By Barbara Barrielle
The women on this Wine and Weed Symposium panel are unmistakably movers and shakers of the cannabis community. They approach the responsible marketing and consumption of cannabis as professionals, either migrating from wine and related business to weed and adding this new frontier to their already busy wine life or transitioning completely.
Learn from them and aspire to take the calculated risks that they have chosen in their lives. Challenges from an ever-changing regulatory landscape to marketing hurdles to societal pressures may have been hindrances in their professional choices but these women have persevered and are achieving both professional success and personal happiness in their chosen paths.
Rachel Burkons is the founder, with her chef brother Holden Jagger, of Altered Plates, a cannabis culinary experience. She has segued from working in wine and spirits publishing at The Tasting Panel Magazine and SOMM Journal to being cannabis editor at the latter. Burkons loves the excitement of cannabis’ new frontier. “The cannabis industry definitely offers a lot of excitement and opportunity in a way that is different than the classic wine and spirits industry. So much of what we talk about in wine is rooted in history: Umpteenth-generation winemakers, storied vintages, traditional techniques, ancient vines, and long-tended terroir,” says Burkons.
“In contrast, the cannabis industry is moving forward at a breakneck pace, from new technologies that birth new products and categories, to studies exploring cannabinoids and terpenes and our very own endocannabinoid systems,” she continues. With two kids in the cannabis business, her parents are quite proud and think it’s cool to tell their friends about the business. Burkons says her “a-ha” moment came at a cannabis education dinner at the legendary James Beard House, a “bit of a seal of approval from the hospitality business.”
Liz Gehl is the head of an executive recruiting firm for the cannabis and adult beverage industries so she remains in the wine business while expanding into cannabis. Her company specializes in creating teams that powerfully lead their companies through emerging and changing business and legal environments.
Getting into the cannabis business is exciting for Gehl, but as she says, “the reactions (from others) tend to be mixed, you can always count on a few stoner jokes but those who have been in my personal circle aren’t too surprised. Many have said thank you for ‘being brave’ and showing the level of professionalism that does exist in this industry,” she says.
“My ‘a-ha’ moment is that I am finally fully living and speaking my truth. I no longer have to hide my passion for the benefits of the cannabis plant for fear of judgement in my career,” Gehl continues. “It feels like 200 lb. gorilla has been taken off my shoulders!”
Stephanie Honig also continues to straddle the wine and cannabis worlds. After growing up between Pennsylvania and Argentina, studying in Florida and Europe, she earned her WSET and went to work in positions at Rudd Winery and Cliquot, Inc. and taught wine classes at the French Culinary Institute and Florida International University, her alma mater.
Since marrying Michael Honig in 2006, Stephanie has traveled the world promoting the Honig wine brand and leading their public relations. Honig has served in position with the Napa Valley Vintners and is a founding board member of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association.
“When I tell family and friends I am involved in the cannabis industry they laugh since I have never been a consumer myself. Unlike other vintners, I believe that the cannabis industry is an excellent complement to the wine industry. Once I explain why I’m an advocate, they stop laughing a little,” says Honig.
“I find cannabis and wine extremely exciting and stimulating. I continue to be excited to go to work every day. The industries have a lot in common. They both can improve health and quality of life when consumed in moderation, they are both agricultural products and they are both labors of love,” she continues. “Wine is much more a part of my lifestyle than cannabis is right now, however being at the forefront of a brand new industry is exhilarating and, due to current regulations, more challenging.”
Tracy Mason spent years in marketing for the wine business and, given her titles, is clearly an expert on innovation. Terravant, Diageo, Clos du Val, Purple Wine & Spirits have counted on her marketing insight for their adult beverage lines which is what she brings to CannaCraft after co-founding the luxury cannabis product line, House of Saka.
“Having successfully operated in a highly regulated environment for my entire career, I thought I was aptly prepared for cannabis,” says Mason. “But the truth is, you’re never prepared because the rules surrounding the category change constantly – often without warning – and most times without any clear understanding as to why. So, you’ve got to be super nimble and uber creative. That’s what I love most, it is a major challenge, and I’ve never been one to back down to a challenge.”
“The biggest ‘a-ha’ was learning just how little of the cannabis industry operates on the legal side of the equation,” she exclaims. “Predictions say that within 5 years, the cannabis industry will be a $5.5B industry and only 37% of that is predicted to be from legal sales. Imagine operating in the wine industry if 63% of wine sold was homemade.”
Karli Warner, like many others, came to cannabis through wine. After working in PR and marketing both for agencies and the global giant, Constellation Brands, she helped co-found Garden Society with Erin Gore, a wine industry peer. As a mom and wife of a cancer survivor, she loves marketing the women’s wellness philosophy behind Garden Society.
“I 100% find my career in cannabis more exciting, stimulating and challenging than my career in wine. A huge part of that is the difference between working for a corporation in an established industry versus working as a founder in a start-up environment – in a newly regulated industry,” says Warner. “Although, I will say my career in wine was more luxurious – haha! We are just barely scratching the surface of what the cannabis industry will become, and to be on the ground floor of the regulated market has been both the most rewarding and most challenging endeavor I’ve undertaken.”
“My biggest a-ha moment has really been the incredible surge of confidence I’ve gained in being an entrepreneur, and working with my partner, Erin Gore,” continues Warner. “Working with a founding partner who has a shared vision and goal, and who believes in my abilities, has helped to shape my leadership and confidence in a life changing way. I want Garden Society to be a global brand that serves women all over, helping them to find permission within themselves to try and enjoy cannabis to make their lives more happy and full. I hope that through our work in cannabis with Garden Society, we can help to shape a transparent, diverse and equitable industry.”