Tracey Mason knows all about breaking into the boys’ club. For close to three decades, the veteran wine and spirits executive worked inside some of the largest adult beverage companies in the world where she was one of a handful of women in a leadership role.
So when the Napa Valley-based entrepreneur was first approached to run a luxury wine startup conceived by a female founder, with an all-female advisory board and the chance to develop a brand aimed at sophisticated, savvy women, she couldn’t say no.
The company that recruited her, House of Saka, Inc., offers a decidedly modern twist on wine: the business specializes in marijuana-infused, alcohol-free beverages blended with a top-secret formulation of a tasteless, odorless water-soluble ratio of THC to CBD (the two most well-known chemicals in the cannabis plant: THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is intoxicating while CBD or cannabidiol is not).
“It’s a super, what I would call, ‘dude space,’ and so bringing a female sensibility, a female occasion to that party I think is really important,” explains Mason of the emerging cannabis beverage category that to date has been dominated by men and products marketed to men including the newly launched Rebel Coast Sauvignon Blanc, Two Roots Brewing Company and Dixie Elixirs.
Wine, beer and other marijuana-infused adult beverages are the next frontier in the legal cannabis industry as the over-21 market expands in America according to an October report, The Tasty Future of Edibles by Arcview and BDS Analytics which projects the edible marijuana market could top $4.1 billion by 2022. (This Election Day, Michigan voters approved a ballot measure making it the tenth state in the US to allow recreational marijuana, further expanding the market.) While pot-infused drinks made up just 1% of the legal cannabis sales in 2018, traditional alcohol companies are increasingly eyeing the opportunity, including Constellation Brands, maker of Robert Mondavi wines, Svedka vodka and Corona beer, which most recently invested $4 billion dollars in Canopy Growth, one of the largest Canadian manufacturers of marijuana and developing its own line of pot infused drinks. Molson Coors and Heineken have also sought out Canadian partners, where marijuana is now federally legal, as they explore this new category.
“ I see cannabis infused wines as an alternative that expands the wine category – offering established wine drinkers a new option, while at the same time bringing new consumers into the category,” says Honore Comfort, who serves as Wine Business Executive-in-Residence at the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University and an early adviser to House of Saka. She had been watching the cannabis space unfold for years and waiting for the right opportunity to get involved. “Ultimately, this will expand the pie for the industry rather than cannibalize traditional wine sales. Infused wines also create a way for wine to become and stay relevant with the 21 to 35-year-old wine drinkers who are a new set of consumers with different values and interests from traditional wine drinkers,” Comfort says.
With its launch this week, House of Saka claims to be the world’s first maker of cannabis-infused bubbly. The champagne, along with a still rose, is harvested from Pinot Noir grown across Napa Valley, fermented in stainless steel and will be available for sale in California and Nevada in the first quarter of 2019. Mason, who has held marketing posts at liquor giant Diageo and vintners Foster and Goelet Wine Estates, describes it as the kind of drink that her best friend says will “make your shoulders drop” after a long day.
“What we’re trying to do is give the consumer who doesn’t want the effects of alcohol and the residual effects of alcohol, meaning calories and hangovers and such, that same experience, just in a cannabis format,” Mason tells me. And she says the proprietary water-soluble cannabis formulation will allow consumers to feel the effects within ten to fifteen minutes as opposed to other edible marijuana products that can take much longer to kick in, complicating accurate dosing and safety. Due to strict guidelines for packaging and branding for wine in California, the company will be marketing it as “pink/sparkling” or “bubbles” instead of wine. House of Saka will soon be available in more than 600 dispensaries and cannabis consumption lounges in California and Nevada.
With an arrow-slinging female warrior gracing its logo, House of Saka doesn’t feel much like the female focused wine brands of late with girly names like Mommy’s Time Out and Sexy Wine Bomb, as recently featured in a Wall Street Journal wine column entitled “Sweet, Pink, Silly: Is This What Women Really Want?” Serial entrepreneur and House of Saka founder Cynthia Salarizadeh, told me the name was inspired by the mythical Scynthians, also known as Saka, known as fearless goddesses who ruled ancient civilizations. Picture the opening scene of last year’s action adventure blockbuster,Wonder Woman, featuring majestic Amazons expertly wielding swords and shields and you know the powerful feminist branding the company is striving to build.
Salarizadeh, who also serves as CEO of AxisWire, a digital media platform that connects cannabis brands to journalists, says she fell into the weed business after writing her thesis at University of Pennsylvania on reducing dependence on fossil fuels and the promise of industrial hemp. About five years ago, she visited the California wine country for the first time and fell in love with the idea of combining a high-end wine experience with marijuana.
“ Wine has been infused with cannabis for as long as we can find in sacred texts throughout history ,” she says, “It was all about the right team and timing to launch the best tasting cannabis infused wine in existence. With regulations and infrastructure mature enough to bring the brand to life, I knew it was the perfect time.”
It was she who first made the call to Mason to recruit her to the CEO post after consulting with wine professionals in Napa and Sonoma and several high powered attorneys, venture investors and entrepreneurs in cannabis. The two women hit it off immediately and with the release of their sparkling and still roses, they are on their way to expand the brand beyond wine to chocolate, ice cream, wellness and beauty products. And marketing to women, who are fast growing as recreational cannabis users, is increasingly regarded as a lucrative play according to trend watchers. A recent report by Brightfield Group analyzing purchasing patterns at MedMen dispensaries in California identified so-called “Microdosing Mamas,” moms with children at home as group of cannabis users to watch: nearly 75% of those surveyed say they use small amounts of marijuana (less than 100mg) to “relax at home.”
“ The ‘by and for’ women sector, and the feminization of cannabis culture, is one of the more compelling developments of the commercialized cannabis era,” according to Marian Berelowitz, US Senior Editor of Stylus, the trend forecasting company, “We see enormous opportunity especially in targeting moderate consumers who perceive cannabis as a ‘cleaner’ means to an altered state, with potential wellness benefits giving this type of product a “healthy hedonism” appeal.”
For House of Saka’s CEO and her colleagues with deep wine expertise advising the company, the woman-led startup presents an opportunity to build something they always hoped to one day see in the male-dominated world of adult beverages.
“That women are coming in and saying, ‘You know what we need? We need products and we need companies that speak to us and speak to our needs and speak to our desires.’ That’s a great story,” says Mason.