Talking Mari-wine-uh with Eric DeMuth
Up until recently there were marijuana growers and wine growers but you were either one or the other. No question about it, winemakers had some plants and certainly some cannabis farmers made a little wine but since pot has been living in the shadows it was not advertised. As California is on the verge of having legalized recreational marijuana, that is going to change. Louisa Lindquist has gotten attention for her green wine. I haven’t tried it but I have had a few sips of Eric DeMuth’s cannabis infused wine over the last few years and each time a pretty interesting conversation about the future of the two crops has ensued. He invited me up to check out what he’s been doing on both fronts so on a rainy Thursday in early April I voyaged to his place in Windsor to sample a variety of his products, discuss his path and how these two wonders of the natural world are going to co-exist – legally – in California.
The “Demuthery” is also Eric’s residence, which he shares with his dog, Sheena. Here, he makes wines from Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Unabashedly California in that they are fruit forward, I know I could easily take any one of his wines to friends who are not natural wine drinkers and they’d be appreciated by all of us. As Cami, my partner/designated driver said, they are “gateway natural wines.”
During this outing, we tried the 2012 Black Knight Chardonnay ($40), which is in a very happy place. The acidity is super sharp and there is an underlying minerality to play off the lactic notes. It tastes like California Chardonnay but with a Burgundian edge. His DeMuth Vineyard Chardonnay never disappoints me and it’s too bad that there will not be any more from anyone (Liocco made the last in 2016) as the vineyard is being replanted to Pinot Noir. We also tried his 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir, a restrained but pretty wine and the still fairly tight 2012 Bei Ranch Syrah.
Eric considers himself to be a natural winemaker. All of his growers are practicing organic. The wines undergo native ferments and are bottled with anywhere from 30 – 40 ppm of SO2, which in the relative scheme of things is moderately low. He admits to making additions when absolutely necessary and used an experience that went badly with Syrah a few years ago as an example.
As he relayed the story, the contract with the grower stipulated that the grapes would be picked at 22.5 brix but he didn’t get the call until they were at 26.2 and then the grower couldn’t get a picking crew for another ten days. By the time the grapes came in, the brix were at 29.2 meaning that the wine would hover at about 18% alcohol. “I realized I’m going to go home and do surgery. I’m going to whole cluster press fucking 29.2 brix Syrah and turn it into medicinal marijuana wine. I’m going to buy every de-ionized water I can find at every store and buy tons of tartaric acid and stay up all night and put it in a 1000-liter tank. I picked ten pounds of fresh ganja, $40,000 worth of weed, over a two week period and create this thing and recover from this situation.”
While I did not taste that bottling, we did have three more recent versions of his cannabis infused wines. The first was a rose blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay, which he calls “Herbal Rose.” If you did not know it was fermented with weed, you might just think it is spicy and herbal, or has what the French would call garrigue.[i] “This one we used to call Budlight. It’s ten times more pungent smelling than it is effective. You’re supposed to get a body buzz feeling.” It is made with five different strains, three pure sativas, one cross and one that is pure indica. The alcohol is jus 8 – 9% too so unless you drink half the bottle or are very sensitive, you shouldn’t be too affected.
We moved on to a couple of reds made from Syrah, “Schedule One,” and another very special bottling in clear glass. Schedule One, Eric said, was stronger than the rose but not as potent as the yet un-named one. That one was fermented and soaked in Blue Dream for 12 weeks. A cross between Blueberry, which is an indica, and Haze, a sativa, Blue Dream is a popular strain in dispensaries that has both mind and body effects. Eric usually charges $100 for a bottle but this one is going to be a little more since it’s stronger.
If you think that is expensive consider that others, such as Canna Vine, which Lindquist makes with Lisa Molyneux, a Santa Cruz dispensary owner, sell for $140 – $400 and that is for a half bottle. Eric used ten pounds of Blue Dream, which he could sell for $4000. While his prices are high, his bud is outdoor and organic. Even with the going rate of $1500 a pound, give or take, that is still $15,000. Don’t forget that for Eric, this is first and foremost medicine. Many people appreciate the body effects of pot but don’t want to smoke. “I have a power couple in Healdsburg. They use two to four ounces every night or every other night and they use it for REM because they can’t sleep. They don’t see it as a bottle of rose.”
He’s explored selling his wine through dispensaries but doesn’t feel it makes much sense. “This is what the government wants me to do. They want me to put it in a tinted glass. They want me to call it a tincture.[ii] But it’s a lie, it’s not tincture; it’s a wine. Here’s the key. They want me to get it tested at their laboratory and when I go I have to give them my driver’s license and credit card. And then they’ll give me a sticker and then that’s my label. And then I have to go to a dispensary and I have to go yes or no and do all this shit and don’t forget 30 – 50% of my profits go to the dispensary. I have 1000 clients already that are in line ready to buy it at my set price and I can’t even make enough of it so it’s like no thank you.”
The DeMuth family left Moravia in 1667 and settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Skipping ahead a few centuries, Christopher Eric DeMuth, a larger than life sounding character who landed in France to fight the day WWII ended, made his way west via Yale. He started growing grapes in Booneville in the 1980’s. The DeMuth’s sold their fruit to Kendall Jackson and others until the late 90’s when “Chris,” as Eric calls his dad, decided to give it a go. He extracted his son from the restaurant world of San Francisco and together they made the first wine in 1999. The label, Eric says, was “Uber Gothic, directly linked to the family down in Pennsylvania and back to Moravia.”
Eric got kicked off the ranch in 2004 and started his own label, a much more modern looking one. He has continued to source grapes from the DeMuth Vineyard, which was sold to Knez in 2008, but works with other growers as well.[iii] All the while, growing marijuana has been near and dear to his heart and you could probably say it was his first love. “Being a Marin boy and being around a lot of musicians in the 70’s, my parents came to me – I vividly remember this – and were like, “What can we do to make you go to school; to not be truant?” I said I want to go skiing every weekend with Mogul Ski Club and I want to grow weed. I want to grow a plant or two. And they were like, “Ok.” And that was in ’77.”
Eric bought a book to learn and high school seniors gave him some tips. He grew a couple of plants in his backyard in San Rafael and several years later had more than 40 on his family land in Booneville. In 1994, he sold some of his pot to a disabled friend and that was the beginning of his medical marijuana business. “I realized it was more than getting stoned and offered real medical benefits along with getting involved in the movement per Jack Herer and anti-Reaganomics and the suppression of marijuana.”
I asked Eric how growing cannabis and growing grapes are similar and different. “The similarities are that you harvest at the same time. The biggest difference for me is that once you plant the grape its in the soil forever. The weed plant, unless you’re in Hawaii or that kind of zone, you can’t have it grown year round.”
It also requires a lot less water, which in a draught-ridden state is a huge consideration. This is one of the factors why there is concern that vineyards, especially in Mendocino Country, are going to be replaced by cannabis plants. By several estimates, it takes anywhere from 180 to 400 gallons of water to make one bottle of wine but only 1.875 gallons to grow an eighth of weed.[iv] If you figure that an eighth will give you about three Cheech and Chong sized joints or a dozen pinners, the amount of water you are using as a consumer is considerably lower. That is a pretty significant difference and for growers it is a more profitable crop. Eric figures that an acre renders about 720 bottles of wine. If he charges $50 a bottle and the profit margin is even 50%, he can make $18,000. If the same acre is used for cannabis, it can yield 80 – 100 pounds of flower, and at $1500 a pound, the grower can make over $100,000.
This does not mean that cultivating marijuana is without its issues. As is true of grapes, pot is prone to mold. This is a problem in Humboldt County. Eric’s girlfriend, who also works in the marijuana industry, said there are times when the growers are frantically cutting down their plants and hanging them in rooms with dehumidifiers. Then there is also the issue of the federal government. Our white hooded attorney general said he’s going to crack down on legalized pot. Now that he’s recused himself from Kremlingate maybe he’ll have the time but I have serious doubts his efforts are going anywhere.
The reality is that marijuana is big business in California. It is not a liberal or conservative issue and the majority of the country and certainly the state supports its legalization for recreational use by adults. Will it peacefully co-exist with the wine industry? I think so, at least for now, as does Phil Coturri, who was the focus of Eric Asimov’s article, Wine Industry Finds a Companion in a Competitor: Marijuana, a few weeks ago. Maybe 50 years from now vineyards will be a minor crop and the Republic of California will have a marijuana leaf on its flag? Who knows.
Eric DeMuth might be on to something. He mentioned others in the wine industry who are experimenting with marijuana-infused wine and as the customer base expands there is sure to be a growing market for the variety of products available. Will this count as fine wine? Personally, I’d rather drink Eric’s Chardonnay or Bei Ranch Cabernet and smoke some of his flower yet I appreciate the novelty and think that it certainly has its place in a medicinal setting. We all have our preferences and I can see where in the future marijuana-infused wine might take on a life of its own.
[i] Garrigue refers to the scent created by herbal plants such as rosemary, lavender, thyme and juniper that grow in the south of France. The wind in Provence and the Languedoc creates a mixed herb smell in agricultural areas and as it gets into the vineyards aromatically affects the grapes.
[ii] Technically, cannabis infused in any liquid is considered a tincture.
[iii] The Knez winemaker, Anthony Filiberti, converted the DeMuth Vineyard to biodynamic and dry farming in 2008. In 2016 all of the Chardonnay was ripped out and will be replaced with Pinot Noir. Eric’s last vintage of the DeMuth Chardonnay was in 2015.