An Interview with the Queen of Cannabis-Infused Wine
Lisa Molyneux likes her wine dank. As the co-founder of cannabis-infused wine brands Canna Vine and Know Label, the California-based grower produces a white Viognier that tastes like Pineapple (not the fruit), a red that’s blended with pungent strains like a Cheese or a Kush, and has even experimented with cannabis-infused beer.
Molyneux has always been ahead of the curve in the cannabis industry. In 2005, she opened Greenway Compassionate Relief Inc., the first medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Cruz, which was in business for a full decade until a sublease agreement forced her to close its doors in late 2015. (She has plans to reopen within a year.)
While cannabis-infused wine has allegedly been around since the second century A.D., there are very few players in the legal cannabis industry who are combining two of nature’s finest offerings in one bottle. Musician and medical marijuana activist Melissa Etheridge partnered with Molyneux on the endeavor, telling preeminent cannabis journalist David Bienenstock in 2014, “The notion of a commercial cannabis wine industry is brand new… we're on the front line of this thing." Even three years later, with recreational cannabis legalization in California looming, there’s little-to-no competition in the canna-wine realm.
This might be a result of the fact that it’s really difficult and expensive to make good cannabis-infused wine. Plus, cannabis and alcohol infusions are prohibited in nearly every other state with legal marijuana. Molyneux calls her products “wine tinctures,” as alcohol extracts are fair game in California. It takes over a year to make a barrel of cannabis-infused red wine (over three for Cabernets), and anywhere from six to eight months to make most whites. As a result, bottles can cost anywhere from $150 to $350, because you’re paying for the crème de la crème: The wine is biodynamic and produced by noted vinter Louisa Sawyer Lindquist of Verdad Wines, and the cannabis is sun-grown, organic, and pesticide-free.
Molyneux and I talked on the phone as she literally trimmed buds off her plants. She explained how she first got interested in cannabis wine, the difference between Know Label and Canna Vine, and why she believes the infused nectar of the gods is the best way to medicate.
Extra Crispy: How did you originally get interested in infused wine? Your dispensary Greenway Compassionate Relief Inc. was open for several years before you started making it, right?
Lisa Molyneux: Right, I started making the wine in 2010, and Greenway opened in 2005. I have a group of friends that I’ve known since I was a teenager, and we all get together once a year for a week or ten days, and have a party. One year we were in Santa Barbara, and my friend Louisa Sawyer Lindquist of Verdad Wines brought a case of wine with her. When she poured the wine and handed it to me, she stood there standing at me for a long time, waiting for my response. I took a drink, and looked at her and was like, “What the hell is this?” It had an earthy flavor and gave me a very warm feeling. She told me it was cannabis wine, and I was like, “Oh my god, are you serious? How do you make this?” She told me how, and then we all went home from the party shortly after.
Around harvest time for grapes, she called me and said, “Lisa, if you want to try a barrel this year, now’s the time, you’ve got to come in a few days to get the juice.” I ran down there, bought a barrel of juice from her, and she again tried to tell me how to make the cannabis wine. I tried her method, but ended up doing it differently by mistake. I spent the whole year fretting over it. There’s a lot of tending to keep it good, and you can destroy it pretty quickly by not keeping on top of it. Eventually, she called me and was like, “We’re barreling our wine, it’s time to barrel yours,” and it took me three more months to get the bottles together and everything. She came down with one of her bottling guys to help me, and when she tasted it she said, “Oh my god, Lisa. This is the best cannabis wine I’ve ever had!” First time, right off the bat. So the next year I did five barrels, and then ten barrels, then twenty barrels. It kept growing from there.
So the grapes come from Verdad Wines, but who grows the cannabis?
All the cannabis comes out of my yard. It’s all sun-grown, organic, and probably biodynamic itself. I use bat guano for fertilizer, but I’m not quite sure if that falls under biodynamic standards. I grow the cannabis right here in Bonny Doon, in the Santa Cruz mountains. The grapes come from Louisa Sawyer Lindquist and Verdad Wines, and she loves her vineyard as much as I love my cannabis, so it’s a perfect match. That said, we’re constantly working on it. It’s far from being perfect, and there’s so much more we could be doing to make it better.
What is your preferred term for cannabis-infused wine?
It’s a “tincture.” That’s the term we use. A tincture is an extract of any herb. It’s extracted with alcohol. When I started making the wine, my attorney was not sure I could sell it based on how the state laws have fallen. It took two years for us to be able to sell it at the counter at Greenway, which was open until late 2015. My lawyer wanted to make sure it was truly state legal first. It’s a tincture, so by all definitions it should be legal—even past January 1, 2018, when recreational legalization goes into effect. There’s so much confusion about cannabis-infused alcohol with the state. Tinctures are still allowed, so I’m going with the name “wine tincture.” I will fight for that at the state level because tinctures are one of the most viable medications. It’s not just my wine, it’s all tinctures. That’s what was on the shelves of our pharmacies until 1937.
I read that for one production method, you would put a pound of cured cannabis in cheesecloth and let it ferment with the grapes in a barrel for over a year.
That’s not exactly it. That sounds like an example from ancient history. It’s technically that technique, but I don’t use a cheesecloth, and using “one pound” is pretty arbitrary. I use anywhere from half a pound to two; it just depends on what I’m trying to achieve. And it’s an in-barrel infusion. I do some that are out-of-barrel, but the in-barrel infusions are like a cold extract. There’s no active THC in that extraction, but other cannabinoids are in it. When you do a hot extract, the cannabis becomes decarboxylated, meaning THC is released. This year I started experimenting with making a distillate, a decarboxylated version of the wine.
What is the cannabis wine like when there’s THC in it, compared to what you typically make?
The cold extraction gives you more of a whole-body relaxation and there isn’t THC or a psychoactive component, but it’s still very present. Almost by the second sip, you can feel your body relax. It kind of reminds me of taking an opiate, where you get that body flush. The wine does that! I’ve had some people look at me after the second sip and go, “Oh my God! What have I gotten into?” And I’ll tell them, “That’s it. Right there. What you feel right now is as intense as it gets.”
I tell people all the time to not worry, they can’t overdose on it, it’s not that much like an edible. I know people who will drink a bottle of regular wine a night to go to sleep, but they only need one glass of my wine to fall asleep. In a way, it’s helping people drink less!
Can you explain the difference between your two brands, Canna Vine and Know Label?
Canna Vine was the original name for all of it. But when Melissa Etheridge came on board, she tried the wine and fell in love with it because it’s such a nice, subtle way to medicate, and it’s very safe. It’s not scary. We were bottling and we came up with the name Know Label—for knowledge—and we wanted to handwrite all the information on the bottle instead of having a label. We went with that, but I still own the name Canna Vine. And when I started making the decarboxylated wine, the hot extraction process that releases THC, we chose Canna-Vine for that name. Canna Vine has a label. It’s very lovely—you don’t taste [the cannabis] in the wine at all, so the wine can stand on its own. You can smell the cannabis, but you can’t really taste it.
Will you tell me about choosing the actual blends—which strains of cannabis pair well with certain types of grapes?
That’s taken a lot of research on my part [laughs]. It takes so long to make the wine that it’s taken a while to narrow that down. A lot of people think sativa strains should be paired with white wine, but I’ve been trying to determine if it really matters between a sativa and an indica in this extraction. It seems like it extracts similarly, but there are some cannabis strains—the fruity strains, like Pineapple and stuff like that—that go much better with that whites than with the reds. For reds, I’m looking for something with a much earthier, funkier flavor. That could be a Kush, that could be a Cheese. It comes down to how pungent and how fruity the cannabis is when it comes to picking if it will go with a white or with a red. For example, Jack Herer really blends well with the white wine. That’s been a go-to for a long time.
How do you determine the price points for the wine?
I determine the price point of the wine by the actual grape I’m using. Everything that I’m using is from a biodynamic vineyard, so the juice is very expensive. It’s not a table wine. It’s a premium wine that I’m making. Then I go by how long it’s been in-barrel and how long I had to tend to it. Cost is figured by factors such as the time it takes from the day I pick up the juice to the day it’s bottled. The Cabernets are in-barrel for three years, for example. The Shiraz can be in-barrel from 12-18 months, and the white from 6-8 months. It kind of depends on that.
It comes down to what you’re using when you make something. Our product is so good on its own, that it will always be the premium cannabis wine. It’s expensive because of that, and that can be a problem. Our top bottle sells at up to $350, but that’s usually for a Cabernet, which takes longer to make. An average bottle costs between $150 and $200. When you look at the wine I’m making the cannabis wine with, the bottles they sell at the store are already around $75 a bottle. It’s not so far-fetched to think the infused version would cost twice that.
If someone was new to cannabis culture and intimidated by infused products, how would you explain why someone should try cannabis wine?
I think the effects it has on your body could lead someone to using this instead of a lot of pharmaceuticals. The sleep aid it gives you, the pain relief, the relaxation—I’ve had people with nerve issues says the wine totally helps with symptom relief. I’ve had people with IBS tell me it helps stop an IBS attack almost instantly. I can’t even count how many pharmaceuticals this wine could be a replacement for. I’ve had a lot of patients report the positive effects back to me, and every one of them continues to buy the wine. I don’t like to take pharmaceuticals, I only take one because I don’t have a thyroid. Other than that, I’ll drink my wine or smoke a honeystick, and that’s my medicine.
Also, it’s good for chronic pain and patients with terminal illnesses because they need a medication they can take that’s not full of sugar. They don’t want to eat an infused brownie or cookie four times a day. They need something with more cannabis and less [fat and sugar]. Tinctures are like taking a THC capsule, a much smaller item that’s way more potent and way more efficient for a patient, especially one that’s dealing with something chronic. There’s a lot to be researched and said about cannabis wine still. Next year, as recreational legalization goes into effect in California and things become more organized, hopefully it’s something that can come out and be made more. I think it’s truly the best way to ingest cannabis.