But will sales slump with the legalization of recreational marijuana?
Coloradoans like wine, consuming 24% more, or 3.1 gallons per capita annually vs. the national average of 2.5 gallons. But many of them also like weed. According to the state Department of Revenue, recreational marijuana dispensaries garnered more than $14 million in sales in just the first month after legalization.
Will access to recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state cause the thriving wine economies in those states to go to pot?
“We’ve been asking that question continually,” said Micki Hackenberger, executive director for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of Colorado. “Is the sale of recreational marijuana going to impact alcohol sales?”
Recreational pot was legalized on Jan. 1, 2014 in Colorado, and the state has since issued 136 licenses to dispensaries.
While Hackenberger said it’s simply too early to tell what, if any, impact recreational marijuana use will have on the sale of adult beverages, the Denver-based association has begun to track the data. It recently pulled excise tax collection records on beer, wine and spirits for the first four months of this year and compared them to the previous two years.
“What we found was that beer and spirits taxes have gone down a little,” she noted. “Wine (tax) has actually increased.”
However, as Hackenberger points out, alcohol consumption is cyclical. Only time will reveal whether the excise taxes, which in Colorado are paid when the product is delivered to the wholesaler, were an anomaly in early 2014, or indicative of a real trend.
“It’s intriguing enough that we’re exploring some kind of data collection (beyond excise taxes) – perhaps a poll that we could potentially commission,” continued Hackenberger.
However, she admits that polling people could be delicate work. “It’s difficult to ask people, ‘So, are you smoking more pot now and not having a cocktail?’” she said.
Impact on Denver Wineries
At Balistreri Vineyards, one of the city’s bustling urban winery tasting rooms, sales have never been better. “Our sales continue to increase,” said Julie Balistreri, one of the winery’s owners. “We haven’t had any impact from the legalization of marijuana. We think we have a different clientele.”
As Balistreri sees it, recreational marijuana has only interfered with her business once. It was earlier this year, when the Denver Merchandise Mart, located a few blocks from the winery, hosted the 4/20 High Times Cannabis Cup. The two-day event, which attracted more than 30,000 attendees, stopped traffic and made it difficult for would-be wine tasters to reach the Balistreri tasting room.
At Denver’s Bonacquisti Wine Co., winemaker Paul Bonacquisti is equally confident. “I don’t expect any change in sales,” he said.
Based on Colorado tax records, this July marked the first time recreational marijuana sales outpaced medical marijuana sales. Both were over $28 million, with recreational marijuana sales closing in on $29 million.
In spite of these noteworthy numbers, Jeanne McEvoy, president and CEO of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association, in Commerce City, Colo., also believes that while it’s too early to know for sure, wine sales don’t appear to be taking a hit from pot.
“In conversations with our members across the state, they have not reported any decrease or negative impact,” she said. “Most folks are up single- or double-digit sales increases over last year.”
If anything, the Colorado wine industry is facing far more competition from the growing number of craft breweries and distilleries in the state. “Craft distilleries are growing by leaps and bounds,” said McEvoy. There are 260 breweries and 50 craft distilleries in Colorado.
In Denver’s hip Lower Highlands (LOHI) neighborhood, the upscale wine and spirits shop Mondo Vino is a mere half-block from a medical marijuana dispensary. However, Owner Duey Kratzer hasn’t seen any impact on wine sales.
Recent changes in his business have more to do with the cocktail and craft beer craze than Denver’s penchant for pot.
Over the last three to five years, as consumer tastes have changed, so too has Mondo Vino’s inventory. “We used to be 85 to 90% wine, and the remainder beer and liquor,” Kratzer said. “Now we’re 70% wine.”
Washington Not Worried
While Colorado has experienced almost a year of post-legalization life, Washington is in the earliest stages. The state has approved 60 licenses for recreational dispensaries, and allotted 21 of them for outposts in the Seattle area, but thus far, the city boasts a single dispensary that is open for business.
“I’ve been at this for two years, and I haven’t heard anyone mention concerns about competition from dispensaries,” said Mikhail Carpenter, spokesperson for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. “I don’t think (the wine industry) has anything to worry about.”
Michaela Baltasar, communications director for the Washington State Wine Commission in Seattle, agrees.
“We’ve seen a 15% growth in wine sales in FY14 over FY13,” she said. “I think we’re a bit behind Colorado, though, when it comes to the details of our legislation and how legalization of marijuana in Washington is going to play out.”