California marijuana farmers find some success in wine country – and lots of hurdles

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Image of Aaron Keefer of Sonoma Hill Farm

Aaron Keefer of Sonoma Hill Farm considers cannabis to be "the third leg of hospitality.” (Photo by Chris Casacchia)

Wine and weed seem like a fine pairing in California, but the two agricultural industries can’t always find common ground.

Most cannabis projects proposed in California’s wine country are contested or taken to court by vocal opposition groups, some headed by local winemakers.

Odor is a key issue.

Despite the setbacks, cannabis companies are gradually making inroads in wine regions through a mix of negotiations, concessions and pacts with regulators and critics.

Sonoma Hill Farm, an outdoor cannabis grower in the Northern California town of Petaluma, is an example.

In October 2019, the cannabis farm’s owner, Big Rock Partners, prevailed after three years in the licensing process.

A San Francisco advisory firm that invests in cannabis companies, restaurants and other hospitality venues, Big Rock secured the first 1-acre marijuana cultivation permit in Sonoma County.

Before the first seed or clone was planted, the farm had to meet nearly 200 land-use conditions, from blocking cannabis plants from neighbors’ sight to camera systems and high fences to keep out thieves.

Fast forward to a sweltering day in late August.

Aaron Keefer, vice president of operations and cultivation at Sonoma Hill Farm, is walking the farm’s garden, inspecting the health and maturity of various marijuana strains, including Pink Jesus, Biscotti and Cherry Cheesecake.

“We see cannabis as the third leg of hospitality,” said Keefer, a longtime Bay Area chef who ran the culinary and gardening program for a decade at the famed French Laundry restaurant in nearby Yountville.

A tough sell

Keefer considers the obstacles Sonoma Hills Farm encountered as the cost of doing business in agricultural regions and economies dominated by grapes and cattle for more than a century.

But Keefer’s vision of cannabis as hospitality’s “third leg” – long awaited by marijuana enthusiasts – can be a tough sell in California wine country, where neighboring counties sometimes have conflicting policies.

Famed Napa Valley, home to about 700 grape growers, hasn’t been welcoming to cannabis businesses.

But across the rolling hills in Sonoma County, and much farther south in Santa Barbara County, cannabis companies are sprouting up in prolific wine-producing regions.

Ditto for Northern California’s Mendocino County, where wine and cannabis farmers are prolific.

Yet challenges persist even in friendlier terroirs.

Good neighbors

In Southern California’s Santa Barbara County, Autumn Shelton and fellow cultivators recently reached a deal on an odor-abatement and response plan to appease the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, which routinely appeals and/or files lawsuits on approved projects.

“It took a year of negotiations,” said Shelton, the owner of Autumn Brands, a cannabis cultivator in Santa Barbara County.

“We feel pretty confident this will make a huge difference. We want to be good neighbors working with the community,” added Shelton, who also serves as president of the Cannabis Association for Responsible Producers, or CARP Growers.

Cannabis odors wafting over vineyards and tasting rooms have been a major point of contention among cultivation opposition groups and some wineries in Santa Barbara County, particularly in the northern part, which is home to several large cannabis grows, some eclipsing 100 acres.

The agreement, which covers more than 20 cultivation sites and farms in Carpinteria Valley, prompted the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis to drop its appeal on proposed projects by Ocean Hill Farms, a cannabis grower in Carpinteria, and Shelton’s company, which has spent more than two years seeking local approvals to expand its grandfathered, 4-acre cultivation site by an additional 1.5 acres.

“We’re still waiting to get through this very long county process,” Shelton said. “It’s been challenging for us.”

A challenging vintage

Longtime wine industry insiders Stephanie Honig and Eric Sklar have been trying to bring cannabis to Napa County since 2017, when they established the Napa Valley Cannabis Association, which now counts 500-plus members.

“We have a wine-based economy, and I’m a vintner,” said Honig, who serves as president. “But no one wants a monoculture. It’s good to have some diversity.”

She was primarily referring to the regional economy but was addressing agriculture and tourism as well.

Napa Valley’s rich soil and Mediterranean climate, marked by long, dry growing seasons and vast daily temperature changes, produce some of the world’s most coveted grapes, the foundation of the award-winning, bold red wines Napa Valley built its brand on.

Honig, who runs international sales at Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford, and Sklar, a former vineyard owner, want to re-create that panache with premium Napa marijuana.

In January, Sklar’s Napa Valley Fumé crossed a major hurdle, securing the first indoor cultivation, manufacturing and delivery permit in American Canyon.

The approval notched two milestones: the first cannabis business in that city and the first cultivation permit in Napa County.

“Our hope over time is we can convince the supervisors of Napa (County) or the people of Napa to allow us to grow in (the city of) Napa as well,” Sklar told MJBizDaily.

Sklar’s association has worked with city and county officials to establish a framework for cultivation permits, including proposals to limit grows to less than an acre on farms minimally over 10 acres and locating them mostly on ridgelines on the eastern side of Napa Valley, away from most vineyards on the valley floor.

Honig is concerned Napa is losing tourism and visitor dollars to neighboring Sonoma County, which is far more welcoming to cannabis companies and consumers.

“We’re losing those people because we’re not offering that,” she told MJBizDaily.

Sonoma County, which has permitted more than 150 cannabis businesses, allows every type of operation, from dispensaries to testing labs.

“Officials recognize that it does create jobs and tax revenue and have been proactive in establishing a regulatory framework,” Sonoma County spokesman Daniel Virkstis said.

About three-quarters of license holders are cultivators, according to Sonoma County records.

A new vintage

Teddy Cabugos, meanwhile, entered the wine business to get into the cannabis business.

The entertainment and marketing expert and his wife, Djamila, acquired Sunstone Winery in northern Santa Barbara County nearly two years ago with the sole intention of expanding the 30-year brand.

He allayed neighbors’ concerns about adding marijuana cultivation to the 52-acre estate in Santa Ynez and made a few concessions regarding size and expansion.

In May, the vineyard, which specializes in Bordeaux and Rhone styles, became the first in Santa Barbara County to earn a cannabis land-use permit.

“It just took communication” versus haranguing attorneys, Cabugos said.

And two years of obstacles, red tape and hefty capital investments.

The company plans to develop 2 acres of cannabis cultivation next year, expanding to the allotted 6.5 acres by Year Three.

“This is the future for cannabis,” Cabugos said. “It’s going to be huge for tourism.”

Chris Casacchia can be reached at