The Future of Sonoma Valley Ag?

Gordenker Ranch transitions from turkeys to cannabis, grapes and pumpkins.

Story Jonah Raskin Photos Steven Krause

 

There isn’t a family in Sonoma Valley that doesn’t have a family tree, though some families have deeper roots than others. The Gordenkers’ family history in Sonoma Valley goes back to 1885, when Olga and Vladimir arrived from Russia, rolled up their shirtsleeves, went to work and didn’t look back.

Family legend has it that one Gordenker made brandy during Prohibition. Other family members were renowned for the turkeys they raised—upward of 40,000 birds at any given time. Until 1998, Gordenker turkey eggs traveled to Italy, Israel and beyond. Not surprisingly, the Gordenkers celebrated Thanksgiving four times a year.

Still other family members excavated shale, known as “Nun’s Canyon Gold,” from the quarry of that name on the property.

The Nun’s Canyon quarry is still in operation, though now there’s a new kind of “gold” on Gordenkers’ land. It’s green, it gets you high and it fetches $500 a pound.

Some Gordenker neighbors don’t like marijuana nearby. They complain about the smell and worry that it will corrupt kids, but no one has confronted any Gordenker about their newest cash crop.

“They don’t have the balls,” one Gordenker says.

The family matriarch, Leonor Gordenker, is 93. The youngest, Paxton Gendall, is just a year old.

Some family members, such as Sylvia Bernard and her daughter, Michele Gendall, don’t have the legendary Gordenker last name, but they have a fierce attachment to the land and to the past. At the same time, they’re future-oriented, and have created space for outsiders to raise livestock, keep beehives, grow row crops and cultivate marijuana, which is new to Gordenkers but has been grown illegally in the Valley since the 1960s.

Are Olga and Vladimir rolling in their graves? That’s a question that Gordenkers have been asking themselves lately.

Michele and her New Zealand-born husband, Tom Gendall—who makes wine at Cline and Jacuzzi—aren’t going into the marijuana business. They’ll leave that to SPARC dispensary CEO Erich Pearson and Joey Ereñeta who are both licensed cannabis professionals. But they want to open a tasting room where they can pour their own cabernet sauvignon from grapes harvested at the vineyard Phil Coturri planted on the ranch years ago. Right now, Tom and Michele—who studied viticulture and enology in New Zealand, where they met in 2008—don’t have the wherewithal for a tasting room. Along with everyone else on the land, they’re in rebuild and regroup mode.

During the October 2017 wildfires, the Gordenkers lost barns, houses, fencing, wells and a fleet of tractors. And Erich Pearson lost most of his marijuana crop, though not his dreams.

“The fires cut through like a knife,” Michele says. Adds husband Tom, “The way the family has worked together after the fires, to ensure everyone gets back on their feet, is humbling.”

Several Gordenker tenants were hit by the fires. Bryan Tedrick, the well-known sculptor, lost his workshop. Gilham Erickson, who makes artisan marble carvings, lost his home. At Daylight Vineyard Management, the fires destroyed Daniel Chavez’ warehouse and equipment.

They’re all getting back on their feet.

In October, Tom Gendall harvested his grapes, while Pearson and Ereñeta harvested their marijuana and helped make pipe dreams come true. Pioneering biodynamic winemaker, vegetable farmer and marijuana cultivator, Mike Benziger knows Sonoma Valley as well, if not better than, anyone.

“The Gordenkers own the last piece of big property in the Valley,” he says. “They’re land rich and money poor. I hope there isn’t family squabbling and dividing it up.”

Benziger adds that Pearson, who grows world-class, biodymanic marijuana on the Gordenker property, “has been a godsend.”

Pearson isn’t the only godsend. The Gordenkers have also made room for Austin and Melinda (“Missy”) Lely. At “Bee-Well Farm,” their cheerfully visible plot right on Highway 12, they cultivate organic vegetables, raise free-range chickens and a herd of cows. This fall, Bee-Well pumpkins were displayed on the corner of Highway 12 and Trinity Road, where fires raged last October.

Recently, a San Francisco TV-station broadcast a story about the Lelys that claimed, “They are doing it all themselves.” In fact, no one on the Gordenker property does “it” alone. Machines and tools go from hand to hand, skills are shared and there are community dinners. Cooperation is the order of the day.

Pearson grows an acre of Demeter-certified marijuana near the back of the property. Demeter certification means that the cannabis is pure and natural and as expertly cultivated as any cannabis in California. There are no contaminates.

Pearson also buys and sells the marijuana that Joey Ereñeta grows at Terra Luna Farms, near the front of the Gordenkers’ property. A veteran pot grower and the lead horticulturalist at Oaksterdam University, Ereñeta calls himself a “perfectionist” and aims for perfect cannabis.

Like Ereñeta and Benziger, Pearson is an apostle for organic, biodynamic cannabis. The two men are the most visible cannabis farmers, pot enthusiasts and pot entrepreneurs in Sonoma Valley, which has a dry climate near perfect for cannabis. County authorities may be hoping the Pearson pot farm model prevails, because large illegal grows on the flanks of the Mayacamas Mountains have done considerable ecological damage.

No one at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which aims to monitor cannabis cultivation, knows how much pot is cultivated in Sonoma, or any of the other 50 counties in a state where marijuana is still in transition from an illegal to a legal market.

Rebecca Forée, the communications manager with CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing at the Department of Food & Agriculture, said in an email, “It is not possible to calculate an exact total for the state, or even by county.”

Besides leasing his one-acre Gordenker plot, Pearson is CEO and president at SPARC, which owns and operates dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol that provide a steady revenue stream.

At first glance, his relationship with the Gordenkers looks like it was made in agricultural heaven. But while the arrangement is mutually beneficial, it didn’t have instant karma written all over it. Some family members were reluctant to climb aboard Pearson’s marijuana wagon, though Sylvia Bernard, who spent time in the counterculture, says, “I wanted marijuana on our property for a long time.”

When Pearson showed up with cash, eager to lease land and grow cannabis, it was a no-brainer for Bernard. Pearson didn’t look and act like a pothead and he told good stories.

“From the time I was in middle school in Indiana, I had a landscape business and mowed lawns,” Pearson says. “I grew marijuana, too, though my mother threw away my first crop. Now she says, ‘You’ve gone from cutting grass to growing grass.’” He adds, “My mother has bailed me out of jail.”

Indeed, like many people who cultivated cannabis before it was legal, Pearson has been arrested and placed behind bars, although the state of California now allows local district attorneys to expunge some of those records.

For Sylvia’s daughter, Michele, the idea of marijuana on Gordenker land didn’t sit well.

“Letting Erich in and giving him undeveloped, naked land, that was hard,” Michele says. “It meant letting in a stranger. I didn’t want marijuana in a certain area and Erich did. He won.”

Pearson can be persuasive and so can the money. The land-rich, money-poor Gordenkers need cash to pay county property taxes and stay afloat. No Gordenker has Silicon Valley money or a trust fund. Michele and her husband, Tom, both work, as does Sylvia, who manages the Gordenker properties, balances the books and sells real estate. She calls herself, “the watchdog.”

Despite her initial reluctance, Michele might be called “the voice of the future.”

“Marijuana takes up fewer square feet than grapes and makes more money per square foot,” she explains. “Grapes are harvested once a year. Indoor marijuana can be harvested three times a year. When Erich has money we have money.”

In fact, the Gordenkers are building Pearson a greenhouse with a Swedish design. He wants to have a marijuana manufacturing center on the property, though Tennis Wick, director of the Sonoma County Department of Permit & Resource Management (PRMD), hasn’t yet given him a green light.

Michele and Sylvia are as close as mother and daughter can be, though they don’t always express themselves in the same way when they discuss Pearson and marijuana.

“It’s about money,” Sylvia says. Without missing a beat, Michele adds, “It’s about ag.”

Pearson sees marijuana as the future for the Gordenkers and Sonoma Valley.

“Cannabis can be an economic engine,” he says. “One acre can pay the bills and enable farms to be diverse agriculturally. In one to two years, we hope to rely on pot tourism and direct sales.”

Recently, when a visitor to the Gordenker property observed to Pearson that he was the CEO of a highly profitable corporation and not a back-to-the-land hippie, he looked out at the cannabis still to be harvested.

“Yes, we’re a corporation, but we’re not like Salinas, and we can’t compete with Salinas,” he said. “We have to stay small, produce a high-quality product and offer variety to consumers.”

Michele, Sylvia and the whole extended Gordenker family—including Austin and Missy at Bee-Well Farm—want Pearson to succeed.

“None of us is interested in selling our land; not yet,” Michele says. “But having land that doesn’t make money, that kills you.”

She turned to Paxton, her 1-year-old, and said, “You’re going to grow up, build fences and drive tractors.”      

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