In the heart of California's esteemed wine country lies Sonoma Hills Farm, where cannabis and hospitality intertwine.
Led by head grower Aaron Keefer, a former culinary gardener for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and The French Laundry, the farm combines cannabis cultivation with fragrant herbs, beautiful flowers, and fresh vegetables, bridging the worlds of fine dining and cannabis.
With weed, produce, and a wood-fired kitchen all in one place, it's the perfect setting for connection and creativity.
Melding culinary arts and cannabis cultivation
Keefer's journey to Sonoma Hills Farm was influenced by his passion for cannabis and the culinary arts. He was first exposed to cannabis cultivation at 15 and spent the following years honing his knowledge for growing it.
"When you taste it, you realize we co-evolve with these plants, and if it tastes better, it is better."— Aaron Keefer, Vice President of Cannabis Cultivation and Production at Sonoma Hills Farm
His experience in Michelin-starred restaurants came after he graduated culinary school, "I attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. At that point, everything I was cooking with was sourced from the Bay Area. I decided to pay a visit, and once I arrived here, I knew I would never leave. It's simply the best place to be," he shared.
While Keefer had been growing cannabis since he was 15, he didn't start consuming it until he reached his 20s, which is also when he began incorporating cannabis into his culinary creations.
"The experience that I bring from the culinary side, particularly from my time in three-star Michelin restaurants, is that you're pursuing one thing: flavor," he said. "Even if the appearance is a little unconventional, you're pursuing the actual flavor because that's where the magic lies. When you taste it, you realize we co-evolve with these plants, and if it tastes better, it is better."
Sonoma Hills Farm currently hosts private dinners paired with its sun-grown craft cannabis. There, you can taste decadent creations from Michelin-star chefs serving dishes made from organic vegetables grown right on the farm.
But instead of mixing the cannabis directly into the food — which can be tricky with exact dosing and timing — Keefer's approach is to create a unique journey of flavors and sensations. He pairs different cannabis strains with each course, starting with lighter strains for appetizers and moving on to heavier ones for the main dishes. The intention is to reach a balance of flavors alongside a gradual high, and when it comes to partaking during the meal, guests can choose their own adventure.
Keefer provides individual pipes and pre-filled Zenco cups filled with rosin, which adds a touch of abundance and sophistication to the entire experience.
As he combines cannabis with culinary excellence, Keefer envisions the farm as a kind of playground for chefs and enthusiasts. He dreams of having cannabis and wine pairings in the future, taking the dining event to a whole new level, though regulations are holding back those plans for now.
How Sonoma Hills Farm's unique environment affects the cannabis
At the farm, the concept of terroir, often associated with wine, plays a vital role in the cultivation of its cannabis and the expression of flavor. Terroir encompasses the distinct environmental factors that shape a specific growing region, resulting in unique strain outcomes between regions and from one season to the next.
“We're committed to preserving that flavor all the way through,” said Keefer, “Here, the wind really works the plant over, pushing out more exudates, terpenes, and oils. Then, our cool soil keeps those terpenes locked in, and we never really experience temperatures hot enough to lose that flavor. It's a true representation of 'Ocean Grown.'"
The influence of ocean winds and regular fog creates a distinct seasonal terroir at Sonoma Hills. While challenges like elevated humidity are present, and why the farmers are extremely vigilant in selecting mold-resistant cultivars, they still contribute to nurturing robust terpenes and intricate flavors from the cannabis plants.