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Hobby Loss

Columnist: Tim Carl
January, 2017 Issue
Columnist

Tim Carl
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I don’t really envision the wholesale removal of vineyards in favor of cannabis, but I can imagine adding a marijuana crop to existing operations will be too attractive to pass up for many.

If you’ve read my column before you might remember a friend of mine, whom I refer to as “Bob,” who has multiple vacation homes, including one in the hills of the Napa Valley. Bob’s a decent guy and has been wildly successful helping usher in multiple “unicorn” companies, each of which is now worth more than $1 billion. Bob is also a consummate and dedicated marijuana smoker who hasn’t gone a day without pot since he was in his early teens.

With the passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational pot smoking in California, Bob’s eyes, although chronically bloodshot, have a new gleam in them.

“Dude, I’m totally vindicated,” he said the other day. “Pot is like a mixture of medicine and wine, and people are just now coming to understand what I’ve known for years.”

I hesitated to respond. He knows I don’t use pot and have mixed feelings about it being another legal intoxicant. I also see it as a threat to the wine industry. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really envision the wholesale removal of vineyards in favor of cannabis, but I can imagine adding a marijuana crop to existing operations will be too attractive to pass up for many—including Bob, who just spent millions on “a small winery and vineyard.” In fact, as we talked, we were walking his property, trying to find a suitable location for planting that very crop.

“It will take at least a couple of years for the bureaucrats to figure out all the permitting requirements,” he said, “but what we know now is that I won’t be able to plant more than one acre of prime weed on my property, at least for now.”

We’d climbed up a small hill that led into a small valley full of twisted oak trees and mossy field rocks. A small stream, fed by the recent rains, noisily sped down the hill and disappeared into the adjacent property. Three black crows sat in the branches overhead and watched us, seemingly unimpressed by us.

“I know you love your pot, but why do you feel compelled to actually farm the stuff?” I asked, while I navigated through a section of newly budded poison oak. “I mean, don’t you have enough going on with 10 acres of vines, a new winery and wine brand?”

Bob looked at me, then around at the valley. He paused for a long time then gazed down at a small ring-neck snake that slithered near his shoe.

“It’s just economics,” he said. “I spent a lot on this place, and it will take a lifetime to make my money back.”

“But you knew that when you started,” I said. “I remember you told me that this was never really about making a profit.”

After a long pause, Bob looked up at me with a very serious face. There are times when I don’t understand how he ever became so successful, but when he gives me this look, I get a better sense why.

“Hobby loss rules, my friend,” Bob said. “If I’m going to claim this winery and vineyard as more than just a hobby, I need to make a profit at some point,” he said. “How the heck do I do that given all my sunk costs? Pot will help me out here, bringing in some needed revenue. Hell, the estimates are that I can make a couple million dollars per acre growing premium bud, even when the costs come down due to legalization.”

“Would profits from pot be transferable to the wine business?” I asked.

Bob smiled, his face softening back into his mellow surfer-like state: “Dude, I’ll be making pot-infused wine,” he said. “Then it will all be one single operation.”

I know a lot of wealthy people. Each of them is different, but one thing they all have in common is that none of them likes to lose—especially when it comes to money.

 “This place right here will grow the finest weed in the state,” he continued. “I’ll call it ‘Bob’s bud.’ I’m even thinking I might start a drive to get it designated a special marijuana viticultural area, or MVA.”

“You mean like vineyard AVAs?” I asked.

He nodded.

“The world is changing, dude,” he said. “You either change with it or get left behind.”

As we walked back to Bob’s house, I wanted to ask if he’d ever thought about just leaving his property as it was when he first bought it—one small house, no vineyard and lots of oak trees. I wanted to ask, but I already knew the answer. That had never even been a consideration.

 

 

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