The pale ruby wine emerged from the bottle with a tinge of orange. It smelled lightly smoky, not as fruity as a grenache ordinarily might but unusually herbal. The aroma would have been right at home at rock concerts and college dorms of a certain era. On the palate, it was beautifully balanced with a lingering aftertaste. It was delicious. It was also illegal.
The producer of this wine was pouring tastes to a few dozen colleagues and friends, along with a wine writer, in a cool, humid barrel room in a Santa Barbara winery. The crowd, jostling for access, seemed to love the wine. I know I did.
That experience, nearly 20 years ago, was my first encounter with weed wine. The memory has lingered like the fragrant haze after a party full of stoners.
Since that first taste, I’ve had the pleasure of trying wines infused with marijuana a half dozen times or more, on the West Coast, on the East Coast and in France. It hasn’t been common, but occasionally, when the spirit strikes, a winemaker will break out a bottle of homemade wine to pour for friends.
For decades, winemakers with a taste for marijuana have surreptitiously made weed wine, in which cannabis is added to grapes as they ferment, extracting the active components (along with flavors and aromas) to achieve a doubly intoxicating beverage. The process is a bit like adding marijuana to brownies — an early form of what now are called edibles — with the enhancement of wine, all in one serving.
Cannabis is legal for recreational use in 22 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. Cannabis for medical use is permitted in 38 states. It can be sold as chocolates and gummy candies, in nonalcoholic beverages and in creams and rubs. Fine chefs prepare cannabis cuisine. Yet the addition of cannabis to any commercially available alcoholic beverage is strictly prohibited.
The main reason is that cannabis is still illegal federally. As the federal government licenses alcoholic products and wineries, commercial production of weed wine cannot be licensed by the states.
Even states that have legalized marijuana prohibit the blending of two different intoxicants, like alcohol and cannabis. Stores that are licensed to sell alcohol are prohibited from selling cannabis, and vice versa.
While cannabis-infused wines or beers are sold commercially, it’s in name only. These beverages are made with drinks that have been dealcoholized.
But noncommercial weed wine production, for winemakers and their friends, persists, especially with older winemakers who developed a taste for it during the many years when marijuana use was largely a clandestine affair. And it is now legal in California, so long as they don’t sell it.
“I think it’s pretty common,” said Bob Lindquist, who founded Qupé wines in 1982 in Santa Barbara and is now the proprietor of Lindquist Family Wines in Arroyo Grande, Calif. “A lot of people keep it under their hat. You’re either in the know or not.”
It was Mr. Lindquist who made that indelible weed wine I first tried. Back then, I was a lapsed marijuana user, having lost my taste for it in graduate school when the rising potency of generally available cannabis transformed funny, convivial experiences into catatonic trances. But I retained my curiosity about it, and I loved the aroma of that weed wine, which was the impetus to drinking a glass.
Aside from the pleasure of the wine, which offered a gentle, starkly herbal contrast to the powerfully fruity style that prevailed in California back then, it provided an amiable, mellow high, the sort that I remembered fondly where everything seemed just a bit amplified and absurd. I loved this, too, about Mr. Lindquist’s weed wines.
“The good old days of weak marijuana,” he said of his wine in a phone interview. “It gives you a good, mellow high without being too stoned.”
Mr. Lindquist said he’s been making noncommercial weed wine since the early 1990s, when he learned the technique from Bill Wathen, a founder of Foxen Vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara.
Mr. Wathen told me he began experimenting with cannabis and wine in the 1970s, as a student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He perfected his technique while working at Chalone Vineyard in the remote Gavilan Mountain range, where, he said, all the necessary raw materials were grown.
His recipe was to add a pound of marijuana to a 228-liter barrel.
“It wasn’t greatly powerful,” he said. “We used to call it liquid Valium.”
While the method is uncomplicated, it permits myriad variations, depending on a winemaker’s intent and appetite for experimentation. Simply add cannabis to grape juice as it begins to ferment. The process of fermentation produces heat, which extracts the active ingredients, largely THC, which causes the buzz, and cannabidiol, or CBD, which has a relaxing effect.
Winemakers can choose to add the weed early, allowing it to steep in the juice before fermentation begins, and they can allow the wine to age on the cannabis lees, or remnants, after fermentation, both of which will add aromas and flavors.
What was the draw? To Mr. Lindquist, the appeal of wine and weed was clear.
“It combined two things I loved,” he said. “Also, it was very low in THC and very high in CBD. The psychotropic aspects were mild, which was fine, and the CBD warm body hugs were significant.”
Not all weed wines were quite so mellow. Jim Clendenen, a winemaking pioneer in Santa Barbara who was partners with Mr. Lindquist in a winemaking facility in the Santa Maria Valley, was another avid practitioner. Mr. Clendenen, who died in 2021, would soak the cannabis buds in heated vodka to maximize extraction before adding it to the wine for fermentation, Mr. Lindquist recalled.
“His was THC strong!” Mr. Lindquist said. “I prefer our method, but I appreciate the difference.”
Pax Mahle, who makes excellent wines in Sonoma County under the Pax label, was inspired by Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Clendenen to try his hand at weed wines. It might well have been Mr. Clendenen’s potent version that he recalls first trying around 2000 at Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles, a regular gathering of producers and growers specializing in Rhône grapes.
“I had a couple of glasses and had to go right to bed,” he said.
Since then, until recently, he made a batch every other year. Like the other practitioners, he produced it somewhere other than his winery, so as not to conflict with federal regulations, which prohibit marijuana in a licensed winery. He put it in old bottles topped with leftover corks.
Mr. Mahle likes to use Rhône grapes like grenache or mourvèdre, and he prefers to make a rosé.
“I only wanted a rosé,” he said. “Red wine didn’t make sense to me. It seemed like kind of a sundowner sip.”
On a recent visit to Mr. Mahle in Sebastopol, where he is based, I tasted two of his weed wines, a 2015 grenache rosé, a gentle, herbal wine, and a 2013 mourvèdre rosé, herbal, minty and mineral. I thought the 2013 was especially delicious and showed how well these wines could age. The buzz? I confess, I spit the wines so did not experience the full effect. It seemed the professional thing to do, particularly at 9:30 in the morning.
Mr. Lindquist, too, makes a grenache rosé, but especially enjoys a syrah-based dark rosé.
“It has a beautiful color and a lot of bold, meaty, smoky characteristics,” he said. He also likes white versions made with marsanne or viognier.
As for the variety of weed, in the old days it was hard to be too specific, but now, after legalization, which has made so many different strains available, he has options. He prefers Cherry Pie, a hybrid strain of indica and sativa, the two main species of cannabis. He grows it himself — up to six plants for home use is legal in California — and believes it is predominantly sativa, which is said to produce a more energetic high than indica.
“I’m guessing there’s no regulation of what Cherry Pie is supposed to be,” he said.
Mr. Lindquist said he likes to make a barrel or two every other year, and he remains an enthusiast, drinking it a couple of times a month, “depending on who we have over to dinner.” He made a rosé in 2021 and plans to make a marsanne this year. Now, he said, his weed wines are legal: “It amounts to a home winemaker making it.” And if federal regulations ever changed, he might consider selling his weed wines commercially.
As for Mr. Wathan, he gave it up years ago after his reputation for weed wine began to get around.
“We quit making it in the late 1980s when we had people coming to the tasting room asking for it,” he said. “I don’t have a taste for it anymore. Edibles are easier.”
Mr. Mahle, too, seems to have lost his desire for it, though he said he might make another batch soon. He doesn’t see younger winemakers nearly as interested in learning about it as he had been.
“Now you can walk out the door to a store with 65 strains, edibles that make you want to hike, or laugh, or go to bed,” he said. “People seem to prefer gummies or chocolates.”