Imagine a Napa Valley wine region as known for its fine wine as its quality cannabis. For some, this may seem highly improbable. For others, it’s only a matter of time. Stephanie Honig, Partner at Napa Valley’s Honig Winery, and Co-founder of Yolo Brand Group, a branding and marketing cannabis agency, is in the latter group. Honig also serves as the President of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association and a founding board member of the Cannabis Media Council.
As someone who has been in the wine and spirits industry for over 25 years, Honig had limited exposure to cannabis up until the passing of Prop 64 in California. Comparing this to the end of prohibition in 1933, she quickly became interested in how she could get involved in the legal cannabis industry.
“A friend of mine founded a vertically integrated cannabis company shortly after prop 64 passed in the state of California,” she explains. “I was fascinated by the transition of an underground and illegal industry into a legal and regulated market. It was like the end of alcohol beverage prohibition in 1933 all over again.”
Honig also witnessed her mentor, who she says was like a second father, manage his pain and improve his quality of life as a war veteran through cannabis consumption. “I never understood why such a widely used and beneficial plant would be classified as a schedule 1 drug, would not be tested, controlled, or regulated and readily accessible to consumers,” she continues. “We are facing the end of prohibition which creates a tremendous opportunity to participate in the transition of underground to regulated industry.”
Napa Valley is a rich agricultural region that makes some of the best wines in the world. With that said, Napa produces only 4% of the wine produced in the state of California, while generating over a third of the revenue for the California wine industry.
“Our goal is that Napa Cannabis follow a similar model and provide both locals and visitors with the best cannabis they can find which will only add to their experiences with Napa wines, Napa restaurants and our beautiful valley,” explains Honig. “Our terroir, our long growing seasons, our cool nights that allow us to grow some of the best grapes in the world also are beneficial to cannabis and growing the best expression of the plant.”
With the rise of cannabis infused fine-dining, upscale cannabis products and top-tier experiences being curated for those that seek them, it seems that it’s only a matter of time before traditionally conservative destinations, like Napa Valley, join the movement.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, underground cannabis dinners began growing in popularity years ago, and more recently upscale properties are partaking in the industry. An example being Berkley’s luxury property, Claremont Club & Spa’s Limewood Restaurant executing their first food-and-weed at-home dinner pairing earlier this year in partnership with Cultivating Spirits.
While Cannabis food experiences are not new to the Bay Area, the manner in which they are produced and curated is as varied as the strains themselves.
Cultivating Spirits, who separately collaborated with Chef Joseph L. Pairee III of Limewood Restaurant on their Enlighten Dinner series, curates cannabis pairing dinners in which they select the ideal cannabis strain to enhance the flavor profiles of your menu. However, unlike infused dinners, this is done through smoking and not infusing dishes.
Currently, forty states have some form of legal cannabis and it seems that the industry won’t be going away any time soon.
We sat down with Stephanie Honig to discuss where she sees the industry heading; what its obstacles are; how hospitality and dining ties in to it all, and more. Here is what she had to say.
What about the industry excites you most and where do you see it heading in the next few years, particularly in terms of dining?
I will be thrilled the day in which legal cannabis operators dominate the market. Overly rigorous regulation, taxation, and lack of safe banking create a very difficult environment for legal operators to compete with the illicit market.
As individual counties and cities are empowered with issuing permits for cannabis activities, points of distribution (licensed dispensaries) are extremely limited. This creates a disadvantage for consumers who must work harder to find a product they like. It also makes it extremely difficult for legal cannabis brands to compete for the limited shelf space available.
One day, cannabis products will be sold in mainstream retail locations and grocery, in a similar fashion to how alcohol is sold. Consumers should not be limited to access what they want.
Napa Valley is known for its alluring lifestyle which encompasses wine, dining, farming and more. Several world-renowned chefs are working closely with the Napa Valley Cannabis Association in crafting cannabis dining experiences. The events are meant to showcase cannabinoids throughout the course of the meal in the form of sauces and condiments. Some of these cannabinoids are non- psychoactive which help balancing and prevent over-dosing.
Once Napa begins to grow its own cannabis, the region will become a destination for these elevated experiences. Just like in the luxury wine market, the luxury cannabis market will be reliant on its authenticity, appellation, and sense of place.
What are some of your top goals to accomplish within the industry?
I co-founded an agency called “Yolo Brand Group.” Yolo’s primary mission is to market and deliver legal, safe and tested cannabis products to existing communities who currently consume cannabis from the illicit market. We work and market strains and product types that serve these communities. We also support non-cannabis operators in entering the cannabis industry.
I previously founded a cannabis consulting firm called “8 of March” whose mission is to elevate female led businesses in male dominated industries such as cannabis and
alcohol beverages. We worked with a leading wine and spirit wholesaler in developing and implementing their go to market strategy with hemp derived CBD beverages and cannabis products.
Moreover, I am a founding board member of the Cannabis Media Council. CMC is the first trade council dedicated to using the power of mainstream media to uplift advertising campaigns that show positive experiences with cannabis to normalize and de-stigmatize the plant.
Talk about cannabis’ place in Napa Valley, why is this particular industry set to thrive here? Why Napa? Why Now?
Napa Valley’s visitors are primarily baby boomers and Gen X. This is partially due to their income levels but also reliant on consumer trends among millennials and Gen Z. The younger generations are opting for destination that offer a diversity of experiences. They are also drinking less alcohol and incorporating cannabis as a wellness product in their lifestyles.
If some wouldn’t have had the vision for Napa Valley in the 60’s and 70’s we’d still be growing prunes and walnuts. Someone needs to have the foresight of where 30 years from will be now and as a parent of 4 children, a vintner and landowner, I care deeply about the future of Napa.
Additionally, the illicit cannabis market leads to problems like; youth consumption, crime, chemicals used in farming which is both detrimental to health of consumers and to the environment. Those who oppose these challenges should in fact be in favor of a legal marketplace and treat it like alcohol and other regulated goods.
How does cannabis tie into the hospitality and food scene in Napa?
There are currently 7 licensed cannabis dispensaries in the city of Napa. Hotel concierges direct inquiring guests to these businesses. Our visitors are regularly seeking these experiences.
The Napa Valley Cannabis Association is currently developing a training program for front line hospitality employees on how to identify and address intoxicated guests, just like they have learned to do with alcohol. It is very important for everyone’s safety that they have these tools.
Our visitors are consuming cannabis throughout their tastings and meals which in many cases heightens their experiences. Once we incorporate Napa grown cannabis into our offerings and partake in consumption lounges for premium cannabis, we will create remarkable interest.
How will cannabis evolve for people in terms of consume it via edibles or pairings vs. smoking?
Currently, the existing cannabis consumer driving the market is vaping and smoking. However, once the mainstream consumer becomes more familiar with the benefits and cannabis products are more accessible, we will see a drastic shift to edibles and beverages. I believe that in less than a decade beverage could represent about 50% of the cannabis industry.
Do you see any challenges to the infused dining experience scene flourishing?
I see are the same challenges we have with wine experiences which are making sure the consumer is safe, over the age of 21 and not being over-served.
There is also a learning curve for the consumer in understanding how certain strains and doses impact their bodies. That is when training and the art of micro-dosing is most relevant.
There is still some stigma around the plant within certain groups That transition is only a matter of time. Napa Valley is known for leadership, agriculture, quality, and innovation. I have no doubt that we will catch up to the market and be the best at cannabis just like we are with wine.