In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate 67 Bill that paved the way for the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) cannabis appeals program. Once the program begins accepting petitions, it will set up the world’s first cannabis appeals.
It’s a whirlwind of change for an industry that was largely illegal in the US until a few years ago. In the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is still a List I narcotic, the same category as LSD and ecstasy.
But for cannabis growers in California, creating appellations was a dream. Ask any grower in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, made up of Counties of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity, and other predominantly rural cannabis producing areas near them, and they will say their cannabis is special. It comes from somewhere and that is what makes it unique.
Closing the gap
Until recently, it was mostly cannabis enthusiasts who got hold of hearsay about what factors make the best product. But thanks to an intrepid group of breeders and an unlikely ally, the California wine industry, a process for identifying quality cannabis based on where it’s grown is finally being formalized.
The wine industry got involved about three years ago, says Rex Stults, vice president of Industry Relations for the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) Association.
“It was all done through shuttle diplomacy,” he says. “It was a connection our attorney established with Genine Coleman, director of Origins Council, and me.”
It is almost impossible to discuss cannabis appellations without Coleman’s name coming up. She founded the Origins Council, a non-profit educational, research and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting sustainable rural economic development in cannabis-producing regions.
Coleman cultivated cannabis for more than 20 years before engaging in patient and political advocacy, her focus for the past seven years.
Origins Council is also the ring leader of the Appellations Development Project.
Stults says he meets with Coleman about four times a year to provide updates. He explains that the NVV had three specific objectives.
First, the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system and the Alcohol Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) wanted to ensure that any cannabis appellation system would not interfere with wine’s appellation system.
“We don’t want this to work in the wine industry,” says Stults.
Second, NVV was concerned about “what was going on and how it might affect the Napa Valley name,” he says.
This region of California is a historic cannabis growing home in the United States, so it’s easy to see why it needs protection.
The group was hostile to cannabis growing in the Napa Valley. She claimed that key factors in growing cannabis, such as security alarms and bright lights at night, harm the region’s lucrative tourism industry.
An appellation can close such loopholes through ordinances. While NPV is still opposed to growing in Napa County, it wants any formal cannabis appellation to offer strong structure.
“We believe that an appellation system should be robust and meaningful,” says Stults. “Any appellation system that is not robust and meaningful takes away all appellation systems. We didn’t want that, so in the future we wanted to provide them with our input and our experience from working in the AVA system since 1981 to help them. ”
Richard Mendelson, a key architect of the AVA system, agrees. Mendelson, who lives in Napa and produces wine from his small vineyard, was the advocate behind the petition to create the 16 AVAs in the Napa Valley.
He has handled legal matters that affect almost every corner of the wine business. He also directs the Wine Law & Policy Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s true that I have spent a large part of my career working on the American wine appellation system, particularly in Napa, but also elsewhere, setting up AVAs for various petitioners,” says Mendelson. One of his courses is Protecting Products of Place: The Law of Geographic Indications (GI).
“GI is a kind of umbrella term for all kinds of appellations, not just wine or cannabis, but any product from agricultural products to textiles to handicrafts – whatever,” he says.
Mendelson is often approached by people who want to create labeling systems for other products.
“That’s how the cannabis industry came about,” he says. “Growers, yes, but the main interest for me is legacy growers like the organization that Genine represents.”
In the cannabis industry, “legacy” is considered a compassionate and accurate term for those who grew and distributed the product before it became legal.
Mendelson admits that he “didn’t know much about cannabis” before starting to deliberate on it. He advises both farmers and government officials who want to know how to set up a regulatory system.
“Do you regulate this through the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control? Are you using the same bonded houses and distribution systems, price controls and taxation, the same trading practices and problems? ”He says it was all questions that were being talked about.
Callings were definitely on the table in those early counseling days, says Mendelson.
“From the beginning we identified appellations as something that would be relevant to cannabis as a specialty product,” he says. “One where breeders and winemakers alike believed that different products and varieties grown in different locations have different product characteristics.
“That is really the essence of what an appellation system is: where the product can express the terroir of the region.”
Definition of terroir
Mendelson says he began to believe in cannabis appellations when he saw how breeders “could determine product origin simply by trying, seeing, or smelling, as André Tchelistcheff can with wine. If that happens, there will be expertise there. ”
He first asked whether cannabis, as an annual plant, could express terroir.
“Absolutely,” says Coleman. “Cannabis strains from, say, Big Sur have specific genetics that work, for example, with cooler, wetter climates. The bud structure is more open, which enables it to function better in a coastal region. ”
Cannabis can be grown outdoors, indoors, or a mixture of both. A breeder can choose based on historical and site-specific cultural practices, e.g. and regional varieties, which can reflect factors such as different soil and compost compositions, moisture and pH balance.
Photo by Denis Rodrigues De Freitas
“Many different factors have helped define what an appellation is,” says Mike Benziger, a legendary Sonoma County winemaker and cannabis grower for the past few years. “In many cases it goes beyond the soil, the environment. This also includes agricultural techniques and some political things. ”
Rather than focusing on politics, he says that many California cannabis growers like him are “a little bit more concerned” with the soil, climate and environment that contribute to the health of the plant.
Benziger says it is critical that agricultural techniques such as biodynamic and organic practices are included in the restrictions.
“The job of this type of agriculture is to make a plant more sensitive,” he says. When you manage with minimal effort, the plant can be woven into the environment.
“We stand behind the cannabis business,” says Benziger. “But we can catch up because we have an annual plan, not years, like with wine, [where] You have to make the wine, let the wine age. That way we can quickly identify different traits that we want in a plant that reflect the location in which it was grown. ”Adjustments can easily be made from year to year, he says.
The various breeders’ councils and organizations in Northern California that run the appeal fees envision that one day cannabis will be bought and sold internationally. This region of California is a historic cannabis growing home in the United States, so it’s easy to see why it needs protection.
Bumps on the road
Smaller producers in the Emerald Triangle and the surrounding areas are already losing their market position. Many are long-established breeders who cannot afford the exorbitant permit fees and taxes required by Proposition 64, which legalized the cultivation and distribution of adult cannabis in 2016.
As a result, many have left the business or are growing without a license. Larger companies with deeper pockets have taken their place. Many of them use indoor growing facilities, which are expressly disqualified in the CDFA Cannabis Appellations Program.
An appellation system could then give these smaller companies a head start. It would honor their history, heritage, and the places they come from, and add a clear marker of value to the sun-grown cannabis produced there. The fact that a successful appellation project depends on the manufacture of high-quality products makes it equally attractive for producers and consumers.
While petitions were supposed to be gathering from January 1st, the pandemic has slowed everything down. The Origins Council, NVV and others are still meeting and finalizing plans. They expect the CFDA to receive petitions this summer and, eventually, appeals to be formed. In particular, Coleman says that because of the terroir, she believes smaller appellations are being created within the county boundaries.
“The naming of the appellation will be tied to the specific boundaries of the appellation, so somehow bound to the history and identity of the region, such as Salmon Creek, which follows a watershed that is part of the border. Or the historical name, which correlates with the geographical boundaries, ”she gives an outlook on the future.
And what about cannabis growers’ new friends in the wine business? They are happy to be on board. NVV’s Stults says there was initially skepticism about cannabis breeders. Now they have become friends.
“We now freely exchange perspectives and information, we talk a lot,” says Stults. “We realized last year that we both want these systems to be successful and meaningful. And you know, they say it could become a model for the country. “