“The way people see our future here is pretty straightforward: How do you become Dom Pérignon? That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t have flat land here. We can’t grow hundreds of thousands of acres of weed in massive fields. So in a lot of people’s visions, we would like to be the Napa [Valley] of cannabis. In my mind, I want to be Champagne or Burgundy more than Napa. Oakland can be Napa.” —Matt Kurth, Cannabis Tour Guide
Head north on the 101 from SFO. Drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and speed past the suburbs in Marin, then past the wine country in Sonoma. Take the long way through the farmland on Route 128 to hit the Pacific Coast Highway near Mendocino, where the cliffs look like HBO’s Big Little Lies on a heavy dose of LSD. When the coast becomes undrivable, the road will veer into an endless curtain of redwoods, mile upon mile of two-lane highway coiled like a fist full of iPhone cables thrown across misty mountain passes and mossy valleys that seem like the perfect place to lay a dinosaur egg. On the far edge of this forest is where you’ll find it: the heart of the Emerald Triangle.
Located in the northwestern corner of California, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—known affectionately as the Emerald Triangle—have been the epicenter of American weed farming since long before the state’s recreational legalization of the plant in 2016. My journey there began at Riverbar Pharms, a “bud-and-breakfast” outside Fortuna in Humboldt County. The establishment was very much like the picture-book version of a bed-and-breakfast—quaint farmhouse, crêpes for breakfast, Wi-Fi passwords handwritten on folded Hallmark cards—except that there was a crème brûlée torch for smoking dabs in the living room.
Unbeknownst to me, Riverbar Pharms was a microcosm of many of the places I would visit on my journey: a slightly stoned version of a familiar luxury experience. But, also like the rest of the Emerald Triangle in post-legalization California, it was built on a dream. Over morning crêpes, the bud-and-breakfast’s proprietor Desiree Robinson, a culinary school grad from Orange County, told me about her future plans for Riverbar Pharms: a fully immersive agritourism experience, befit with a “tasting room” for the cannabis grown in her husband’s greenhouse.
After breakfast, I met Bryan Robinson 15 miles up the road at this very greenhouse, which was tucked away on a residential road near Eureka. He was having a bad morning when I got there, surrounded by a crew of burly dudes who were undergoing the costly process of moving his greenhouse’s generator on account of a noise complaint from a neighbor. From the moment we started speaking, Bryan, a career farmer, was very open about the illicit past of his profession: the camo he once wore to tend to crops under the watchful eye of DEA helicopters, the drives down south “with a pound in his toolbox.” He was equally open about the way that maddening inconveniences like the one he was experiencing that morning—noise complaints, agricultural regulations, zoning negotiations—often made him think about going “back up the mountain,” where many of his former colleagues were still growing black market bud.
This wasn’t unusual. I soon learned that throughout The Emerald Triangle, mixed feelings about legalization still hung in the air like bong smoke. Many of those in the business of weed farming got involved as a way of living outside of society in one way or another. And even the most patient and entrepreneurially minded among them were still getting used to the bureaucracy that comes with farming anything—let alone a controlled substance—in modern America. To make things bleaker, there was the lingering reality that corporate carpet-baggers, people who are better funded and better at doing paperwork, were already on their way into the picture. “And it’s not just commercialized big money coming into the farming itself,” Bryan told me matter-of-factly. “It’s also commercialized money that’s going to dominate the distribution side and make all the money out of farmers. Just like Sunkist, but for cannabis.”
In spite of the Kafkaesque red tape and the menacing threat of “big weed,” one clear advantage of legalization is that it has allowed farmers who love their craft to indulge in total perfectionism. Bryan proudly guided me through his pristine greenhouse, organized into tidy rows of plants labeled with names like “Wedding Cake” and “Girl Scout Cookies.” The sheer volume of weed was dizzying. Bryan’s was a “mixed light” greenhouse with retractable roofing that allowed plants to grow in sunlight or lamp light or both, depending on the time of day or weather. The room was meticulously controlled through a system of fans, coolants, and ventilators running through a smart hub that could be controlled on an iPhone. Growing the best bud possible, Bryan and his comrades explain, is about more than just personal pride. “Keeping up the quality of this region is a big thing to me,” he said. “If somebody’s not putting out a quality product and it has Humboldt [County]’s name on it, then the next time someone buys something, they’re not going to want to buy the Humboldt brand.”
Indeed, the notion of terroir, the idea from winemaking that an area’s soil can itself be a brand that marks quality, has become imperative to The Emerald Triangle’s future. Or as Bryan put it: “I don’t want Humboldt to be the Napa Valley of weed. I want Humboldt to be the Humboldt of weed.”
Perhaps no one I met on my journey felt more of this terroir than Sunshine Johnston, a legend in the outdoor-weed-growing community, whose farm I drove to after Bryan’s. Sitting at her breakfast table, methodically rolling the fattest joint I had ever seen, the second-generation cannabis farmer told me about the early days of the industry: growing guerrilla gardens in the forest, using pulley systems to hide plants and supplies hundreds of feet in the air in redwoods, drying buds by a wood stove fire in family cabins. As a child of the back-to-the-land migration from San Francisco up north, it was evident that for Sunshine farming was part of a much larger and more holistic practice of being rooted in nature. As we spoke, I admired a psychedelic canvas that her brother-in-law had painted of a group of frogs gathered among the redwoods at night, ecstatically leaping and flipping with big doobies in their mouths.
A similar huddle of redwoods presided over Sunshine’s cannabis patch a quarter mile down the road. It was well before planting season, and the half acre of land, which she called Wonderbud Garden, sat arid and untilled. Unlike many outdoor cannabis farmers, who depend on water lines to irrigate, Sunshine had developed a method for “dry farming” her cannabis, a technique that she claims makes the plant heartier and more resilient. She walked me through the meticulously choreographed process of producing her crop, starting with the garden and then moving to the shack where she hangs the buds to air-dry. At another shack nearby, Sunshine showed me the table where, come harvest season in October, workers would be trimming the dry buds into neatly manicured nuggets, which she would then store in cardboard boxes for months using a homegrown technique to “cure” her product until it was ready to smoke.
Back home at her study, Sunshine walked me through the newest art she was perfecting: the brand identity for her cannabis label, Sunboldt Grown. First, there was the company’s new logo, a jagged geometric design of a ray of sunshine igniting a seed, sketched on printer paper in green and yellow colored pencil. Then there was the campaign for her new strain of weed called “Loopy Fruit.” The poster pictured two handsome bearded guys in button-down shirts standing in Sunshine’s drying shack and beholding forearm-sized buds of weed. The next poster featured Sunshine herself standing in a grove of redwoods in a pastoral farmer’s outfit, holding a gigantic bud to the camera with a grin across her face.
It might have been surprising to hear that someone who less than a handful of years ago had been an underground black market operator had developed an entire 360 public identity around her owner-operated farm. What was even more surprising was how utterly compelling the branding was. “There was a list of demographics, so I just started answering them all and circling things that felt most accurate to my customer,” Sunshine told me about her self-taught journey as a marketer. “My customer prefers to smoke solo. They live in a university town. They’re self-employed. Nature is their religion. They drink wine. They listen to reggae. And their favorite sports are hiking, biking, and river sports.”
Back up in Eureka, I sat down for dinner at an Irish pub with Matt Kurth, a local tour guide specializing in tours of cannabis farms. We had just met at the ribbon-cutting of a new dispensary on the other side of town. The store opening was a drab affair, consisting primarily of guys in their 30s hovering around vitrines full of cannabis products. As someone who enjoys ogling any kind product, from handbags to the deodorant aisle at Duane Reade, I had spent the event scanning the packaging of the products themselves. Some weed containers were crunchy and Whole Foods–y. Some were more austere, almost medical. Some had the boho vibe of a bottle of Aesop lotion. Each package had wording praising an infinite variety of qualities that sometimes seemed to contradict each other: “indoor,” “outdoor,” “high-THC,” “high-CBD,” “indica,” “sativa,” and so on and so on. Each jar, or vial, or pre-rolled joint was another little brand universe invented by a Bryan or a Sunshine.
As a tour guide who has brought visitors to dozens of farms, Matt had both the knowledge and the hospitality industry training to explain the history of this place to a non-weed-smoking bozo like myself. Over IPAs in Eureka, he explained the industry’s beginnings at the hands of hippies and ex-loggers, the harsh DEA crackdowns, the “trim scenes” of Burners who would come through the region every October to harvest buds. At the height of its scarcity, Matt explained, the weed grown in Humboldt fetched a street price of nearly $1,000 an ounce. As we spoke, with legal farms pumping out product, it was less than a quarter of that. Weed, in this day and age, therefore needed something more to continue being grown and sold on a boutique level: luxury tourism, markers of quality, terroir.
The next morning, I checked out of Riverbar Pharms and drove south through the redwoods to a place called Turtle Creek Ranch in Mendocino County, the home of a cannabis label named Swami Select. The drive from the highway to the ranch was a labyrinth of muddy roads, tiny bridges, and chained gates, all marked by little signs shaped like an orange turtle. I spent the entire tedious ride imagining how much time it would take the cops to get there.
When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by the ranch’s owners, Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya. The two led me to their living room, which I would soon learn doubled as an informal laboratory for smoking weed. The moment we sat down, Swami, a holy man and grower born with the name William Allen Winans, methodically took out a special wooden plate, broke up a handful of special buds using a special grinder, and rolled a special confection he called “the Swami Joint.” Nikki, a former journalist from San Francisco and Swami’s partner in both life and business, went to the kitchen to prepare a snack consisting of slices of pears with little pieces of feta cheese on them. It was an unexpectedly delicious snack that expressed a type of genius that could only be attained through thousands of Swami Joints.
During their first joint, Nikki and Swami took me through their memory of The Emerald Triangle’s 50-year history: the northward migration of hippies into the region and the slow development of a fully-formed black market infrastructure of growers, brokers, and shared botanical knowledge. By the second joint, we moved on to the plant itself. The duo are firm believers in the benefits of cannabis both on the mind and the body. The seeds from which they grow the plants for their cannabis label Swami Select are held in the hands of a Hindu deity before being sprouted and planted in a field arranged in a spectral pattern designed in accordance with sacred geometry.
Nikki and Swami were equally diligent when it came to smoking itself. Beyond the custom-made tools they used to roll their joints, they stored and sold their buds in costly jars designed to be airtight and UV-resistant. With the buds themselves, the standard was even higher. As panelists in the Emerald Cup, which is awarded to the best buds grown in the region, the couple spends a week every year helping their cohort judge the looks, fragrance, flavor, and effects of weed from nearly 400 different farms. Having tasted such a breadth of crops from the region—the good, the bad, the dank, and the ugly—Nikki and Swami have developed their own notion of terroir, one that extends beyond the label on a wine shelf and toward something deeper. “We can bitch and bitch and bitch about how regulations are terrible,” Swami said. “But the fact is that we have an opportunity to create an appellation for what we do. We’re bringing awareness to the idea that a flower is an expression of oneself. Not just the earth, the sun, and the water, but of the expertise and the love put into it. That’s the cultural dimension of terroir.”