In California, cannabis entrepreneurs are trying to refute one of the fundamental laws of chemistry: that oil and water don’t mix.
Coming on the heels of cannabis-infused kombucha, cannabis-infused seltzer — really, cannabis-infused everything — the latest beverage trend threatens to take the category to a new extreme: Welcome to the age of cannabis rosé.
In the last few months, three California companies have released nonalcoholic, cannabis-infused rosés: the women-centric brands House of Saka and Viv & Oak, and the stoner-friendly Rebel Coast. Each company wants its infused rosé to be your after-work wind-down drink, your pairing with a fillet of salmon, your aperitif on the patio.
They promise a more manageable high than an edible and more subtlety than lighting up. Because all legal cannabis products are required to be nonalcoholic, these booze-removed rosés capitalize on the growing “sober curious movement.” Their high hope is that they might bring new drinkers — and occasions — into the cannabis fold.
“We see Saka at dinner parties, weddings,” says House of Saka CEO Tracey Mason. “Places where before you might have had to go outside and around the corner to smoke a joint.”
This is a new, girly, gentrified look for cannabis products. “Rosé is a trend specific to women with purchasing power,” says Saka’s president, Cynthia Salarizadeh. The cannabis rosés are explicitly targeting an affluent, 21- to 65-year-old female demographic, which is already buying actual rosé wine in droves: According to Impact Databank, U.S. rosé wine sales reached 18.7 million cases in 2018, up 1.2 million from three years earlier.
Whereas Saka’s packaging might be described as bachelorette party-psychedelic, and Viv & Oak has a kind of sexy-housewife vibe (marketing shots show the bottle surrounded by chocolate-covered strawberries), Rebel Coast is more brosé: Its label promises “it’ll turn out better than that time you went to the Fyre Festival.”
Meanwhile, legal cannabis looked on track for $3.1 billion in sales in California in 2019, three years into legalization. Within this growing industry, beverages are potentially an untapped goldmine. Alcohol behemoths AB InBev and Constellation have made major investments in the cannabis space, to the tune of $50 million and $5 billion, respectively. Saka, Viv & Oak and Rebel Coast are still small, each producing under 5,000 cases this year, but infused beverages could represent $375 million in sales by 2022, according to the firm BDS Analytics.
“The opportunity in cannabis is a big blue ocean,” says Macai Polansky, co-founder of Spacestation, a new Sacramento company that bottles cannabis-infused beverages for other businesses, as well as produces its own brand of cannabis-infused seltzers called Nectr. “Packaged beverage makes up 30 to 60% of sales in grocery stores, but right now it’s only about 1% of a dispensary’s sales.”
But cannabis and wine (or seltzer, or kombucha) might not be such easy bedfellows. For one thing, dispensaries might not want to deal with the hassle of bottled beverages. “A pallet of vape cartridges could be worth $500,000, whereas a pallet of beverages might be worth $20,000 to $30,000,” Polansky says. Refrigerated storage and transportation are essential for beverages, but most retail and distribution channels aren’t yet set up for it.
The greater challenge, though, is the infusion itself. Cannabis oil needs to be made water soluble in order to be added to a beverage, as anyone who’s ever witnessed the separation of oil and vinegar in a jar knows well.
It took Rebel Coast more than a year to figure out a successful infusion mechanism, says CEO Josh Lizotte. Eventually, Rebel Coast — which first released an infused Sauvignon Blanc in 2017 — licensed the infusion technology of a Colorado company, Ebbu. “It goes in clear, masks the flavor of cannabis” and doesn’t separate, Lizotte says. Saka and Viv & Oak partnered with an Oakland company, Vertosa, for a similar technology.
Many would-be drinkers might be wary of the edible effect: You eat a pot gummy, nothing happens, you eat some more, and then an hour later you’re so high you feel like you might be having a panic attack. That phenomenon “is the equivalent of walking into a bar and drinking Everclear,” says Jake Bullock, co-founder of the “social tonic” brand Cann, whose 237ml cans in flavors like blood orange cardamom contain 2mg THC and 4mg CBD — considerably less than the 5 to 10mg THC per serving of the cannabis rosés. The gentle buzz that comes from a couple glasses of wine has, so far, been hard to find in cannabis edibles.
But the infused rosés promise sessionable experiences. The onset of the high should come about 15 minutes after consumption, the companies claim, as opposed to an hour or longer, in part due to the fact that the bloodstream absorbs liquids more quickly than solid foods. “There’s a peak high at 45 minutes, and then, just like alcohol, there’s a rapid offset,” Lizotte says. The high from Rebel Coast’s sativa-heavy Sauvignon Blanc is meant to be euphoric, but the rosé has a higher percentage of relaxing indica.
Wary of being grouped in with substandard-tasting weed products, Salarizadeh and Mason (a 25-year wine industry veteran) emphasize Saka’s impeccable provenance. They begin with Napa Valley Pinot Noir grapes, which they make into a regular, old-fashioned rosé.
After the finished wine has aged in tank for a few months, they transport it over to BevZero, a Santa Rosa facility that removes the alcohol by a process known as vacuum distillation. That alcohol-free wine can then be sent to Sacramento, where they have Spacestation infuse and bottle the beverage. (Legally, you can’t call it wine, so Saka just sticks with “rosé.”)
But to remove alcohol from a wine isn’t just to remove the booze. It also removes weight, flavor and the perception of sweetness. The risk is that you’d be left with thin, bland-tasting acid water. Before the vacuum distillation, BevZero removes a small portion of the wine, which it adds back in at the end along with other flavorings — like grapefruit or strawberry — to try to approximate the flavor of a real, alcoholic rosé. (The finished product must legally be below 0.5% alcohol by volume, which is how they get away with adding some of the original wine at the end.)
“It starts as wine, but we’re not trying to keep up with that,” says Viv & Oak founder Alana Burstein, acknowledging that her sparkling cannabis rosé has not been to the taste of some wine connoisseurs. But the advantage, unlike for high-end wine, is that with the flavorings, her product is endlessly malleable. “Everything can be tweaked and changed and modified. It’s just going to keep on getting better.”
Should the wine industry — and especially the rosé industry — be worried? Saka’s Mason thinks so. “When you think about how many dollars people are willing to allocate to having a good time, these beverages will certainly put a dent in that,” she says. “It’s no-alcohol, no hangover.”
They’re all leaning into the low-calorie angle. Saka claims to have 16 calories per 5-ounce glass; Viv & Oak says it has 24, Rebel Coast 49. (Your average glass of dry table wine clocks in at around 125 calories.)
OK, but do they taste like bong water? No — though they don’t much taste like wine, either. The nose on the Saka is a dead ringer for strawberry Laffy Taffy, the palate reminiscent of Sweet Tarts. It’s candied-tasting, but there’s enough sourness to keep it from cloying. Viv & Oak is carbonated, which was a genius move; the bubbles help make up for some of the texture lost in the alcohol removal. It’s ultra-cloudy, the color of worn ballet slippers, and tastes like a melted cherry Popsicle, with just the slightest suggestion of a fresh cannabis aroma on the nose — like a subtle, winking warning.
Of the three, Rebel Coast’s rosé is the dankest — the one that tastes the most like weed. It’s clear, unlike the other two hazy prototypes, and still has many of those strawberry- and cherry-candy notes, but its sweet flavors mingle with bitter herbs. I found it hard to throw back.
I also found that the rapid-offset claim not to be true, at least for me. Rapid onset, sure: Within about 20 minutes of drinking a single serving of each of the infused rosés, my high set in. Ten mg THC, which is how much a 5-ounce serving of Rebel Coast and Viv & Oak contain, is a lot for me; two glasses and my high would have gone in the wrong direction. Saka, half as potent at 5 mg per 5 ounces, felt more manageable. In every case, the high stayed with me for hours. It was pleasant, infinitely more endurable than what 10 mg of THC has felt to me when I’ve consumed it in the form of a gummy.
For me, a wine lover, these infused rosés could never compete with the real deal at the dinner table. I find wine way too delicious to consider these candied-tasting concoctions as substitutes. Still, I was surprised by how palatable they were. There are far more disagreeable vehicles to intoxication.
If you’re a one-glass-and-done type of wine drinker, you might not miss the feeling of lingering over the dinner table long after your plate is empty, sipping on glasses of wine leisurely without wondering exactly how many milligrams of drugs you’ve consumed. I would, but I guess it all comes down to what you want to get out of your glass.