Cannabis tourism in Sonoma is a real thing
Yes, cannabis tourism is a thing, and it's a thing here in Sonoma Valley. It's a fledgling industry about to grow, and at a recent meeting of cannabis enthusiasts one local tourism pro offered suggestions on how to create a bigger space for themselves.
'Tourism is kind of dirty word, but everyone likes to be a traveler. One thing we've learned about wine tourism is it's about an experience,' said Tim Zahner, executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. 'The thing is, you can drink wine almost anywhere on the planet at any time except for Indiana on a Sunday, so here's the deal: People have to come here and enjoy the experience.'
When people go into the visitors center Zahner said they tell employees, 'We're here for wine.'
'That's not really what they're here for. They're here to learn about wine, they're here to go to the vineyards, they're here to go to the wineries. So when we talk about cannabis tourism, which some of you are already involved with, you kind of caught on, it's not about consumption, it's about telling a story. It's about being part of the experience, it's about seeing stuff.'
Van Solkov is one of those guys who has caught on. He is the owner and operator of Happy Travelers Tours which offers 'Wine and Weed Tours' that include visiting wineries, a mountaintop cannabis grow, the consumption of wine, weed and a lunch from Sweet Pea Bakery – the lunch tastes especially good after the cannabis, Solkov said. Sweet Pea designed the menu for them and uses vegetables from Airbnb host Doug Gardner's vegetable garden.
'We focus on educating guests on the convergence of wine and cannabis,' Solkov said. 'We are destigmatizing cannabis consumption.'
And he starts by telling his own story of finding and using cannabis.
'I was in an accident 26 years ago,' he said, which resulted in 12 crushed vertebrae. 'My journey to cannabis is pain management.'
The owner of the mountaintop cannabis grow, Gardner, has his own story, which he shares with Happy Travelers guests. After years of suffering debilitating effects of epilepsy and brain surgeries, and dozens of pharmaceutical cocktails that never quite worked, he took his father's advice and gave cannabis a try.
It worked. 'I finally got my driver's license back last year,' Gardner said.
For a man who lives at the top of Mount Veeder and used to ride his bicycle up and down Cavedale Road, or rely on the kindness of automobile drivers, being able to drive his own car is a big deal. He now relies on one pharmaceutical medication and CBD cannabis.
Gardner has applied for a permit to have a 1,200-plant commercial grow on his property, but hasn't gotten it yet. So he works with the allowable two-plants-per dwelling unit allowance, and has 12 cannabis plants that Happy Travelers guests view. Gardner also grows test plants to see what strains will grow well in his eventual permitted grow.
On a recent afternoon Gardner explained how he uses a small shepherd's hook-like tool to pull branches to the side to open up the plant, allowing in more light and training it to grow in a bushier fashion.
This is part of the tour's education piece that includes learning about the Sonoma region, the permitting process, and the economics of cannabis as well as the 2017 fires – Gardner saved the buildings on his property using a donated tractor he received just two weeks before the fires broke out, but blackened trees serve as a reminder.
The economics part is combined with a competition of sorts. Solkov explains how much money people were paid to trim weed in the past, what they earn now and how much time it takes a pro to trim a bud. Then he sets the clock at 25 seconds, the average time for a pro, and guests who have been imbibing get to clipping.
The guests from Texas and Oklahoma he had on a recent Wednesday – all asked to remain anonymous – tried their hand at trimming. The brothers giggled as they focused; one finishing with a far better trimmed bud than the other. 'Then we grind it up and roll a joint,' Solkov said.
The wife of one of the brothers is a novice, unlike her husband, brother-in-law and their cousin. They smoke together under a shade structure next to Gardner's still-growing cannabis plants. They don't smoke the joints they've rolled from their trim trial: instead, they sample product that is older, Solkov said, that a friend gave him to use for the on-tour smoking.
The goal of the tours is to destigmatize cannabis, Solkov says, is tp get people closer to the plant so they can see it, touch it, understand the terroir – yes, just like in wine – and learn how it all affects the strain.
'People don't want to go to CannaCraft and touch the processing machines,' Solkov said.
His guests are smiling. They've had a little wine, a little weed, done some fun activities and they get to go home with a swag bag that includes some pot paraphernalia.
'At the end of every tour we guarantee our guests will be happy travelers,' Solkov said.
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Editor's note: Van Solkov's name was misspelled in the original version of this story. We apologize for any confusion.