Champelli Trees

A legacy underground grower returns to San Francisco to stage a cannabis comeback.
Champelli
Courtesy of Champelli

San Francisco is a city that has brought the world a heady combination of both cannabis culture and cannabis flowers. Long before California enacted the world’s first medical marijuana laws in 1996, outlaws (later called activists) in the City by the Bay were growing weed. A longtime bastion of rulebreakers and eccentrics of all kinds, San Francisco is where a young Joe Rutherford first learned to grow weed through a skylight in the pantry of his family’s Bernal Heights home. Today, he’s better known as Champelli, named for the strain he grew and popularized in the ’90s. The smoke circle is small, the hash is potent, and we’re in San Francisco when Champelli explains how he’s back in town after an almost decade-long hiatus spent evading the law abroad. He’s rebuilding his brand and, along with Neil Dellacava of Chronic Culture, hosting a dinner the next day that includes the most decadent trend in weed smoking: 2 grams of flower and .5 grams of rosin burning all at once, hash holes.

“Weed’s always kind of been making something out of nothing,” Champelli says. “We grow a plant and now, all of a sudden, you could be getting some money for the plant or helping some people out with their condition. It’s just kind of this gift in a way.” 

Whether it’s in language, style, design, technology, or activism, many of the world’s-most impactful creations (and types of cannabis) were born in garages in the San Francisco Bay Area. Champelli’s brand includes his history producing music with Bay Area legends like Mac Dre who included him in a shout-out in his 2004 track “She Neva Seen.”

She only sees me, with European keys
She only sees me, with woodgrain Sprees
She only sees me, with Champelli trees
She only sees me, having hella G’s

Mac Dre and other artists rapped about Champelli the weed, essentially branding and marketing “cannabis as it was legal in a sense through the music,” Champelli explains. 

When I ask Champelli, or Pelli, to start from the beginning he takes me back to his earliest weedy memories. Lighting a joint of one of his newest flower offerings, Cassis, at a bar table across from Dellacava he remembers being in his older brother’s Amsterdam coffeeshop: the sounds of Bob Marley, the smell of hashish smoke, the vision of a closet filled with bales of black Lebanese hash staked to the ceiling. 

The youngest of five brothers (there’s a 15-year gap between himself and his closest older brother), Champelli spent time as a child in his brother’s spot in Amsterdam. His parents are both from Long Beach, but the family lived in Mexico in the ’60s, where his dad worked as an artist and a painter. By the time of the Vietnam War, his family ended up in Spain, buying an olive mill from the 1800s with 400 olive trees in the mountains of southern Spain. Champelli was born in Spain and ended up in San Francisco as a young child with his mom after his parents separated. 

He was 7 when he experienced the Amsterdam coffeeshop. He was in middle school when his older brother started growing weed in that San Francisco skylight filled with dishes, climbing cats, and other plants. Middle school is also when he first sold some cannabis leaves and rolled up a smoke with his friends. By that time he was already keen to smoke, puffing on oregano rolled up in binder paper and finding yarrow blossoms growing up in the hills. He started growing in that skylight, but was also teaching himself through grow books and High Times Magazine. He dropped out of high school his junior year, 1991, and got an apartment with a friend.

“I did my first foray into indoor in ’91 and I made my first $10,000,” he says, explaining that his friend DK used to have a strain called The Tex that was red and brown and filled with seeds and still going for $6,000 a pound because of how amazing it was as a smoke. DK would buy the seeds back for more weed, but Champelli kept some and grew them out. 

Back then, he had long hair and a pitbull that would pull him around on a skateboard. He became one of the San Francisco characters who sold cannabis. The scene included T-shirts and bumper stickers that said “support your local weed dealer” and Champelli mixed with people like marijuana activist and outlaw Dennis Peron, selling him weed at the Castro Buyers Club on Market Street. 

“I grew up around a lot of older kind of smuggler, dealer types,” Champelli explains of his success as a grower. “There was all these older hippie guys that just moved tons of different weed from all over the world, basically, whether it was Thai or Colombian or Mexican. And they were big fans of my weed.”  

By the mid ’90s, Champelli made a hip hop compilation. He was also shepherding a strain called Champagne.

“The streets ended up naming me Champelli as an evolution of the name Champagne because I always had the strain and I was known for this strain,” he says. “When I first got it, I was just buying it by the pound and then I got seeds of it.”

Champagne, aka Champelli, is a landrace cross of Burmese and Thai, he explains. It’s also the name Champelli gave to the recording company he started in the ’90s.

The strains Champelli is showcasing at the paired dinner the next evening, Cassis, Super Gremlin, and the ultra-popular Lemon Cherry Gelato, are grown through his partnerships with cultivators. In 2022, Champelli is a cannabis curator. He curates cannabis genetics and the taste profiles in the hash holes by pairing the flavors of flower and rosin, Dellacava explains.

“It’s a bit of a game of chess,” Dellacava says of the business model. “But in my opinion I’d rather play a game of chess than own the whole board. Because personally, I’ve owned the whole board and I’m in a lot of debt from the board.” 

“Think of it as the new model now, essentially which is if you look at Amazon, or you look at Uber or you look at Airbnb, they’re just the conduit or the vehicle so I’m trying to kind of be that,” Champelli says. 

Champelli’s past forced him to leave the country running from a RICO case, serve time for a federal cannabis charge, and work his way back up in weed. He was on probation and working as a cook when he first met Berner, the San Francisco rapper that built the strain Girl Scout Cookies, into the global Cookies brand. Back in Champelli’s heyday it was dangerous to put yourself out there publicly. Champelli was never branded in mylar bags with a logo. It also never included a clothing line before, but times have changed and he’s now operating in a legal adult-use cannabis marketplace. 

Chronic Culture Presents

The next evening at Chronic Culture starts with a bruschetta appetizer and smoking in the upstairs lounge area. Then the party of around 40 people heads downstairs to a large banquet table for a 5-course Italian dinner. There’s smoking even before the salad is served and in between courses the hash holes come out. Hash holes are large joints with hash rosin straight down the middle. The concept’s not new, but the name is (they’re also called donuts) and, at this point, they are a certifiable cannabis culture phenomenon. 

Photo by Ellen Holland

Hash holes are status symbols in heady weed circles and, like cigars, have branded bands around the base. I learn some hash hole smoking tips before puffing on a few in between bites of cacio e pepe topped with an eggplant crisp. It’s best to hold them more upright, so the hash burns straight through the center and creates that ring of ash around the hole created by the concentrate. If you hold hash holes downwards the rosin can rush to the front and ruin the consistent burn. It’s also best to not ash hash holes as much as a regular joint. It keeps the smoke cooler, Champelli explains.

Champelli
Photo by Milos Cam-Robb

The dinner is a smoky celebration and Champelli doesn’t say too much to the group as a whole. Dellacava steps in to coordinate the announcements as Champelli, wearing dark sunglasses and an all black outfit, mingles with guests and lets the weed speak for itself.

Champelli
Courtesy of Chronic Culture

The pesce al cartoccio, Italian for fish in a packet, comes with a piece of crispy kale on the side. The kale is topped with cannabis smoked salt, hickory wood paired with Cassis, a Gusher Pie crossed with Gelatti and a third unknown strain. The tight dense buds are a shade of deep purple and have a layered aroma and flavor of dark, tangy berries dipped in gasoline. In 2020, Complex Magazine named Cassis one of the “best weeds to smoke since NYC legalized.” At the Chronic Culture dinner an eighth of it was combined with hickory to smoke the salt. The aim in pairing the Cassis-infused salt with the crispy kale, was to replicate the sort of flavors of a salty, crispy fish skin chef Xochitl Segura says before taking the salt around the table for an optional second seasoning. My dinner friends take pinches of salt alone. I puff on another hash hole and save room for the tiramisu. Champelli’s not Italian, but the Italian-themed dinner (complete with Cassis packaged to adopt the look of the Italian sparkling water S.Pellegrino) kicks off a successful cannabis comeback. Maybe the next dinner, he says, will also include olives.

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