Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya, the co-founders of Swami Select, each has a strong background in cannabis history, culture and knowledge. Their love story spans decades and continents, starting in the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s fabled Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and continuing via India to the Mendocino County hills and the iconic Emerald Cup. They both actively participate in political forums that impact legislation affecting small-batch cannabis growers in California and the surrounding Emerald Triangle, always speaking out for their fellow craft cannabis producers.
An East Coast academic, Swami first smoked cannabis in the spring of 1967 while studying at the University of Wisconsin. As anti-war demonstrations, calls for social change and the idea of free love spread across the nation, a growing bohemian/beatnik culture emerged on campus. Despite this, many of Swami’s otherwise progressive peers avoided cannabis because they’d been successfully brainwashed about its harmful effects. The so-called “original hippie” then decided to travel to California. In 1969, Swami crossed paths with a teenage flower child named Nikki Lastreto and their worlds would never be the same again.
The two took several journeys to India together in the 1980s before settling there in 1992. The two had homes in the Himalayas for the summer and Goa for the winter. During their time in India, they established solid and lifelong friendships with locals and other travelers.
In 1998, Swami undertook a Hindu religious initiation on the banks of the Ganges River. He changed his name from William Allen Winans to Swami Chaitanya and today is renowned as such among cannabis communities all over the state and beyond.
After returning to the US in 2003, Swami and Nikki purchased the secluded 190-acre Turtle Creek Ranch in Mendocino County. The Swami Estate is also known as the Ganja Ma Gardens, where Nikki and Swami cultivate Swami Select—pure, organic cannabis under full sun, moon and starlight.
It was in this magical place while smoking their weed and chatting with friends, including Tim Blake and others, thinking about what “legal pot” would look like. They laughed at the concept that one day they may witness a cannabis version of a chili cook-off where farmers and consumers could gather to sample each other’s buds and compare.
The Emerald Cup originated from those chats. Nikki and Swami have been involved ever since, helping Tim and his family grow the competition from six judges, 30 entries and one vendor selling cannabis-related paraphernalia into the cornerstone experience that it is today.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.