At the auspicious time of 4:20 p.m. on April 20, 2023 I’m in a state of supreme zen, floating on my back within a mineral pool heated by underground hot springs to 85° F. With my shades pointed upwards at the warm springtime sun, I feel absolutely euphoric as tension dissolves from my body. It’s only in the absence of the tightness and stress I’ve been holding that I begin to feel the impact of the weight I’ve carried with me on the drive from Oakland all the way to the top of the Napa Valley. This 4/20, I’m incorporating the cannabis plant as one element of a full holistic jump towards joy. A new company, Cannescape, is hosting an overnight event in wine country that spotlights the best of California’s famed agricultural bounty and cannabis is on the carte du jour.
While weed-infused dinners are not uncommon in the Golden State, their grey area legality in terms of cannabis consumption means they are often hosted at private homes or event spaces. Founded by San Francisco-based travel writer Chelsea Davis, Cannescape is breaking boundaries in the tourism industry by pairing cannabis cuisine with legendary hotel properties. Her first event, held in February, took place at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco, a spot that’s hosted rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Her second event took place on 4/20 at Dr. Wilkinson’s resort in Calistoga, an area known for its mineral pools and volcanic mud baths. When we speak prior to the 4/20 event, Davis is on the heels of a press trip to a luxury hotel in Fiji.
“I have a good sense of what I appreciate as a traveler and when I’m going to a property or a great dinner,” Davis says. “I feel like my background in writing about hospitality, travel experiences, and great dinner events has really helped in terms of planning these events.”
Upon arriving in Calistoga and soaking in the pool, I head to my hotel room to prepare for the Cannescape dinner. I grew up in Solano County, which borders Napa County, and have fond childhood memories of spending time with my mom and brother in Calistoga. In fact, the first time I stayed at Dr. Wilkinson’s was with my mom a few years back. Since then the hotel, which was originally founded in 1952, has undergone a renovation. The property kept its emblematic neon sign and the pools are the same, but it now has a midcentury modern look designed to appeal to a younger demographic.
Out front on the city’s main street under the neon there’s another sign reading, “Where wellness meets happiness.” On the property are directional makers pointing to “detox” and “retox.” Once the producer of crops like walnuts and prunes, the Napa Valley is now known as one of the most famous wine producing areas in the world. Calistoga fully embraces its place within the iconic wine growing region, but it’s an unusual place to host a cannabis event as the city does not allow commercial cannabis cultivation or adult-use dispensaries.
“Obviously there are a lot of people who are against [cannabis], who are kind of very set in their ways. They think it’s going to tarnish Napa Valley’s reputation,” Davis says of hosting a weed event in wine country. “There’s a lot of push and pull, but I think ultimately when I was trying to figure out a company idea that was also relevant and something that people were interested in, I was betting on this only continuing to grow in terms of a feasible tourism industry.”
The idea for Cannescape was sparked through Davis’s background in tourism and travel, more specifically her social media work for the Napa Valley Cannabis Association.
“Napa is known for its incredible wine experiences, beautiful vineyards, fine dining, very luxurious experiences, but they also want to cater to a younger demographic and this demographic wants more experiences,” Davis says. “So not just fine wine, but obviously something that makes California unique is the fact that cannabis is legal.”
California cannabis law dictates that only licensed dispensaries can sell THC infused-food and beverages. To work around this restriction, the dinner at Dr. Wilkinson’s is composed of CBD-infused dishes and does not include smoking.
“Most hotels have rules against smoking and that’s just an extra layer of complications that I’m trying to avoid right now,” Davis explains.
Upon heading to the glass-enclosed event space where the CBD dinner will be held, I realize I’m still a bit early and join in a yoga class that’s happening in the grassy area in front of the hotel lobby. The Cannescape overnight is happening in conjunction with Calistoga Wellness Week and I’m taking it all in. After forming what feels like an instant friendship with another guest attending the dinner, we join in another one of the Wellness Week activities and make scented candles together. Next we head to the six-course meal, which is being presented by a connection Davis made through her writing, chef Solomon Johnson. Johnson won the fourth episode of Chopped 420, a cannabis cooking competition produced by the Food Network. After he and his business partner chef Michael Woods started the Pan-African take-out restaurant, the Bussdown, out of an Oakland ghost kitchen, they opened OKO, a restaurant located in Oakland’s famed Tribune Tower. When I speak to Johnson he’s in his home state of Maryland where he is working to open a restaurant within a food hall.
“I’m not a cannabis chef and I try to remind everyone that, you know, I am just a chef who loves cannabis,” Johnson says. “I look at it like any other ingredient in my pantry.”
Johnson sees himself as an advocate of plant medicine. Microdosing is a key concept behind his CBD dinner.
“We’re going to make sure everyone is mindful of their consumption…Too much of anything is a bad thing obviously,” he says. “Being mindful and intentional about how you medicate, why you medicate, and when is an important part of growth as a cannabis consumer.”
The dinner event begins with a presentation from some of the event sponsors. That includes author and certified sommelier Jamie Evans, the Herb Somm, speaking about cannabis and wine pairings. During her presentation Evans passes around wine glasses filled with different botanicals, including cannabis, to showcase terpenes—aromatic elements present in both cannabis and wine that contribute to their taste. Stephanie Honig, board president of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association, speaks to the group about her experience promoting cannabis in a region known for wine. Honig is also the director of sales and communication for her family’s business, Honig Vineyard and Winery.
“We all want the best thing for Napa,” Honig tells me in a phone call prior to the 4/20 event. “We’re third generation, our family business, and have four kids and want Napa to be successful and valuable and prosperous in the future obviously, but we just disagree on what that looks like. For some vintners or some Napa residents it’s really about sticking to wine exclusively. To me it’s looking at, you know, there is no other industry that doesn’t look at consumer trends and adapt to some extent.”
Most of the people who visit Napa Valley are Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, Honig explains, noting that the region needs to look towards attracting a younger demographic in order to remain successful.
“We’re losing [young tourists], we’re losing them to places like Mendocino and Lake County where they can go and have an experience of going to a winery, but also going to a brewery and having great food and going to a cannabis garden and having a diverse experience,” Honig says. “Napa has had double digit success for the last 20-30 years and it’s amazing, but I don’t believe in hanging your hat on that. I think you really just need to move forward and look at what’s next.”
During the 4/20 event Honig says she believes low-dose cannabis beverages can be an alternative or additive to alcoholic beverages. The Cannescape dinner reinforced this idea by beginning with non-alcoholic cannabis aperitifs from Artet. Next, myself and the other diners jumped into Johnson’s meal. Each course incorporated 10.5 mg of CBD, but we were all also offered a side dish containing 30 mg of THC-infused avocado oil to add to our dishes as we pleased. Highlights of the dinner included a black bean soup with a tempura cannabis leaf crisp and a crab tart with maltaise sauce and caviar. The whole experience felt decadent and by the end most of the dinners were smiling and sedated by the effects of the CBD.
“Think about [CBD] not being psychoactive, but being more relaxing, it’s a notable difference and I think that’s part of the education process,” Johnson says. “A lot of people at this dinner may be first timers and they may not have experienced the quote unquote ‘medicated’ feeling so I think it’s great. It’s like the kiddie pool, you know what I mean?”
Johnson says participating in dinners like the one hosted by Cannescape are a “powerful social experience” that should include educating diners so they can break down the stigmas associated with cannabis. It’s also a chance to boost tourism dollars in the local economy.
“Having this opportunity to work with so many iconic spaces is fueling the fire in a way that we would not have been able to do on our own had we been trying to provide this service without them. But it’s also a symbiotic relationship in the sense that these spaces don’t always get booked out,” Johnson says. “Whether people want to admit it or not we are in an economic crisis where people are very smart with their money in the Bay Area just in general.”
After the dinner, I part ways with cannabis entrepreneur and activist Amber Senter whose company Landrace Origins provided the coffee during the next morning’s two-course CBD-infused breakfast. Senter spent her 4/20 holiday getting a massage at the resort’s spa and was headed to Washington, D.C. the next day for the National Cannabis Festival. We both agreed that the Cannescape event was one of the classiest 4/20s we’ve ever experienced. “Wellness” is a buzzword that gets thrown around often in both the cannabis and travel industries, but the magic point of ultimate relaxation arrives when you combine cannabinoids with other healthy habits like eating fresh food, participating in physical activities like yoga or taking in the waters of natural mineral springs.
“We’re premiering a new section of cannabis tourism which includes fine dining with travel and cannabis-infused dining,” Davis says.