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Melissa Jean Mattson

Weed and Wine

Turning wine into weed with viticulture expert and infused beverage pioneer Marisa Webster-Carrillo. 

The wine and weed industries have a rivalry like Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose: The older one hates the new kid on the block, despite their commonalities. From cultivating a crop to aromatic flavors to pairings and terroir, wine and Cannabis revolve around crafting a product designed to stimulate multiple senses. Yet, a prohibitionist divide separates the two worlds – with one side largely forbidding collaboration with the other, despite the numerous crossovers.

But there are always a few people who choose to rebel against the status quo, and the woman breaking those barriers in wine is Marisa Webster-Carrillo. As the adage goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” There isn’t a proverb that better encapsulates Webster-Carrillo’s spirit – it’s all a part of her flow and it seems to run in her family. Her father and uncle (who was a glass blower) opened one of the first headshops in Venice Beach in the late 1960s. Her dad also attended the legendary Altamont Free Concert in 1969—a 300,000-person music festival featuring Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones (among many others) where the Hells Angels served as security. (He later became a criminal defense attorney and represented many Cannabis growers, as well as infamous California “toad venom” couple Bob and Connie Shepard.)

“He was always extremely open and honest about Cannabis with me,” she says. “I can remember when I was young watching videos with him for his cases that were undercover cops basically recording the outdoor grows that belonged to his clients. He always told me from a very young age, ‘[Cannabis] is just a plant, and for a lot of people, it’s medicine. This is a waste of time, [the cops] should be focusing on people who make drugs that kill people.’”

Marisa Webster-Carrillo
Melissa Jean Mattson

A daily Cannabis consumer by the time she was a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Webster-Carrillo graduated with a degree in nutrition and a minor in viticulture. She jumped into an internship in Healdsburg, Calif. and from there, maneuvered through the global wine industry ranks – traveling to New Zealand, Australia and other countries to gain an intimate understanding of the wine industry. A few years after returning to the states, she was hired by AEB USA, one of the biggest companies for winemaking and brewing ingredients and cellar tools. She saw the trajectory of legal Cannabis moving toward infused beverages, two worlds she understood.

She tried to get AEB interested in Cannabis drinks early on, especially after learning that some of AEB’s clients were using their products to develop new alcohol-removed beverages. Webster-Carrillo recognized that this was R&D for brands to begin experimenting with non-alcoholic Cannabis-infused wine. But AEB still wasn’t biting. So, Webster-Carrillo started researching and learning about the Cannabis beverage world independently from AEB. And, as a successful saleswoman does, she began making powerful connections in the sector. 

In 2019, Webster-Carrillo launched her own consulting company, De-Alc Infusion Solutions – offering clients the benefit of her expertise in a number of related areas, including Vineyard & Winery Sustainability Practices, Cannabis Consumables Production, and of course, Infused Beverage Development. Between 2019-2020, she was hired as a problem solver for several cannabis beverage brands under the the umbrella of the alcohol removal company Bevzero, including Botanic Brews (which never made it to market), and non-alcoholic wine brands Viv and Oak and House of Saka. 

Webster-Carrillo put her career on the line because she knew the canna-bev sector was more than a fad – why else would Constellation Brands invest $4 billion into Canopy Growth? As a regular Cannabis consumer and someone whose friend circle has always included people working in the unregulated and regulated markets, she knew weed drinks were inevitable. Unfortunately, her bosses at AEB didn’t agree—ultimately, they found out about her moonlighting in the marijuana industry and terminated her. But by then it didn’t matter—she’d already established herself as an expert in the canna-bev biz, and her freelance consulting work soon led to one of Webster-Carrillo’s most passionate endeavors yet: joining the team of superstar women at House of Saka on an exclusive basis. Saka’s grapes are sourced from Napa Valley – a region that notoriously poo-poos Cannabis culture for its lack of sophistication. But the non-alcoholic Cannabis-infused wine they produce is the opposite of the weed stereotype—it’s elegant, brilliant and ahead of its time. It’s the measuring stick for luxury Cannabis beverages.

“People always ask me, ‘Why would you remove the alcohol from wine and infuse it with Cannabis?’ And I always say, ‘We’re not making it for you! I’m not making it to change wine drinkers over to what I’m making,’” Webster-Carrillo says. “I’m making it as an alternative because I personally know a lot of people who could have benefitted from this and might still be alive today if they’d had something like this as an option. We have to have options.”

She ultimately built a small winery within a compact Cannabis co-packaging facility. It takes roughly 30 people to build and run a winery, but like most people running legal Cannabis businesses, she wore dozens of different hats to get the facility fully operational and producing a quality product. Making Cannabis wine is not like making traditional wine. Removing the alcohol and infusing the remaining non-alcoholic liquid with Cannabis becomes an “entirely different chemical beast,” according to Webster-Carrillo. Here, you can’t just add things like yeast or tannins to fix an issue.

“I’ve tasted all of the Cannabis beverages on the market,” she says. “As a winemaker, I think some are really, really good and some are totally disjointed. They’re just throwing shit in there and calling it a Cannabis beverage and putting it on the market. And they’re totally selling.”

Marisa Webster-Carrillo
Melissa Jean Mattson

The pandemic and the burdensome Cannabis laws in California haven’t made the industry easy to navigate for any brand, House of Saka included. Webster-Carrillo—now based in Paso Robles—has since taken a step back from her role at the brand and is now working full time with Oregon Tilth, one of the longest-standing organic certifiers in the U.S. But she hasn’t lost her faith in the Cannabis beverage sector of the industry.

“I believe beverages will eventually be one of the most socially acceptable ways for people to consume Cannabis in the future,” she predicts. “Every single one of us is consistently consuming drinks all day long. We start our day with water, juice and coffee, we enjoy beverages at meals, and we use them at social functions. Eventually, maybe these liquids can even be used in feeding tubes or to help people too sick to eat a gummy and wait hours before they feel any relief or have an appetite. The fast-acting technology we see being used in Cannabis beverages – from emulsions like Vertosa, to other technologies such as quick liquids and Phenotech – will only get better as time, technology and research continue to advance.”

This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue of California Leaf.

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