Pubdate: Sun, 01 Mar 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Author: Evan Bush


Wine Approach

Some in the Pot Industry Dream of Vineyard-Like Tours, but Some See 
Limits to That Comparison.

Jill Lane, master grower at Sky High Gardens on Seattle's Harbor 
Island, uncaps jar after jar of golf-ball-size marijuana buds and 
allows her guests sniffs of Bubblicious, Super Silver Goo and Green Crack.

"What kind of high is that?" asks Louise Avery, gesturing to one of the jars.

"This is for daytime: taking a hike. Beach volleyball," explains Lane 
to the group of visitors with Kush Tourism, a Seattle-based cannabis 
company. Lane continues describing strains as if the visitors 
surrounding the table were middle-age women in a Yankee Candle store.

Chocolate heaven, she tells the group, is "earthy and dank." Seattle 
Haze is subtle: "If you have a joint in your purse or pocket, you're 
not going to announce it to the world." Dutch Treat "almost smells 
like B.O. ... like somebody forgot to shower."

Avery, a concierge at a downtown Seattle hotel, was one of three 
people the tour company took to Sky High Gardens that recent day. The 
others were Alaskans Zach Craft and Conrad Schwartz, who are 
considering starting a marijuana business when commercial-marijuana 
sales begin there.

Since legalization, this state's pot industry has dreamed of 
vineyard-like tours at pot farms in the rolling hills of Eastern 
Washington and cannabis lounges where visitors and locals commune 
over marijuana vapor wafting through the air.

But hotels have been hesitant to tout themselves as pot-friendly, 
visitors have few legal locations to consume and only a few tourism 
companies are operating.

As much as the industry hopes the scene at Sky High Gardens is a 
harbinger of tourism to come, it could just as well be a mirage.

Viable attraction?

Last summer, tourists made up much of the recreational market. Step 
into a pot store and you'd find wide-eyed Canadians in line before a 
Blue Jays game or mystified Midwesterners buying a couple grams just 
because they could.

Will outside interest in legal pot wear off with time? Are people 
coming to Seattle specifically for marijuana or just curious while 
they're here?

Those are the questions David Blandford, the vice president of 
communications for Visit Seattle, wants answered. He said the tourism 
promotion nonprofit is open-minded about pot and will see if tourists 
flock to shops this summer or if "the novelty has worn off" before 
considering a marijuana promotion or advertising effort.

"We don't have the same data that we have about wine tourism, or LGBT 
tourism," said Blandford. "Nor are we able to detect that there's 
this untapped market."

Blandford said legal ambiguity between state and federal governments 
on marijuana makes it "hard to know what we can promote and advertise."

Seattle hotels are taking a similar stance.

"We as an industry haven't figured out how to deal or get on board 
with marijuana tourism," said David Watkins, president of the Seattle 
Hotel Association. "As far as marijuana goes, it's just wait and see."

Startups jump in

As key players hesitate, startups are filling the void.

The guide leading Kush Tourism's excursion, Chase Nobles, founded the 
company with partner Michael Gordon. The two met kayaking and hatched 
the company in June 2013; they've since grown their business to seven 
employees. In addition to tours, the company markets pot-friendly 
lodging (mostly bed-and-breakfasts) and rents high-end vaporizers. 
The two also have launched a marketing company called Kush Creative Group.

Dressed in shiny dress shoes and a polo tucked into pressed khakis, 
Nobles looked more like a church youth-group leader than any 
marijuana stereotype.

For $175, he took the two Alaska men to four sites: A glass studio in 
the Chinatown International District; the grow operation; a 
pot-testing lab and Uncle Ike's Pot Shop, a Seattle retail store. 
Some tours also conclude at the Bacon Mansion, a Capitol Hill 
bed-and-breakfast where those on tour can consume what they've purchased.

This isn't a tour for those simply looking to get high.

"You can get stoned anywhere in this country," said Nobles as he 
drove the Kush Tourism van. "Our tour's more about education ... we 
take you to see something you can't otherwise see."

Schwartz and Craft, for example, spent the Sky High Gardens portion 
of the tour grilling the growers on the finer points of marijuana cultivation.

Avery, the concierge, said she joined the tour at Sky High Gardens to 
educate herself and see a cannabis producer firsthand. She said she 
often gets questions about cannabis from guests and wants to have 
accurate information for them.

Throughout the tour, Nobles spoke with authority about complicated 
state Liquor Control Board rules and legislation working its way 
through the statehouse. He ably summarized a rather technical 
explanation of marijuana-lab tests.

Gordon said the company's clientele is mostly 30- to 60-year-old 
professionals. Kush tours are designed to feel like a vineyard visit, 
where you "meet people in the fields."

Said Gordon: "You leave feeling good about wine. That's what we're 
trying to do with cannabis."

Wine as a model

The marijuana industry encourages the comparison to wine, a 
culturally accepted luxury good. The Washington State Wine Commission 
estimates wine tourism as a $1 billion industry in the state. Some in 
the pot industry see that as the model.

Longtime medical-cannabis grower Alex Cooley is developing his 
Solstice brand for the recreational market. Cooley sees low-end 
cannabis' analog as beer, concentrates as spirits and top-shelf 
cannabis as fine wine.

"We personally identify Solstice with wine," he said. "More romance, 
more about the region, more tannins and terroir - that passion that 
comes into it."

Joby Sewell, a grower at AuricAG in Sodo, said a self-appointed 
marijuana bourgeoise chasing flavor profiles and particular kinds of 
highs is developing.

"Connoisseurs are sprouting up," said Sewell, who left his job as a 
wine-sales representative to help found the grow operation.

Cooley said the trope of an elderly aficionado swirling a glass of 
wine translates to pot.

"Talk to me in 30 to 40 years: You'll see me swirling a glass jar (of 
marijuana) and saying, 'Oh my god, this is an amazing OG Kush: I can 
smell the region.' "

Josh McDonald of the Washington Wine Institute said he doesn't see 
marijuana competing with wine.

"They're basically just being born as an industry in the state of 
Washington, whereas we've been planting grapes for several decades 
and making wines for 30 or 40 years," said McDonald. "People come to 
Washington to go to wineries and experience it. I don't know if 
they'll do that for marijuana."

Some in the pot industry see the wine comparison as a stretch, too. 
Greg James, who publishes industry magazine Marijuana Venture, said 
the pot market is too focused on potency.

"Robert Parker doesn't drink wine to get drunk," said James, 
referring to the famous wine critic.

He also said the pot industry suffers from the disorganization that 
comes with birth on the black market. "Anyone can invent a strain," 
said James. "There's no one to verify what that actually is."

Cannabis researcher Brad Douglass, the scientific director at The 
Werc Shop, a state-approved testing lab, said as the industry's 
sophistication grows, so will consumers' tastes.

His company tests for terpenes, compounds in marijuana (and also 
found in wine) that create flavor profiles. Aggregated terpene data, 
he said, can "fingerprint" strains. So far his company has identified 
about 100 strains, which could provide the industry a standard akin 
to heredity for wine varietals.

Douglass believes the pot industry needs sommelier-like education to 
create the luxury brands you see in wine.

"You can push that all you want, but it would fall on deaf noses, so 
to speak," said Douglass.

Taking small steps

Growers say regulations would need to change for tourism to take off, too.

"You can't smoke at the farm. It's pretty boring after a little 
while. You can't touch the plants," said Jeremy Moberg, who runs 
CannaSol Farms, an outdoor grow in Okanogan County. "I'm having a 
hard time seeing the whole tourism thing." How could it work? "You're 
going to have to have retail at the farms to make tourism work," said 
Moberg, adding that Amsterdam-esque coffee shops would help, too.

In Seattle, City Attorney Pete Holmes has been pushing lawmakers for 
marijuana-vapor lounges since before pot stores opened, but no 
proposal has materialized.

For now, though, pot tourism is taking small steps: Kush Tourism 
plans to distribute to hotels 120,000 tourism-map brochures with 
information on the difference between recreational stores and medical 
dispensaries. Avery, who is the vice president of the Seattle Hotel 
Concierge Association, plans to share what she learned with her 
fellow concierges at her organization's next meeting.

"It's a niche market. It's not a massive boom," said Kush Tourism's 
Gordon. Not yet, anyway.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom