Cannabis Farmers Yearn for Appellations

Marijuana may soon follow Merlot by incorporating distinctions of origin.

For most Californians, concerns regarding where precisely a given strain of cannabis was grown have often been directly proportional to the number of available options. I don’t recall asking my high school pot supplier wherein the Emerald Triangle his wares hailed from, but with the advent of boutique dispensaries and their menus of products, such queries have become more commonplace.

One long-standing idea has been to treat cannabis similarly to the way wines denote an appellation of origin. A given appellation refers to where the grapes were grown, which becomes a shorthand for the specific characteristics of taste and quality associated with certain regions. The best-known example is likely Champagne, which is why we refer to similar products grown outside that region of France as “sparkling white wine.”

Appellations take into account factors like weather, climate, and composition — and local cannabis growers in California want in.

In a recent feature for The Mendocino Voice, reporter Kate B. Maxwell offered a comprehensive look at the recent efforts to establish a cannabis appellations standard in California.

“For small farmers, whatever their crop, marking their product as distinct can have [a] huge economic impact,” Maxwell writes. “And California’s cannabis farmers are no different.”

Currently, state law requires that cannabis must be grown within a given California county to be labeled as such, but some small farmers believe more specific designations will help them offer what amounts to a luxury product. If one compares the corporate assembly line growers that continue to flood the state’s marketplace to a Starbucks, then these farmers are eager to differentiate their harvests as the Blue Bottle or Four Barrel of cannabis.

In 2017, SB 94 designated California’s Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA) as the state agency assigned to lead the appellations project. As is often the case, the bill offered little clarity in terms of how this process should unfold. Fortunately for the officials responsible, a local blueprint is available in the form of the Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP).

Established in 2015, MAP worked with local farmers and other officials before concluding that Mendocino County should be divided into 11 unique districts when it comes to designating cannabis origins.

Speaking with CannabisBusinessLaw in 2016, local wine appellation expert Richard Mendelson extolled the potential value of adopting a similar designation system for cannabis.

“Appellations can be really powerful because they can be a means to protect everything from the intellectual property to the labor force, to the culture and history,” he said. “They can be very rich vehicles for promotion, protection, and rural development.”

Currently, the CDFA has until Jan. 1, 2021 to establish the terms of a statewide cannabis appellation system.

One pivotal piece of the puzzle concerns the integrity of labeling, which specifies where a certain strain was grown. As Maxwell notes, craft cannabis farmers will have “an economic interest in ‘self-policing’ to ensure the label isn’t being abused.” Enforcement of appellation standards will be paramount for the program to succeed, with tighter standards for California’s legally mandated Track-and-Trace system one potential solution for ensuring accuracy and accountability.

Also noteworthy is the fact that cannabis will likely have to go through more stringent protocols than wine to earn its appellation designation. While U.S. wine appellations are defined by American Viticultural Areas — including 107 in California alone — some growers feel cannabis should be held to the higher standard of the International System of Appellations of Origin. The intent remains for small farmers to offer more exclusive, high-end strains to compete as a craft alternative to larger corporate grows.

While there is no significant statistical data to prove Californians are eager for a terroir-specific approach to cannabis, the shifting demographics of who is actually buying pot seem to confirm that MAP is on the right path. In 2017, the cannabis delivery service Eaze surveyed 10,000 Californians and published their findings. Of those who identified as working professionals, 58 percent said they consume cannabis daily. It’s not much of a reach to see the recent boom in craft breweries and boutique coffee roasters and expect something similar for the local cannabis industry.

Naturally, Eaze’s data is skewed in that it only reflects cannabis users with the financial means to use a delivery service, but it’s fair to assume Eaze’s customers are the same individuals who small growers are likely targeting with their forthcoming appellation system. In a competitive marketplace that’s seen many lifelong growers throw in the towel, finding any avenue that affords small growers a fighting chance of sustaining their livelihood is not simply a good idea, it’s a necessary intervention.

There’s enough Charles Shaw in the world. Let’s make sure we save the good stuff.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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