In 1997, after learning there was no official policy against hemp wine in America, Jim Castetter, of Binghamton, NY started Hemp Wine America. In 1999 he received a federal permit to produce and sell hemp infused wine under the brand “Nirvana Homebrews: Hemp N Wine.” He sourced the hemp oil from a supplier in the Netherlands.
Back then, I had interviewed Castetter for my column in the Elmira, New York Star Gazette newspaper. He was excited by the quick positive response to his products. But soon the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), then known as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), reversed course. His labels as well as the hemp infusion formula were denied. As fast as it had gotten its start, Hemp Wine America was out of business.
About his experience twenty years ago Castetter says, “After launching with such promise and excitement it was very difficult to walk away…but now my son [Kaelan] and I have gone on the hemp infused wine journey once again. It’s a totally different regulatory and public opinion environment for hemp now as compared to the 1990s.”
Hemp oils and extracts have been legal products in the U.S. since the February 2004 Ninth Circuit Court decision in HIA v. DEA, as long as there is no high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the product. According to the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) “The mere presence of [non high-inducing] cannabinoids (CBD) is not itself dispositive as to whether a substance is within the scope of the Controlled Substances Act.”
In other words, DEA does not consider CBD oils illegal on their face. DEA leaves it to the states to decide whether or not hemp infusions are ok with them. At last count, 41 states have legalized hemp, but with individual provisions. For instance, in the largest wine producing state, California, law AB 2914 prohibits either cannabis or hemp derived products from being infused into alcoholic beverages.
Luckily, for the Castetter family, New York State has no such prohibition, provided there’s no THC in the extract. Kaelan says, “We have brand label approval from the New York State Liquor Authority (SLA) to sell our hemp infused wine within the state.”
SLA granted the Castetters a permit in 2017 to operate Sovereign Vines (SV) in Johnson City, a once major shoe manufacturing hub near Binghamton, NY. Since then, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo has supported a $10 million plan to kick off the state’s hemp industry.
Also in 2017, TTB once again denied the Castetter’s hemp wine label and formula approval, stating that hemp is a controlled substance. The Castetters claim the hemp extracts they use contain neither THC nor CBD. Counting on the Ninth Circuit decision, and on the federal Farm Bill of December 2018 which stated hemp derivatives may not be considered a controlled substance, they have re-applied for a federal permit to produce and sell their hemp infused wine nationally.
According to the SV website, Sovereign Vines’ wines are the first New York State hemp-infused alcohol products, and Kaelan says, “The hemp extract in our current wines is sourced from Bluebird Botanicals in Colorado, and from our own network of hemp farms across New York State.
SV’s hemp infusions are largely made up of aromatic terpines derived from the plant. Terpines are also found in wine grape varieties like those in the Muscat family. Kaelan specializes in hemp public policy analysis, compliance and brand development for the company. He says the terpines, “…create earthy, woodsy tones and a smooth finish…It makes the wines pop.” He believes Cayuga White, a Cornell University-developed hybrid with a long bloodline that includes Zinfandel, is the best local showcase for the hemp aromas and flavors, “…like the experience you get when you walk into a forest.”
The grapes for SV’s hemp infused Cayuga White are supplied by Glenora Wine Cellars, a Finger Lakes winery at Seneca Lake. Other wines in the SV portfolio include Harvest Red as well as a sweet and a dry Rosé, from product sourced in California. SV’s 2,000 and 3,000 gallons of wine annually can be sold only within New York State. The hemp infusions are classified in New York as a separate product from wine but they are sold in licensed alcohol retail stores and at local farmers markets. wine-searcher prices SV wines at $12/bottle.
Kaelan says, “…we fully intend to expand nationally, globally, and develop an amazing tasting room experience here in Upstate New York.”
The tasting room opens in the 2019 summer in the scenic Finger Lakes vacation spot, Skaneateles Lake. National and global expansion will have to wait for a change in TTB policy.