Pairing Wine & Weed: Sonoma Wine Industry Embraces Cannabis

Inside a modern-chic Farmhouse in Healdsburg, 40 stylishly dressed guests were greeted with craft cocktails as a guitarist strummed flamenco tunes in the corner. While people sipped and mingled, chefs in the open kitchen topped rustic herb crackers with saffron cream and trout roe. Communal tables were laden with wineglasses, set for the multi-course feast to come.

While the scene could easily have been mistaken for a winemaker dinner — and indeed, Sonoma County wines were paired with each course — there was an important distinction: This event was all about weed.

The evening was organized by TSO Sonoma, a high-end cannabis company founded by Allison Kosta, former co-owner of Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol, and Devika Maskey, president of Ellipsis Wine Company in Napa. The duo applied their years of wine industry experience to the concept of a cannabis dinner, pairing featured wines and marijuana strains with elegant dishes such as foie gras tartlet and Sonoma County lamb loin.

To keep the event approachable and legal — California regulations don’t allow pot and alcohol to be served together at public events — the cannabis was “sampled” by smell only, via buds (which are known as flower, singular) passed around the tables for guests to sniff and discuss.

None of this would have been possible if California voters hadn’t given the thumbs-up to recreational cannabis in 2016, allowing legal sales to start in 2018. While many in the North Coast wine industry worried that cannabis businesses would swoop in to steal their market share, workers, and customers — all legitimate concerns — savvy vintners also began looking for ways to get involved.

Today, TSO Sonoma is one of a handful of Sonoma County-based cannabis ventures founded by wine producers. These adventurous entrepreneurs are offering everything from educational events to edibles to high-end cannabis flower.

Disrupting Themselves: The Grower’s Series by Francis Ford Coppola

A little over a year ago, film director and Sonoma County vintner Francis Ford Coppola handed a papier-mâché box to Kathleen Murphy, his director of innovation. He’d made the container himself. Inside the wine-bottle-shaped box were three small Ziploc bags, each labeled with the name of a different location in Humboldt County. This was Coppola’s way of saying he wanted to create a cannabis brand. “That was the genesis of it,” Murphy says. “He wanted to provide outdoor flower from different appellations to showcase the growers’ expertise and terroir.”

Coppola launched The Grower’s Series by Francis Ford Coppola at the end of 2018, with Murphy’s help. Now packaged in a bottle-shaped tin instead of a paper box, the limited-edition offering includes three different strains of 100% organic cannabis flower from Humboldt County — the region Coppola believes is best for growing outdoor cannabis. The kit also includes a pipe and rolling papers, and sells through dispensaries for $99.

To avoid any legal issues that could arise by associating Francis Ford Coppola Winery with a federally illegal substance, Coppola set up a separate company for his cannabis business and hired a team of lawyers to ensure compliance with California regulations. He was not particularly worried about consumer perception, Murphy says, or hurting his wine brand.

“The landscape is changing in the way the consumers enjoy their evenings,” Murphy notes. “Why not be the agent that is disrupting our own industry instead of letting the (cannabis) industry disrupt us? The key factor was to be ahead of the curve.”

If the Grower’s Series is successful, Coppola will consider expanding his product line into the cannabis-infused drinks category — though not necessarily with wine. “Obviously there would be a nice, tight link to beverages,” Murphy says, “so we’re beginning to explore that landscape.”

Wrangling the Tiger: Garden Society

Erin Gore, founder and CEO of the Garden Society cannabis confection company, had been immersed in wine since she left her corporate job in 2016 to run Gore Family Vineyards, the Healdsburg-based winery founded by her husband Tom, the vineyard director for Constellation Brands. But as much as she loved the wine business, cannabis was her real passion.

“I had just recovered from two major hip surgeries, so I started to understand the medical value of cannabis,” Gore says. “I also had a really hard time sleeping, and wine kept me up. I was trying to find something that would make me feel good and let me relax, and I found that in cannabis.”

Despite her relief, she quickly became frustrated with weed offerings that were too potent or riddled with pesticides. “I would go to dispensaries, and I didn’t feel like there were products there for me,” she says. “I didn’t know where the cannabis came from, and I was tired of having a fingernail-sized piece of a gummy and being blasted. So I started making products myself.”

She began by hosting “high holiday” baking parties, inviting female friends to experiment with pot-laced cookies and candies. As word got around and her baking bashes grew, she realized that there were lots of women who wanted to try cannabis but hadn’t found the right products.

Garden Society launched in 2016 with low-dose chocolates and herb gelées made from sun-grown, biodynamically farmed cannabis. Gore introduced a line of mini pre-rolled joints in early 2019, followed by a spicy dark chocolate created in collaboration with Windsor’s Volo Chocolate.

Gore sells her products thorough local dispensaries and her own delivery service, tied to an in-home event program that’s similar to a Tupperware party — only with a focus on cannabis education instead of food storage. “This is my purpose and my passion,” Gore says. “It’s the tiger I’m trying to wrangle by the tail.”

High on Education: TSO Sonoma

Winery veterans Allison Kosta and Devika Maskey founded TSO Sonoma (TSO is pronounced “so”) in 2017 as a luxury cannabis brand for women. “Coming from the events and hospitality side of the wine industry, I saw this need for products that appeal to a more sophisticated palate,” Kosta says.

The partners originally intended to focus on curated, organically farmed, and sun-grown cannabis products, but expanded into educational pairing dinners and yoga wellness retreats while waiting for the city of Santa Rosa to approve their retail permit.

“There’s still a big need for education,” Maskey says. “A lot of people aren’t sure what dose to take or what kinds of products they should use.”

Santa Rosa approved TSO’s permit in January after a nine-month processing bottleneck, setting in motion plans to open TSO Test Kitchen, a combination dispensary/lounge with delivery service, in late 2019. Cannabis consumption won’t initially be allowed on the premises, but TSO will be eligible to upgrade its permit in 2020. In the meantime, retail sales, cooking classes, and educational events will be offered on-site. TSO’s own line of products will include two strain-specific vapor pens, and the company will curate monthly subscription boxes — similar to a wine club — filled with cannabis products and wellness items. A nonalcoholic, pot-infused rosé is set for release in early 2020, once the final product is perfected.

“We’re working with the flavor and mouthfeel to keep the integrity of the wine,” Kosta says.

“That’s obviously really important for Devika and me, coming from the wine business.”

Where to Partake

TSO SONOMA
For updates about upcoming events and the TSO Test Kitchen, sign up for a free membership at tsosonoma.com.

THE GROWER’S SERIES
Coppola’s cannabis is sold locally at Sparc dispensaries in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. sparcsf.org

GARDEN SOCIETY
Find products at Soulful in Sebastopol, Garden Society Delivery Service, and getsava.com. To host a cannabis education party, email info@thegardensociety.com.

SONOMA WINE & WEED TOURS
Spend the day touring wineries and cannabis dispensaries with the Sonoma County Experience (thesonomacountyexperience.com) and Wine Country Weed Trips (winecountryweedtrips.com).

 

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