At Barrel Brothers in Windsor, tourists try the pub's beer during a weed, wine and beer tour, Wednesday, August 7, 2019. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2019

Cannabis tourism seeks broader stage, but encounters obstacles in Wine Country

Cannabis will one day be on the list of top draws for North Coast visitors, many in the industry say. Entrepreneurs putting down stakes in the region’s nascent legal industry are banking on it. But big obstacles remain.

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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.

There’s a reason we talk about ‘Cali bud’ and not ‘Colorado bud.’ It’s cultural.Victor Pinho, who started Emerald Farm Tours

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.

The state Senate is advancing a bill that would codify the rule in state law.

Guests on Pinho’s tours want an experience — anything from smoking on a bus tour of San Francisco while being told stories from the medical marijuana movement to hiking in Redwood forests north of the city, he said. As cannabis tourism gains mainstream acceptance, Pinho said he thinks it will go beyond tasting rooms and be built on experiences, from tours to behind-the-scenes looks at how products are made.

“Once this machine starts rocking and rolling and we have folks doing interesting things, there’s a trajectory for where we’re at in cannabis and where we want to be. We’re pushing that envelope every day,” Pinho said.

In Sonoma County, local rules limit opportunities for cannabis tourists to have the same type of experience as wine lovers, such as tastings in vineyards and wine clubs. Businesses cannot hold promotional events or tastings and farms cannot yet offer public tours.

But consumer appetite for more access to such experiences is there, say local entrepreneurs.

At the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, managing partner Joe Bartolomei said his staff realized they needed to have answers when guests began asking about where to get cannabis products or experience Sonoma County’s cannabis culture.

“We pride ourselves in having insider access to everything,” Bartolomei said.

Over the past year, the inn has added to its offerings for guests cannabis-infused products that do not contain THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Visitors can buy CBD-infused bath bombs and face masks in the lobby or get CBD oil massages and other treatments.

Guests can request private appointments at Solful Dispensary in Sebastopol where they can learn about the edibles, tinctures and other products offered there. They can also sign up for an exclusive six-hour tour “led by a local cannabis expert” starting at $1,795 for two people.

Bartolomei just finished a three-year stint as chairman of Sonoma County Tourism, a marketing nonprofit focused on bringing visitors to the area, and he said they’re watching the industry closely to understand how cannabis tourism takes shape. He believes there’s a clear path.

“A lot of people involved in the cannabis industry are really passionate about it. Guests love meeting people — the winemaker, the farmer, the cheesemaker. They love that passion we have,” Bartolomei said.

Sonoma County cannot compete with the massive 200-acre marijuana farms taking over flower greenhouses on the Central Coast. Instead, the region’s businesses are banking on the Sonoma County brand for unique, environmentally minded products, he said.Erich Pearson, founder of the SPARC dispensaries in San Francisco and Sonoma County, said he hopes someday to host visitors to the organic and biodyamic farms near Glen Ellen that provide much of the product on his dispensary shelves.

“Tourism is essential to the survival of cannabis businesses in Sonoma County,” Pearson said. “And it’s in the county’s best interest — they should be embracing this from an economic perspective.”

Sonoma County Tourism is taking a “wait and see” approach before it begins promoting cannabis-related activities for visitors, said executive director Claudia Vecchio. They’ve listed some events on their website, but otherwise want to see the industry mature and become established to ensure they’re promoting reliable, legal activities, she said.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said he’s among those who have a hard time imagining cannabis as a longterm draw for tourists. Loosening local rules that limit tourism opportunities isn’t on the top of the priority list for the board at this time. As it is, the county is still struggling with clearing a backlog of applications from businesses wanting to cultivate cannabis here.

Tourism is essential to the survival of cannabis businesses in Sonoma County. And it’s in the county’s best interest — they should be embracing this from an economic perspectiveErich Pearson, founder of the SPARC dispensaries

But Rabbitt said he’s committed to helping the industry succeed, and if tourism opportunities emerge as practical and vital, he will support them.

“Right now it’s a novelty, but whether it’s something people want to keep coming back to see, whether they want to take their cousin from Kansas to see a maker of cannabis . . . I don’t know,” Rabbitt said.

Mendocino County, in contrast, is charging ahead with plans to take the region’s world-renowned cannabis heritage and turn that into revenue, said Carmel Angelo, the county’s chief executive officer.

Angelo said they’re committed to promoting cannabis alongside the county’s other top attractions, including its coastline and wine regions. They’ve seen how businesses such as dispensaries attract economic activity. The county has long been a source for black market pot, so the challenge is luring consumers — not mention producers — to the legal market.

Mendocino’s tourism council tapped Flow Kana, a major cannabis brand based in the Redwood Valley, to host the kick-off dinner for the long-running Mushroom Feast Mendocino festival in November.

“When the cannabis industry thrives in our community, we thrive,” Angelo said. “Farm tours, bud tasting, that kind of stuff, that has to become just part of tourism.”

Back on the Sonoma County Experience bus, guests were taken from CannaCraft to Solful dispensary in Sebastopol, where they met founder Eli Melrod and asked staff about the edibles and infused products on the shelves. The guests’ knowledge impressed Darren Chambers of San Francisco, who is retiring from a career in technology and considers himself very experienced with cannabis.

The group had lunch at Barrel Brothers Brewery in Windsor, where they tasted the Dark Sarcasm porter and Naughty Hops IPA, then headed north to Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville.

They toured the Hollywood paraphernalia on display and then were given a private tasting on a patio overlooking rows of Zinfindel vines, with Geyser Peak in the distance.

It was there that Mark Freed of Healdsburg realized the tour wouldn’t offer him the opportunity to consume the cannabis products he purchased at the dispensary. That was a disappointment for Freed, who doesn’t drink alcohol. He watched his fellow tourists sip wine on the Coppola veranda while he drank water from a plastic bottle.

“Hopefully it will look like tourism for the wine industry someday,” Freed said.

Giammona, the tour organizer, said he didn’t want to let his guests down, and that he is on the lookout for ways to accommodate cannabis consumers while following the letter of the law.

“Nowhere else in the world will you find the kind of high-quality wines and craft beers that are made in Sonoma County,” Giammona said. “It’s been cannabis country for generations and now we can showcase it.”

But perhaps not fully just yet, underscoring the persistent conflict in California over cannabis — between what people want and what the laws allow. That’s changing faster than ever.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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