Cannabis 'appellations' coming to California: how will it work?

cannabisCalifornia is moving toward adopting official "appellations" for cannabis, certifying a strain's regional origin. The concept is inspired by the wine industry, where such a certification system has long been in place in several producer countries. Wine appellations, often a mark of prestige, provide a model for what is now to be applied to high-end cannabis.

From Maui Wowie to Acapulco Gold to Durban Poison to Humboldt OG, cannabis strains have often boasted their geographic origin in their names. Now an official "appellation" system certifying a strain's locale of cultivation, based on that already in place for wine, is coming to California.

Whether a particular strain's seed, or genotype, will produce the same phenotype in terms of appearance, fragrance and psychoactive effect when grown in a distinct locale has long been a matter of some controversy. In the wine industry, there is a well-established concept of terroirdefined as the mixture of traits produced by a particular region's climate, soil and terrain that affect the taste of wine. Beginning over 80 years ago in (of course) France, the wine industry has established a certification system giving each production region an appellation.

California, with its climate conducive to outdoor cultivation (and where it is allowed, unlike in Colorado), is the first US state to move toward adopting such a system for cannabis. Many of its locales, particularly the Emerald Triangle counties of Humboldt and Mendocino, have long been practically synonymous with high-quality bud in popular culture. Small growers are especially hoping that this cachet can give them an edge over the industrial-scale cannabis operations now emerging on the agribusiness holdings of the Central Valley and Salinas Valley.

Legal protection for regional authenticity
With support from such "craft" and "legacy" producers, Senate Bill 185, establishing a cannabis appellation system, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 17. Its chief champion was Sen. Mike McGuire, whose Healdsburg district is in the heart of Sonoma County's Wine Country. One county to the north, the Mendocino Appellations Project is at the forefront of designing such a system for cannabis. Since 2015, it has been mapping the micro-regions of Mendocino, dividing the county into 11 "zones" by distinctive soil and climatic conditions.

The California Cannabis Industry Association is now hoping to apply such mapping statewide. "This is really an effort to help those small farmers in rural areas to make sure they’re competitive and make sure we have a diversified market here in California," the group's outreach director Josh Drayton told North Bay Business Journal upon passage of the bill.

Drayton noted with trepidation that high-end sun-grown cannabis prices have dropped from up to $4,000 a pound a decade ago to as low as $500 today—largely due to competition from agbiz operators with economies of scale. But he sees increasing sophistication about product quality as a significant sign of hope. "As consumers become more educated on cannabis use and cultivation, they're going to start to recognize the difference between craft-grown cannabis versus mass produced...which gives cultivators the opportunity to grow more craft strains."

In a statement, Sen. McGuire’s office said the aim of the law is to expand protections for cannabis growers and the authenticity of their product.  "This law will prevent cannabis manufacturers from claiming, for example, their product is grown in the emerald triangle, when in fact it was grown in Sacramento," McGuire stated. "The law takes into account the critical ingredients to a successful appellation designation such as geographic location, soil types, farming techniques and microclimates."

Again invoking the precedent in viniculture, McGuire added: "Customers have come to expect truth in labeling in wine and this critical bill ensures manufacturers market products that meet similar appellation requirements with Cannabis.”

Details of how the system will work are to be drawn up in the coming months by CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing, a division of the  California Department of Food & Agriculture (CDFA). The CDFA is hoping the system will be in place by 2022.

The wine industry model 
The CDFA will doubtlessly be looking closely at the appellation system already in place for the wine industry  

A useful overview of this system is provided by the comprehensive if self-depreciatingly named website Wine Folly. "Very basically, an appellation is how a country categorizes its wines by geo-political boundaries," it states. "Each appellation has laws and regulations that may dictate where the grapes were grown and how the wine was made."

This system came to the United States in 1980, when the federal Treasury Department recognized the first American Viticulture Areas. (Viticulture refers generally to the cultivation of grapes, while viniculture refers more specifically to wine production.)

There are now some 240 federally-recognized AVAs across the country. Some, such as the Mississippi River AVA, span millions of acres, while others consist of only a few hundred acres. In order for a wine to win an AVA label, at least 85% of the grapes must come from the designated AVA. Some of these geographic entities overlap. For instance, the Oakville AVA is a sub-appellation of the Napa Valley AVA, itself a sub-appellation of the North Coast AVA.

France was the first to establish such a system back in 1937 (ironically, the same year cannabis was banned by federal law in the US). The system, dubbed the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC, or Controlled Appellation of Origin), has now been folded into the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) system, rendered in French as Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP), so the French system is now officially the AOC/AOP. It is overseen by the Agriculture Ministry's National Institute of Origin & Quality (INAO). Today, there are over 360 AOCs in France, mostly within 11 primary growing regions, prominently including the Rhône, Loire, Alsace and Bordeaux.

Italy's system was established in 1963, in emulation of the French, and today also conforms to the EU's PDO standards. The Italian Agriculture Ministry maintains two designations: the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (Denomination of Controlled Origin, or DOC) and the more prestigious Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin, or DOCG). Today Italy has 329 DOCs and 73 DOCGs.

Spain has a more complicated system still, with the basic Denomination of Origin (Denominación de Origen, DO), the more prestigious Denomination of Protected Origin (Denominación de Origen Protegida, DOP), and the most exacting Vino de Pagos (VT) for individual vineyards. Spain has established 79 DOPs and 15 VTs. 

The EU's PDO system applies not only to wine but to a wide variety of agricultural products including cheeses, meats, honey and olive oil. So the CDFA will certainly be especially examining this system as it crafts the California appellations.

We can imagine that the micro-zones of Mendocino will become sub-appellations of the Emerald Triangle, itself a sub-appellation of a North Coast cannabis cultivation area.

Cannabis and wine go to war in Oregon?
Oregon may be the next state to adopt an appellation system, as the Beaver State's Craft Cannabis Alliance has emerged as a powerful agricultural lobby. It was instrumental in the passage of a recent bill putting Oreogn on record as supporting establishment of an interstate cannabis trade.

But the terroir question has actually pitted wine and cannabis producers against each other in at least one case in Oregon. Trade journal Wine Searcher recently reported on the legal battle being waged by Moe Momtazi, who runs the esteemed Maysara Vineyard in Oregon's Yamhill County (heart of the state's own Wine Country), against his neighbor Richard Wagner to stop his cannabis grow operation. Momtazi claims "foul-smelling particles" from the cannabis plants are tainting the prized terroir of his meticulously grown grapes. A rather harrowing account on the case in The Outline magazine last year portrays the rural feud as escalating nearly to the level of a Wild West range war.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Photo by futurefilmworks


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