A civil engineer, an insurance broker, a steel vessel manufacturer, two educators and a slew of people from the wine, shipping and tech industries lined up on a hot August morning to get onto a tour bus outside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Santa Rosa.
Handed mimosas in plastic cups as they settled into their bus seats, they wore Hawaiian shirts, sundresses and flip-flops and had traveled from as far as Florida and Texas - and as close as Healdsburg - to learn at their leisure about wine and cannabis in Sonoma County.
As they sipped their cocktails and chatted with their fellow travelers, Sonoma County Experience tour operator Jared Giammona got on the microphone and began describing the group's first stop of the day, at a large cannabis oil manufacturer in southwest Santa Rosa.
“Has everyone seen ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?' It's that for cannabis,” Giammona said.
Just three years ago, that same factory was raided by teams of police in tactical gear and firefighters in hazmat suits. Santa Rosa had just begun permitting cannabis manufacturers to operate, and few outside the industry had seen the type of oil extraction machines using pressurized carbon dioxide that pump and hiss, churning out purified oils from marijuana buds.
More familiar were the illegal hash oil makers blowing up garages.
“This isn't somebody's operation going on in their garage - this is high-end equipment,” a police lieutenant standing outside the southwest Santa Rosa facility said at the time of the raid.
Those heady days seemed a lifetime ago by the time these four dozen tourists in hairnets and protective glasses were guided from room to room at CannaCraft. The 50,000-square-foot facility is where they make cannabis-infused oils for vape pens and other applications, cannabis chocolates and a nonalcoholic hop-flavored tonic with THC. In one room, the guests passed around vials of extracts as they learned how natural compounds called terpenes found in different cannabis strains create aromas that inspired names like Hop Cann, Thin Mint and Sour D.
“This is amazing,” said Perry Wilson, a winemaker from northeast Texas who has a timeshare in Napa.
Sonoma County is a global destination with a $2 billion tourism sector rooted in the area's renowned wine industry, as well as craft beers, fine food, a spectacular coast and plentiful outdoor recreation.
Cannabis will one day be on that list of top draws for visitors, many in the industry say.
Entrepreneurs putting down stakes in the region's nascent legal industry are banking on it.
Last year, tourists to California spent $7.2 billion on wine, according to the California Wine Institute trade association.
No such data exists yet for out-of-state visitors' cannabis spending, but legal cannabis retail sales in the state hit $2.5 billion last year and are on track to surpass $3 billion this year, according to industry analysts.
Researchers in Colorado estimated about 6 million people visiting the state consumed marijuana in 2017, compared to less than 1 million state residents using pot, according to a report from the state's revenue department.
Plans for dispensaries in Santa Rosa include designs for consumption lounges, including one proposal for a retail store inspired by the 1997 movie Boogie Nights. Further north, in Mendocino County, the 12-acre Solar Living Institute in Hopland is being re-imagined as a tourist hub and dispensary geared toward showcasing the cannabis culture that has for generations defined the Emerald Triangle region, which also takes in Humboldt and Trinity counties.
Private dinners focused on cannabis-infused cuisine that were once word-of-mouth affairs have become major events. People are launching careers as so-called cannabis sommeliers with expertise in educating people about the intricacies of the plant's properties, psychoactive and medicinal affects.
“There's a reason we talk about ‘Cali bud' and not ‘Colorado bud.' It's cultural,” said Victor Pinho, who started the Emerald Farm Tours in Sonoma and Mendocino counties and the wider Bay Area.
Pinho said his tour company became a test case for allowing marijuana consumption on tour buses, which are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. They prevailed in their petition before the commission, and now his company allows guests to consume cannabis they buy at dispensaries on buses with partitions that seal the driver in a separate compartment.
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