As more cannabis dispensaries come to Sonoma and Napa, locals foresee a new era of Wine Country tourism
To Brian Applegarth, cannabis in Wine Country is nothing new. It’s just that we have only been able to talk about it in recent years.
“In California, cannabis and wine have always co-existed. Cannabis was simply out of sight and out of mind on the traditional, underground market,” he told GreenState. “But cannabis plants and grapes are both expressions of the terroir in which they are cultivated and the end products are a result of the local craft. Those with the knowledge and vision understand that these products can not only co-exist, but are a new frontier of wellness.”
Applegarth is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Cultivar Brands, a marketing and events agency specializing in cannabis-related travel in Northern California. The organization, in partnership with MMGY Travel Intelligence, researched national demand for cannabis tourism in 2020.
Their findings, according to Applegarth, showed a “high-value cannabis travel audience” in the U.S. and that this audience “also self-describes as ‘wine enthusiasts’ to a higher degree than the average active leisure travel audience.”
For these tourists, California Wine Country could offer a kind of utopia—quality cannabis available alongside some of the country’s most prestigious vineyards, all just an hour’s driving distance from San Francisco.
Over a dozen cannabis dispensaries exist in the Sonoma and Napa region, with numerous cannabis farms nearby. The first recreational cannabis dispensary to open within Sonoma city limits, a chain dispensary called SPARC, is set to open sometime this year.
Charles Kimball, owner of Sonoma Cannabis Wine Tours, told GreenState he expects to see more dispensaries open soon in Sonoma. He is already excited for what more dispensaries will mean for the area.
“Having more cannabis businesses here will bring more tourism to Wine Country. Cannabis is already bringing more tourists here and it’s not taking away from the wine tours—not by a long shot,” Kimball, who gives wine tours as well as cannabis tours, said.
Kimball offers premium cannabis tours intended for the kind of high-end traveler Napa and Sonoma already attract. His tours involve a private car-and-driver experience to cannabis grow facilities in Wine Country and the surrounding areas.
Since most of his customers are interested in both wine and cannabis, Kimball brings customers to wineries at the beginning of the day and visits cannabis farms and dispensaries in the afternoon. At the end of the tour, customers are either returned to their original lodgings or can spend the night in a cabin located on what he calls a “weed ranch,” with the option to have cannabis delivered.
According to Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma County Visitors Bureau, it’s this kind of premium experience that will enjoy the most success in Wine Country.
“There’s a movement away from seeing cannabis as a commodity and more as a premium category. The fact that we’re even calling it cannabis and not weed or marijuana is a big indicator of how it’s becoming a more mature product,” Zahner said. “I think that’s how you’re going to see cannabis marketed here. It’s expensive to live here and be a farmer here and pay taxes here—to work with cannabis here, you got to go premium.”
From Zahner’s perspective, the demand for cannabis tourism in Wine Country is undeniable. It is so pervasive that he’s started keeping a map of local cannabis businesses in his visitor center.
“People will walk in asking about where the wineries are, and I’ll tell them, and then just give them the cannabis map too,” Zahner said. “They’ll laugh, but then they always take the map.”
“It’s kind of like gay marriage. Once it’s happened, nobody will talk about it. Maybe they’ll see how cannabis and wine can actually help each other.”
— Charles Kimball, owner of Sonoma Cannabis Wine Tours
He added that many of those interested in cannabis tours are millennials wanting to do something different with their parents while on a family vacation.
Now that cannabis has been legal for over five years in California, Zahner said the tourism industry has felt pressure to define a specific region where the highest-quality cannabis is grown—essentially, the “Napa” of cannabis farms.
While Napa and Sonoma produce excellent cannabis, an argument could be made that The Emerald Triangle of Humbolt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties holds a kind of historic claim to the title because of its legacy grow facilities and the “back to the land” movement that took place there in the 60s and 70s.
But there’s one important factor that The Emerald Triangle lacks—accessibility.
Unlike the rural destinations in the Emerald Triangle, Sonoma sits just an hour from San Francisco, and even closer to Sacramento. It is this convenient location, Zahner believes, that may make Sonoma the definitive cannabis tourism hotspot of Northern California in the next 10 years.
“Places like Humbolt don’t usually get a lot of tourism the way we do,” Zahner said. “We’re just an hour north of San Francisco and a major airport that brings in millions of tourists every year. It’s harder to get to Humbolt.”
Plus, by virtue of being positioned in Wine Country, a premium market is already built into the location. Visitors to Wine Country generally have a higher willingness to pay than tourists in less exclusive locations, Zahner said. So, rather than introduce a new market to the high cost of cannabis products and experiences, all cannabis businesses in Wine Country need to do is convince the existing market to try something new.
Though many Sonoma and Napa residents are open to the idea of cannabis becoming an influential industry in the region, the concept has received some pushback. In Napa, recreational cannabis dispensaries are still prohibited from opening.
Could the stigma surrounding cannabis taint the Wine Country brand? Zahner believes there’s some hesitation because of that.
“There’s a big debate on how the perception of cannabis affects the perception of wine,” Zahner said. “If I asked three different winemakers about it, I’d get four different answers. We grow really good grapes and are really good at making fantastic premium wine, but we also may have a market for fantastic premium cannabis, and we have to decide if it’s advantageous to go that way.”
Then again, both Zahner and Kimball agree that the normalization of cannabis in Wine Country may be inevitable.
“It’s kind of like gay marriage,” said Kimball, who officiates LGBTQ+ weddings when he’s not providing luxury tours. “Once it’s happened, nobody will talk about it. No one cares once these things just start happening. Cannabis is already in Wine Country and people will eventually get used to it. Maybe they’ll see how cannabis and wine can actually help each other.”
Elissa Esher is an editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.