May 4th, 2010

For years I’ve been hearing rumors about all the property that RJ Reynolds is keeping. This land sits patiently on hold, people say, as marijuana weaves its path toward freedom. Millions of acres waiting to turn into billions of dollars, or so the story goes. It’s a bit scandalous, this anticipation, but not nearly as scandalous as the stories of all of those who have chosen not to wait. Marijuana is a multi-million dollar industry in California; cash only, no taxes. Now, as it seems that we are preparing to legalize it, the conversation is about who will profit and who will lose. Will all those people who’ve spent decades perfecting cultivation techniques be able to transform themselves into a legitimate boutique industry? Or will RJ Reynolds and the like plow in and mass-produce all the little guys away?

I’m reminded of this question when I read that the Merryvale Winery was the first to open in California after Prohibition. It’s a fun little fact, all these years later, but it makes me wonder about the back-story. Certainly they did not, on the day after Prohibition ended, say, “Hey, I know, let’s start making wine.” This is not the path toward being first. Was this a family that had been making wine to drink with, and distribute among, friends, and possibly friends of friends, if they seemed cool, the way marijuana is sold now? Prohibition ended and they got themselves a little organized, perhaps. Found a bigger, more obvious place, since they could be out in the open. Or was it a shrewd business plan launched with cool detachment by someone who had been successfully monitoring the political climate and knew just when to strike? A few men in suits, maybe, who never drank themselves, and so were able to get up early enough every morning to be the first. I don’t know. That part of the story isn’t being told anymore. What matters is that they won the race, not how. And all these years later, it’s hard to tell if the wine is good because of techniques that have been passed down with love over the years, or if it’s good because when you have a successful winery, you can afford to hire very well trained vinters. Either way, it’s good, and it’s free in our bar every night!

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