California Plan to Recognize Cannabis Appellations Moves Forward

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California is poised to be the first in the world to recognize the terroir of commercially-grown individual cannabis strains.

If you know enough snooty people, odds are decent that at some point, at least one of them has offered to correct your understanding of what constitutes champagne.

For those who’ve successfully avoided the scolding, the crux of the matter lies in the understanding that Champagne is a region of France, which thus makes only grapes grown and harvested from that specific area eligible to be classified as an official champagne. The rest, so it’s said, is but sparkling white wine.

Areas like Champagne are what’s known in the wine industry as appellations. Now, as Marcus Crowder of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, a similar system could be making its debut in California next year.

“California’s cannabis industry may soon have legally recognized geographic areas as highly regarded as those of the wine industry,” Crowder writes. “Just as Sonoma’s Russian River Valley is known for Pinot Noir and Napa’s Oakville for Cabernet Sauvignon, Northern California sub-regions like Salmon Creek, Comptche and Ukiah Valley could each become world-renowned for their signature strains of cannabis.”

The creation of such a program has long been a desire for California cultivators who feel that, like grapes, sun-grown cannabis can take on qualities unique to the area in which it is grown.

Crowder contrasts the difference in climate between “a foggy hillside on the North Coast” and “an arid plain in the Central Valley” as a way of highlighting the value in validating and celebrating the distinct local properties that influence the terroir of a cannabis strain.

Another term from the world of wine, “terroir” is a French word which refers to environmental factors affecting a crop’s phenotype (or characteristics). Just as wine from a given region may be reputed for giving a vintage a hint of walnuts or strong notes of cherry and spice, certain areas of the state are reputed for the specific cannabis they grow and specific characteristics associated with their given neck of the woods.

For seasoned cannabis growers in areas like California’s hallowed Emerald Triangle (a geographic region consisting of three counties: Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino), they know that altitude, soil, strain genetics, and a host of other factors all play a role in determining the construct of a given crop yield. And just like saying your winery is located in Napa comes with a certain level of cache, Humboldt growers and their peers are eager to assert the same privilege.

To that end, this month, Califronia’s state Congress passed Senate Bill 67, which will would establish a statewide appellation system.

What was once a dream is thus now on the precipice of becoming reality.

As Crowder details, “If cannabis industry leaders and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) follow through on a mutually accepted agenda, the appellation of origin application process will be in place by Jan. 1. It would be the world’s first program of its kind for commercial cannabis farmers.”

By establishing what amounts to a groundbreaking new system, cannabis farmers would be afforded a level of legitimacy, prestige, and exposure by the state. It’s also one which the smallest operators among them suggest is, in many cases, their best hope of staying viable in an exuberantly expensive, hyper-competitive legal marketplace.

Beyond that, cannabis appellations of origin would also offer potential benefits with regard to biological and ecological preservation efforts.

“Appellations add value to craft cannabis cultivators by calling out the special nature of cannabis grown and processed in historical cannabis growing regions,” Eleanor Kuntz, CEO of the Sebastopol cannabis DNA testing company Leafworks, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Helping matters is the fact that some of the toughest work has arguably already been done. Through the labors of an organization called the Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP), 11 distinct cannabis appellations within Mendocino alone have already been defined. Hollie Hall, a watershed resources specialist, has also reportedly designed a baseline appellation study for Humboldt County.

“What is really important is to take advantage of this opportunity of developing a terroir-based appellation,” Hall told the Chronicle. “To maintain standards that the plant has roots, some element of contact with the native soil, that the plant is watered with water that came from the site, and the plant has exposure to sunlight and is not manipulated by artificial lighting.”

Given one of the lasting grievances that continues to linger in the wake of Prop. 64 (the California bill that legalized adult-use cannabis sales in 2016) is that the worries and wisdom of farmers went utterly ignored, it would seem wise to listen to them now on an issue they ostensibly know best. It appears such actions are now underway, offering a glimpse into an industry future where terroir does the talking.

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