This past weekend, farmers, family, and friends came together to celebrate the birthday of one of NorCal's most important cannabis visionaries.
“I still remember that first day we met at Area 101,” Swami says to me as I give him a big birthday hug. I've just arrived at Sonoma Hills Farm outside of Petaluma, California for his 80th birthday party and the mood is buzzing on many levels.
For those unacquainted with Swami Chaitanya, he was born William Winans in New Jersey in the early 1940s. He initially pursued academic life on the east coast but was called to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. From early experiences growing weed on Telegraph Hill to later spiritual awakenings that inspired him to live in South America, Europe, and India, his intellectual background and varied life experiences come together in a perspective on life and an approach to cannabis cultivation that is unlike any you will ever encounter.
Swami's recollection of our meeting years ago at Area 101 immediately puts me in nostalgia mode. I, too, remember the first time we met... It was a rainy February day in Northern California and I had hopped in my car to meet an elite group of trailblazing growers, hash makers, and entrepreneurs in the Emerald Triangle. I drove up the 101 from San Francisco and made my way north through Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Cloverdale — I figured I must be getting close to the meet up spot (an uninformed assumption by me, a recently relocated East Coast transplant).
As I continued my drive, I noticed the trees getting thicker and the twists and turns of the road getting more intense. My car leaned out around every corner as I tried to hug the mountainside and maintain highway speed while pickup trucks whizzed past me with uncanny ease. To my left, alongside the highway, I saw the Russian River teeming with newly fallen rain water. Would the water breach the riverbanks, flood the road, and mess up my plans for the day? A glance over at my GPS shook me out of imagining this nightmare scenario. I still had almost two more hours to drive…
When I finally arrived at Area 101, I was met with smiling faces, clouds of smoke, and an unexpected family style feast. For some background, Area 101 is an infamous cultural hub known for not only hosting the early iterations of the Emerald Cup, but also countless musical happenings and events that bring the local community out of their remote hillside cannabis farms for a bit of fun.
That day marked my first time meeting Tim Blake, founder of the Emerald Cup, and his daughter, Taylor, alongside hash-making pioneer Frenchy Cannoli and boutique genetics master Leo Stone from Aficionado Estates, among others. But no relationship born that day has been stronger, closer, or more heartfelt than the one I am blessed to share with Swami and Nikki. All it takes is one overnight stay at Turtle Creek, the sprawling ranch in the Mendocino forest where they run their artisanal cannabis brand, Swami Select, to know you are in the presence of something truly special. So when I received the gracious invite to celebrate Swami on his 80th birthday, it was an invitation I could not refuse.
Much like that first encounter at Area 101 years ago, Swami's birthday was full of good food, great smoke, and countless cannabis legends. Conversations bounced from topic to topic, but always contained shared stories of how we came to know Swami. From pioneering Burning Man founders to OG Grateful Dead scenesters, to newer friends that Swami and Nikki have welcomed into their world over the last couple of decades in the weed business, everyone had something unique and compelling to share about their connection to the pair.
I took a beat to enjoy the farm's surroundings: long grass blowing in the wind, dozens of cows spotting the hillside, and farm-covered lush green land as far as the eye could see. Just as my mind began to wander, Nikki bounded up to me with a smile on her face. “Noah, it's so nice that you're here,” she said, giving me a signature Nikki embrace. We caught up for a bit and she gave me the rundown on the plans for the day.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere an extra special glistening pink Pez candy appeared. I gladly chewed it down with abandon. I watched as Nikki waltzed around the party shaking hands, giving hugs, sharing laughs and making sure everyone was having a great time.
Nikki's effusive energy was mirrored by the crowd of assembled guests who were enjoying themselves in and around the old barn on the farm grounds that had been converted into a vintage-vibey event space. In the side room of the barn was a bar and small lounge area with old, comfy chairs. This nook became the de facto rolling station and hang spot where Swami was perched, rolling up some of his signature fatties. Of course, he was not alone. Getting enough joints rolled for this crew of smokers was a task that required a few sets of hands. The joints on deck for the party were all filled up with some classic “Mendo Blendo” – a light-hearted term used to describe a mix of fresh strains pulled from everyone's personal stash then blended and ground together for a more nuanced smoke. Swami's birthday blend consisted of Raspberry Parfait, Sphinx OG, Magic Melon, and Orange Turbo.
“Did you look behind that curtain?” Swami asked me as he tamped his weed into the robust joint he held in his hands. Across the room, I saw dark fabric covering the back wall, and I slowly drew aside the soft, velvety curtain to reveal a small window rising up from the floor to just below my knee. Through this glass portal came a glowing amber-red light. “That's Samson the Tortoise's room,” Swami said with a grin, busy putting the finishing touches on his joint. I bent down to see for myself, and sure enough, behind the glass was a huge, elderly tortoise enjoying an afternoon nap under a heat lamp in custom made, tortoise-friendly living quarters attached to the back of the barn.
I contemplated my new tortoise friend for a moment, but my attention was soon grabbed by a quick whiff of what I had come here to enjoy: a Swami joint, rolled by the man himself.
Heading back to the rustic chairs and couches that surrounded the rolling station/coffee table I sat down and waited patiently for a puff. But just as the joint was handed to me, Nikki came in with an announcement that grabbed the attention of everyone in our cipher. “Time to smoke Frenchy's hookah,” she said.
With those words, the back room cleared out as everyone made their way at a stoner's pace to the other side of the barn where Frenchy's high tech hookah was set up for all to enjoy. I finally took a drag on the joint as I strolled through the barn beside Swami, enjoying its fresh, smoky flavor. From his white robe, he pulled out a small green plastic container where he revealed a sticky lump of dark brown hash that looked good enough to eat. “It's some of Frenchy's old headstash,” Swami explained with a smile. He approached the hookah and loaded it up with a huge mound of Frenchy's finest.
The hookah's hoses spread out like octopus tentacles as guests cued up, jockeying for the chance at an early hit. Swami is an iconic joint roller, but he's also an expert at summoning the sacred. After quieting the crowd, he asked that everyone close their eyes in a moment of reflection for Frenchy, who passed away in July of 2019. Frenchy's mastery of hash and continued influence on the best hash makers of today speaks volumes to the elevated precision of his craft. After all, his production methods were refined over years of living around the world in places like Nepal, Pakistan, Morocco, Thailand, and India – a life path that in some ways mirrors Swami's own.
With our heads bowed, Swami completed his remarks and invited everyone, in rotation, to enjoy a puff. The hookah sat in the middle of the table, part centerpiece, part radiating shrine to the spirit of Frenchy and his magic. It was “womanned” by Madame Kimberly Hooks Cannoli and Frenchy's protegé Lena Burns who both made sure that every toke was up to Frenchy's standard. Witnessing Swami lead us in this hash-inspired prayer, surrounded by cannabis legends smoking from Frenchy's hookah, was a moment for the record books. A piece of history never before experienced and never to be repeated in the same way again.
Thank you Swami for your friendship, kindness, intelligence, and generosity. Your 80 years on earth have made it a better place and I am honored to be part of the vibrant world you and Nikki have built over the years. Kudos to you, and as always, thanks for coming through with the super dank weed.