For years, California regulators have been preparing to launch a first-of-its-kind program for cannabis that would allow growers to differentiate their products not just by craft and quality, but by terroir, like the wines of Champagne.
While the final regulations for the Cannabis Appellations Program were initially expected by the start of 2021, those, like much else, were delayed in part by the pandemic. Nonetheless, the California Department of Food and Agriculture appears on track to release them in the coming months.
It is against this backdrop that the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, which was founded six years ago by the City and County of Denver, held an event last week and included a panel called “A window into the future of Appellations,” with Justin Calvino of the Mendocino Appellations Project, and Omar Figueroa and Lauren Mendelsohn of the Law Offices of Omar Figueroa, a California firm focused on cannabis.
“Craft cultivators were looking at the very successful wine industry to the south in Sonoma and Napa counties,” Figueroa said, referring to the early days of the state’s appellations efforts, “and figured out, like, how can they create something similar that has world recognition and you’re able to create these ultra premium products that are renowned across the globe?”
Calvino added that industry players often don’t realize that cannabis can take decades to “evolve with micronutrients of the soil, the atmosphere, the whole climatic situation, the altitude, marine layer conditions, the soil temperatures, moisture content in the soil,” among other factors. And, he added, spending millions of dollars won’t mean being able to recreate those same cannabinoid, terpene, and flavonoid profiles.
For this reason, one particular piece of legislation came up repeatedly during the panel, and it was SB 67, which, as Cannabis Wire reported, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last year.
That bill limits the “approval of appellations of origin for cannabis unless it requires the practice of planting in the ground in flowering areas and excludes the practices of using artificial lighting and structures in flowering areas.” It also requires the department to “establish standards by which a licensed cultivator may designate a city or city and county of origin for cannabis produced 100% within the designated city or city and county.”
In other words, Calvino said, it separated cannabis plants grown “in” a place from those that are “of” a place.
This is significant, Figueroa added, because, “California has created a system that is compatible with that global appellations of origin system because it’s based on terroir.”
“Terroir” is a term most often associated with wine, and generally means consideration of the entire environment in which a specific type of wine is made, including things like soil and climate. And with wine appellations, for example, only a wine produced in Champagne can be called Champagne.
“And that’s important because you have to show, in order to establish an appellation of origin, that there are practices that will preserve the environment,” Figueroa continued. “It makes the land itself more valuable to be located within. Also, preserving the character of the land is key because when you change the land, you change the product. And so part of preserving this unique expression of place is preserving the place.”
Calvino said that SB 67 maintained “the heart of the project.”
“It was almost like God came down and gave small farmers this gift of protection, which was that if you honor your soil and you honor your plant, the market will honor you,” he said.
At this point, the draft regulations preserve the word “appellation” for “cultivators who plant in the ground without any supplemental lighting or structures or anything,” Mendelsohn said.
”When we’re talking about the unique characteristics of that particular place, you want to eliminate any extraneous inputs,” she continued. Mendelsohn added that the price of outdoor-grown cannabis has continued to drop, and that the appellation program could “help save” outdoor growers.
For other growers, who cannot or do not want to abide by these standards, there is still the city and/or county of origin protection laid out in SB 67. (As Cannabis Wire reported, indoor growers in Southern California pushed for some sort of regional recognition.)
Once the regulations are finalized, which Mendelsohn predicts won’t happen until January 2022, a person or group hoping to establish an appellation will need to submit a petition. Mendelsohn said that a common question from growers is whether they will need to pay a fee to opt in to an appellation, but only the petitioner needs to pay the fee. For this reason, Mendelsohn expects that most petitions will come from associations, non-profits, and other groups that collectively stand to benefit from the establishment of an appellation.
“The best way to work on that is to do the community building, get the people together, and start gathering data so that you can show what is unique about a particular appellation boundary,” Figueroa added. “What we’re going to see is farmers self-organizing into appellations because they see the great potential, not just in the product being more valuable, but in the land being more valuable.”
Plenty of cannabis consumers, like consumers of other products, still pick quantity over quality, Calvino noted, adding that outdoor-grown cannabis from northern California doesn’t sell as well in, say, Los Angeles, because it doesn’t have comparable THC-levels as indoor-grown.
“The fact of the matter is,” Calvino continued, turning back to outdoor-grown cannabis, “it’s better fucking weed.”
Figueroa chimed in, “It’s like going to a liquor store and shopping by alcohol content.”
Returning to Mendelsohn’s point about the potential of the appellation program to save outdoor growers, Calvino turned toward the future, in which large-scale cannabis cultivation operations are expected to continue to spread in the state.
“The hills of Mendocino and Humboldt and Trinity aren’t going to be able to scale to the production of the Central Valley and the Central Coast. And if we don’t create this differentiation of quality and craft through unique expressions from these heritage regions,” he said, “it’s not just that you’re going to see the death of another industry in rural America, it’s that we’re not going to see that same level of quality that comes out of those regions. And I know for a fact, I deal with it every single day, that the best cannabis in the world comes from these heritage and legacy regions.”