Mr Sherbinski: Creating a Cannabis Status Symbol Favored by Tastemakers

Sherbinski

[Canniseur: Mario Guzman gets it. Quality wins, as well as being ethical wins. He’s in the long game and doing quite well. The Sherbinski brand is synonymous with quality and good business practices. Read on and learn more for his perspective on growing and selling cannabis.]

A luxury label embraced by the Hollywood A-list, celebrated by rappers and bootlegged incessantly, Mario Guzman and his cannabis lifestyle brand Sherbinskis is undoubtedly the Louis Vuitton of commercial cannabis brands. It’s also on the short list of still-relevant adult use brands with uninterrupted roots in California’s self-regulated 215 market.

Brand founder and namesake, Mario “Mr. Sherbinski” Guzman has been a cultivator since the late ’90s and was a regular supplier for San Francisco’s legendary Vapor Room in the early ‘00s — the golden age of Prop 215 cannabis in California. Nobody had heard the name Sherbinski yet, and the notion of a cannabis brand was still an abstraction back then.

AffGoo ice water hash washed from Sherbinskis bud by the man himself was a menu staple at the Vapor Room, and a crucial part of my daily routine in those days: For years, the best part of waking up was smoking a bowl of chocolate-black bubble hash with a cup of tar-black coffee on the rickety fire escape overlooking the intersection of Oak and Fillmore Streets.

My eyes refocus to 2019 and I catch myself staring dreamily out the storefront window of a greasy spoon breakfast joint in East Oakland, clutching a white ceramic cup of hot black coffee at a rickety two-top table by the door. I’m waiting for Guzman — he’s a few minutes late, I’m a few minutes early — and draining my third cup of coffee, the caffeine from the first two cups already waltzing wildly with the cannabinoids from my morning dab. I’m eagerly eavesdropping on a couple arguing a few tables down when he blows through the swinging doors like a wild west sheriff, radiating the casual swagger of resident DJ at that nightclub you aren’t cool enough to even stand in line for.

Despite a powerful too cool for school aura, Sherbinski also exudes a sincere humility that falls just short of self-deprecation when he speaks about the success of his work, particularly the way his Gelato phenotypes became a touchstone and status symbol for rappers and other tastemakers with a taste for top shelf shit.

To hear him tell it, Gelato is just one of those special strains that inspires fanatical devotion in some people, and through a convergence of geography, personal connections and work ethic, some of those people are top-selling music artists and fashion influencers.

“It just took a lot of work and white-glove service when it came to providing our products,” Guzman told me. “I never had to give a lot of product away, I was just in the right place; in the Bay a lot of musicians come through here and we’d get the call when they were in the studio and we’d be there,” he said. “It was always really natural and organic; when artists are in the studio and naturally enjoying the product they’re smoking it’s gonna organically end up in the songs.”

Although he’s entering a new stage of his career, he’s come to truly appreciate the experience of watching Gelato grow into a household name.

“For me, it was the songs. You hear one on the radio and one song becomes five and then ten becomes twenty and now it’s pretty common to hear it — just a few weeks ago Travis Scott and Future came out with a song talking about Gelato in there,” he said. “It’s nice to feel like Gelato it’s cemented into our culture and I embrace it.”

Coming across truly humble is uncommon enough for any successful businessperson, but particularly unusual given the dizzying heights of tangible success he’s reached in an industry where even the illusion of achievement is often enough to elicit flashy self-celebration. But through our whole conversation, he seems to regard his career as a beautiful blur of serendipity, largely propelled by his desire to promote cannabis access and education in the early days of San Francisco’s golden age of cannabis.

“I stuck my neck out way before people were doing it and said, hey, I’m a grower,” he said. “[But] when you have people come to you and say, your product helped me with my ailment — these flowers are my favorite, they help with my PTSD — how can you not be humbled by that? How can you not want to do that?”

With Prop 215 as we knew it all but a hazy memory now, Guzman sits at the nexus of a hectic whirlwind familiar to anyone who’s spent any time around entrepreneurs; the persistent beeping and buzzing of his cell phone provides a steady backdrop to our conversation, and he is undoubtedly ‘in demand,’ but his personal energy is almost meditative, like he’s floating above it all, soaking it in and easing gently into what’s shaping into a lucrative second act.

Sherbinski
PHOTO | Sherbinksi

A Different Breed

Part of what sets Sherbinski apart from most other growers and breeders I’ve spoken to is his laissez-faire approach to phenotype selection. Where most breeders are hunting a single white whale, he’s curating a menagerie of sensations and flavors — variations on a shared theme — like the four first-gen Gelato phenos that made the final cut; Acaiberry Gelato (49), Mochi Gelato (47), Bacio Gelato (41) and Gello Gelato.

“The Gelato has gotten so famous, and what I did — which I didn’t see a lot of people do before — I didn’t just pick the best pheno; I was like ‘no, all these phenos are awesome and they all do different things,’” he said. “It’s not that different from two models having kids — each kid is probably going to be fire, so how do you pick out of that? That’s kind of how I look at selection.”

That inclusive approach to pheno hunting is still a central thrust of Sherbinski’s latest genetic quest, but these days he has more space to work with and more data to draw on when making selections.

“In my newest breeding project, I dialed down to a final bloom room of about 100 plants, then dialed that down to like 30 and ran all that for a full terpene and potency profile — the way I’m breeding now is all based on that,” he said. “I can just be like, ‘that’s so frosty and has big nugs and tastes good, I want that,’ and then it’s pulling 16 percent [THC] consistently. Sometimes something isn’t looking that good, but it’s testing 27 percent first-round test, or there’s some terpene in there that’s just like oh my god.”

Gelato is about to go global through Guzman’s collaboration with Dinafem, a seed bank based in Barcelona, Spain, that’s partnered with him to release first-generation Gelato seeds to more than 50 countries. The Sherbinski legacy has deep roots in San Francisco’s Sunset District but he’s making moves wherever he sees a smart one. It’s a philosophy that’s spreading his work worldwide, but it’s also led him just a few hours north, to the world-famous Emerald Triangle, where his partners at the Humboldt Seed Organization are based.

Because, in addition to releasing females from the first generation of Gelato phenos, he’s going to be producing new generations using HSO genetics, a process that’s already produced promising results. At press time, I haven’t yet tried the next generation of official Gelato crosses but given the wide scope of the pheno hunt that produced them — roughly 3,000 seeds — and the prestigious lineage of the new genetic material used, I’m eagerly awaiting the opportunity to taste the new flavors.

“I took a Mandlebrot OG clone that HSO provided and that male went back to all of my original genetics, and I selected about five new phenos from a roughly 3,000-seed pheno hunt,” he said, adding that he’s never used so many precise metrics to select winners. “I boiled it down to about 40 keepers out of the new generation and tested them all for terpene profile and potency, then took portraits to look at the bag appeal… it’s the first time I’ve used all those data points to select.”

The HSO collaboration is truly exciting for Guzman, who sees it as a way to share his genetics so people can actually grow from them, albeit on a release schedule that allows him the first crack at his own work.

“All the other people who have used Gelato, that’s either a bag seed or cuts I never really used, like the 33 and the 45, which were basically just throwaways for me,” he said. “I’ve never done any projects with anyone — they might have bag seed: It was either stolen or a bag seed.”

In addition to people bootlegging his genetics through stray seeds and stolen cuts, there’s also the time-honored cannabis industry tradition of tacking a trendy prefix and/or suffix on some last years, as in ‘sherb’ or ‘lato,’ as in Orangelato, Tangelato, Sherbtane, SherbWreck or, of course, Sherblato — they’re all fugazi; Sherbinski didn’t collab on any of them, despite numerous false claims to the contrary.

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