The first time I met Flow Kana founder Michael Steinmetz, it was September of 2015. We rendezvoused at a Dogpatch coffee shop because his startup's office was too tiny to host guests. He spoke rapidly and breathlessly (as South Americans tend to do) not just about his brand (as startup CEOs tend to do) but about a culture he envisioned, where cannabis could subsidize California's small farmer ecosystem and usher in a new era that would be "friendlier, giddier, and a little more tolerant." At the end of our hour-long conversation, I sent him an email: "I don't know whether to write a story or to ask you for a job."
I was serious-not-serious—after all, 7x7 keeps me plenty busy. But Steinmetz—and his team at Flow Kana, as I have come to find out—has the kind of childlike exuberance that, when combined with real brains and bona fides (he's a former NASA engineer and investment banker), makes everyone want to jump in and be part of his Big Idea. Only, back in 2015, I didn't know how big it was. The company that began as a boutique delivery service, peddling craft cannabis grown sustainably under the Northern California sun, now seems poised to be the biggest thing to come out the Green Rush. (Guess I should have asked for that job—I'd have worked for shares.)
Last week, just days before marijuana's high holiday, I was invited to spend the afternoon—along with Steinmetz and his wife and cofounder, the equally ebullient Flavia Cassani—at Flow Cannabis Institute, the San Francisco–based couple's new home and, soon to be, the world's premier marijuana education, resource, and central processing center. In an email from Flow Kana's PR team, the place was billed as the future Esalen of cannabis.
Having been to a pot farm or two in the far reaches of Mendocino County, I had a notion of what to expect: a too-long dirt road hemmed in by the scruffy landscape common in these secret inland parts; an eventual metal gate with a supersize deadbolt and a lock whose code somehow employs the digits 4-2-0; a humble house; some hippie-dippie lawn art. But as we exited off the 101 in Redwood Valley (between Ukiah and Willits) and drove just a couple miles down the (paved) road to the Institute, it dawned on me that, not only were we not in BFE, this was no pot farm. This was to be Willy Wonka's Weed Factory.
Purchased for a song (about $3.5 million), Flow Kana's 80 acres were once home to the Fetzer Family Winery, and the land is everything you'd want from a Wine Country (or Weed Country) retreat. Its overgrown and undulating terrain blooms with wildflowers, redwoods, and live oaks; the gushing creek has water clear enough to bathe in. The elegant white house, which will eventually be a bed and breakfast, has a swimming pool and a garden pergola primed for brunch and mimosas; across the way is the future spa, where the treatment room windows peek out upon private slices of lushly forested creek. (Anyone for a marijuana-infused massage?) There is a cathedral-ceilinged barn just waiting to host fairytale weddings someday, and even the falling-down Prohibition-era Big Dog Saloon, which, despite its current state in romantic shambles, is ready to be swept of its cobwebs and revived as a cannabis tasting room, party place, and Instagram selfie opp.
But all of this prettiness is just the icing on a rather large medicated cake. Also on the land is 85,000 square feet of existing industrial space—massive empty warehouses already fitted with enough power (and secure, vault-style doors) to accommodate the tens of thousands of pounds of weed Steinmetz expects to process here in the first year alone, beginning with the crop's harvest season this fall.
If it sounds massive, it is. By the end of the tour, my jaw was bumping up against the rain boots that had been provided for me, and Steinmetz and Cassani were both beaming, themselves still giddy by the scale and insanity of it all. But, lest you think this is Corporate Weed in the making, the project is actually designed with something pretty wholesome at heart.
As concerns mount that legalization will open the floodgates for poor quality pot (read: toxic chemical–laden buds grown by just anybody with potentially hazardous environmental practices), responsible small farmers, meanwhile, many of whom subsidize their more mainstream crops by growing herb, are losing sleep wondering how they'll survive once Big Weed (from the makers of Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and Big Ag) does arrive. The answer to these problems, Steinmetz believes, is right here at the Institute. His plan: To give independent farmers (who are already growing the kind of clean, craft flowers we're accustomed to ordering for delivery in SF and the East Bay) the tools to operate more professionally and efficiently so they can compete with the aforementioned Biggies—and just maybe, eventually, collectively become a Big Guy themselves.
"Just as small coffee farmers bring their coffee beans to a centralized facility to be dried, roasted, processed and packaged at scale, the Flow Cannabis Institute will provide a centralized location for small, independent cannabis farmers to test, dry, cure, trim, process, package, manufacture and distribute their harvest at a massive scale," Steinmetz said in a press release. By bringing the entire supply chain together on this bucolic plot of Mendo land, Flow Kana aims to create a hyper-efficient cannabis campus that is worlds apart from the clandestine, mom-and-pop farms of yore. If Steinmetz and Cassani pull it off, the Institute may well become the gold standard for cannabis agriculture around the world. If they don't? Well, we'll all have a lot of fun frolicking through the cannabis demo garden and sampling the goods at Big Dog while it lasts. (While the B&B and spa will likely not open for a few more years, parties for customers, the community, and industry partners are penciled in on the calendar this fall.)
But as I walk around the property, where the charming stone turrets and beautifully untamed land and abandoned industrial buildings seem to have been sitting in wait for just this moment and purpose, something tells me that this couple, with a kind of trippy light around them, are about to be seriously high on life.