which averages about $16-$20 an ounce, with a six-ounce minimum purchase. “The cold-extraction cannabis drink is seriously the best way to enjoy your meds,” she says. “It really is just a matter of time I think before other makers around the country will be finding ways to get wine and beer tinctures on the market. It will be good for everybody.”
Ms. Molyneux’s recipe is proprietary, and more than likely requires more gear and know-how than home vintners can muster. While we would never encourage illegal activity, DIY cannabis wine-making is a thing, and recipes are available online, most of which point to an original piece in The Daily Beast. It’s not as simple is garnishing a glass of Syrah with a bud. Aspiring cannabis wine-makers have to actually make wine because it’s the fermentation process that extracts the THC from the wine. Here’s a quick guide:
1. Buy a kit, available online or in home brew shops.
2. Drop 1 lb of cannabis into a cask of fermenting wine. The fermentation process converts the sugar in the grapes into alcohol, and the alcohol extracts THC from the cannabis.
3. Wait a minimum of 9 months before bottling.
4. What you do with that wine when it’s finished is between you, your doctor and your toga.