By next year, California will start considering appellations for cannabis, similar to the AVA system for wine. So the question will soon be, where is the Napa Valley of cannabis?
It's fascinating because Napa Valley Vintners are very supportive of appellations for cannabis – as long as those weed growers Stay Off My Lawn. NVV has even worked with the Wine Institute and the cannabis Origins Council to help create some of the proposed regulations.
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"It appears California is going to create the cannabis appellation system. Fair enough," said NVV spokesman Rex Stults. "We want to make sure it's got teeth. That it's real, and it's strong. If it's hogwash it's not good for any appellation systems. It's not good for AVAs. We think California needs to get it right and we're offering our experience with AVAs going back to 1981 to help them do it."
Genine Coleman, founder and executive director of the Origins Council, said a lot of research is needed to show the impact of terroir on cannabis. But she says California has already discovered several distinctive sites that could end up as officially sanctioned cannabis appellations.
"Some of the growers we work with in the Big Sur area, they've developed a set of genetics that work well for them," Coleman told Wine-Searcher. "It's reflected in the bud structure being more open so it can better perform in a higher moisture environment that the coastal region has.
"There's another region in Humboldt, the Home Flat area. They're known for dry farming. They're on an alluvial flat right next to the river. It's extremely rich native soil. There are dry farmers not just for cannabis, but for other crops as well. The farmers, they're planting and not amending. We're anxious to get some studies of that because I can't imagine that the results wouldn't be different from cannabis from other areas."
The state of California is supposed to come up with guidelines for applying for cannabis appellations by January. The state legislature already passed a bill (SB-67) requiring this, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it.
The system is very similar to the American federal system for wine AVAs, and it's actually even more strict; you can see the hand of NVV and the Wine Institute (and that's not a bad thing.) Cannabis producers can already use a county as an appellation, just as with wine. But while a wine labeled as being from, say, Sonoma County or Mendocino County can have 25 percent of the grapes from outside the county, cannabis labeled as from Humboldt County or Santa Barbara County must be 100 percent from that county. Cannabis producers can also use cities as appellations with the same requirement.
As for appellations that are not political boundaries, like Napa Valley or Paso Robles, the rules – while not finalized – appear to be similar to the process for approving wine AVAs. Cannabis producers will have to submit an application stating that their region is special for reasons of geology and climate. The California Food and Drug Administration will apparently decide whether or not to approve cannabis appellations.
One intriguing difference between wine and cannabis involves cultivars.
In Europe, many wine appellations have rules regarding grape varieties: you can't officially sell a Bordeaux Syrah, for example, even if it would be delicious. This kind of variety specificity is very unusual (but not unprecedented) in American wine appellations, which is how it's possible to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling in the same vineyard in Napa's Oak Knoll District (and they're both pretty good, I say, as Europhiles faint in horror.)
However, the proposed cannabis regulations would allow appellations to require certain cultivars to be grown in the region. That's an interesting approach given how fast cannabis cultivars are being developed compared to wine grapes: maybe the best cultivar for the Hopland or Buellton area hasn't even been bred yet. But on the flip side, certain strains like Blue Dream and OG Kush are already well recognized. We may not yet know what the Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir of cannabis are going to be, but just as Bordeaux and Burgundy spread the popularity of those varieties worldwide, a successful cannabis appellation could do the same for Sour Diesel or Wedding Cake.
"We're in very early stages for cannabis research," Coleman said. "There's a lot of community work to do around identifying what the best cultivars are. And it's going to take research to identify region-specific characteristics, because we haven't established the palate as a reference point. As we do more research and define some of these things, the appellation program can be a huge benefit."
While appellations for anything other than wine are unusual in the US, they're common in Europe. Many European countries have AOC systems for cheese; some have it for ham or even marzipan.
"There are products of place in this country," Stults said. "Think of Kona coffee. Florida oranges. Idaho potatoes. Maine lobster. Once you have that sense of place and distinctiveness, and you build a reputation of high quality, consumers begin associating the name of that place with high quality. That's definitely what's happened in the case of Napa Valley."
Stults said NVV and the Wine Institute were concerned with ensuring that indoor cannabis could not be sold using an appellation. Right now, indoor-grown cannabis fetches much higher prices than outdoor-grown; an appellation system could change that.
"It's got to be connected to the terroir of that place," Stults said. "Microclimates, soil, geology – all of those things are essential. If it's grown in a warehouse, it has no connection to the local environment. It could have grow lights on 24/7. It could have soils from Timbuktu."
Napa Valley is happy to cooperate with the Origins Council, Stults said, because it is accustomed to cooperating with wine regions from around the world on the Wine Origin Alliance, which brings together distinctive regions like Champagne and Porto.
"In wine growing these place names matter so much," Stults said. "That's why we're zealots in protecting the Napa name. Dedicating a lot of resources. Even to take it further, it's why we feel so passionately about all wine place names."
But collegial feeling only goes so far. Ten years ago, the wine industry saw cannabis as competition. That's not really true anymore, as consumer surveys show that plenty of people enjoy both, sometimes together. But Napa Valley Vintners does not want cannabis grown in Napa and will expend its considerable political capital to keep it out.
"The Napa Valley Vintners association does not want a Napa Valley cannabis appellation. We just don't," Stults said. "Many of our members of NVV have expressed concern that the reputation for quality that they and their forefathers helped to create over the last 150 years should not be immediately gravy-trained upon by cannabis growers. Right now we are in full appreciation of our county board of supervisors who currently have a prohibition on commercial cannabis being grown in unincorporated Napa County.
"Not only are we not in favor of the use of our name; it's not a good neighboring product for wine growing and wine tasting. Here's what makes it a bad neighbor. First of all, the aroma from the grows. In Santa Barbara, the aroma can carry many miles depending on the strength and direction of the wind. Wine is such a sensory product. If you're at a winery tasting wine, what's the first thing you do? You give it a swirl and you give it a big sniff. It's not going to be any good if everybody's wine smells like cannabis," Stults said.
"No. 2, the top two reasons people come to Napa Valley are wine and scenic beauty," he continued. "If you have an outdoor cannabis grow, even To Kalon vineyard doesn't have a barbed-wire fence with lights and people on ATVs guarding it. You're not worried about people coming out with a knife and cutting a cluster of grapes from To Kalon, the most famous vineyard in America. Many of those grows are going to look like prison yards, with barbed wire, bright lights, high security.
"The third concern we have is terpenes. I think the science is yet to be played out on this. Eucalyptus can have an affect on Shiraz grown in parts of Australia. Can cannabis have an impact on wine grapes? That's something we're concerned about."
One thing NVV and the Origins Council would be happy to see is the elevation of Humboldt County into a premier cannabis appellation. Humboldt is well-known for cannabis from its history as a center for illegal grows during the cannabis Prohibition period. Whether that's because Humboldt cannabis is better, or because it was easier to grow it there without being caught by law enforcement, hasn't really been determined. But the Origins Council likes it because it represents legacy growers, and many of them are in Humboldt.
There are also plenty of legacy growers in Mendocino County, but Humboldt has one thing Mendocino doesn't – it's a long way from Napa Valley.