Wine, Star Wars and cannabis — these are a few of my favorite things. So when I found out there is a movement in Mendocino County, California to create cannabis appellations, not unlike wine appellations, I was naturally drawn to the idea, like a bee to pollen. But, does cannabis express terroir in the same way grapes do? It’s terroir that’s behind the formation of wine appellations, so if cannabis is unable to do so, is there even a point to cannabis appellations? I needed to know more.
Medicinal Marijuana in California has been legal since Proposition 215 was passed in 1996. Since then the cannabis growing culture has thrived, developing in areas where certain strains grow better than others, in particular in areas similar to those of wine grapes. It also seems that the pride involved in this culture is akin to the pride of Russian River Pinot Noir growers or old vine Zinfandel growers in Lodi, taking care to craft the best expressions of their products. The only difference is that the wine growers have protection under the federally regulated American Viticultural Area system. Meaning you cannot put Russian River Pinot Noir on the label unless the grapes used are from that AVA.
Enter Proposition 64, known as the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, a.k.a The Adult Use Of Marijuana Act. It will be on the ballot this November 8 and, if passed, will legalize cannabis for recreational use, a move that will empower the largest cannabis growing region in the United States, dubbed the Emerald Triangle, to focus its efforts in an even more legitimate endeavor. The Emerald Triangle is made up of three bordering northern California counties — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity — where growers have been tending to their ganja farms since the 1960s. Marijuana farming is a way of life here and one of these farmers in Mendocino is seeing the potential future of the industry and is beginning to plan ahead.
Justin Calvino began the Mendocino Appellation Project last year. He obtained a map of Mendocino County and began traveling the country, talking to heritage farmers who had been growing for decades, asking them about the unique microclimates, the watershed details — essentially the terroir — that makes their strains unique to their areas. His goal is to create an appellation system for marijuana in the Emerald Triangle. He has even gone as far as to seek the aid of winemakers in the area and AVA legal counsel to get a better idea of how the appellations would work.
Appellations do more than bring focus to an area, they also protect the workers and business owners and prevent larger corporations from coming in and using the name of an area while not using the product from the area. Because marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, if Prop 64 is passed, the industry would be regulated on a state level as opposed the the federal AVA system, but the growers would still benefit from the brand power these new appellations could bring to product sales and tourism. As Calvino told the Ukiah Journal, “Mendocino could be the Napa Valley of cannabis.”
This is all kinds of exciting for this wine and weed lover. But if the law is passed and this thing gains traction, I do see one major challenge: how do buds express terroir? Grape vines are flowering plants just like marijuana plants. Grapes develop what we call flavor compounds that result in all of those wonderful aromas that end up in a resulting wine. The study of flavor compounds in wine grapes is ongoing, but it is thought that these compounds are fundamentally produced by the fruit to encourage pollination as well as to create defense mechanisms during the ripening period. The soil and climate of the area in which the grape vine grows will determine how intense or muted these compounds will be in the resulting wine.
Cannabis also has these compounds, called terpenes, that differ from strain to strain. Certain terpenes can give off the aroma of say, strawberry in the Strawberry indica strain or diesel in the Sour Diesel sativa strain. And, while many growers have indoor farms with plants grown in potting soil, which kind of cancels out terroir, there are still a lot of outdoor acres under bud. Just as grape vines thrive in somewhat deficient soil, could ganja do the same? Does well-drained soil heighten the Sour Diesel aroma while more-nutrient soils soften the impact? How is the development of THC influenced by the terroir?
My love for wine is based in not only the history and culture of it but the science as well. I love how we as humans can coax the grape vine into something beautiful. The science of weed is the same for me. If the marijuana industry can somehow justify and define the local terroir of a place successfully, the sky’s the limit. It’ll be the largest cash business in the country, with a 15 percent tax on retail sales, a $9.25 cultivation tax per ounce of flowers and a $2.75 tax per ounce of leaves. It’ll probably eclipse the tax haul of Colorado and Washington State. And this means that if Proposition 64 is passed this year, I’ll probably need to get over to the Emerald Triangle and do some serious investigative reporting.