Marijuana grown for medical purposes is shown inside a greenhouse at a farm in Potter Valley, Calif., in Mendocino County, which is part of the Emerald Triangle that also includes Humboldt and Trinity counties. (Eric Risberg, Associated Press file)

Coveted cannabis: Why California weed growers are pursuing appellations like wine makers

2017 could be a pivotal year for marijuana growers and consumers alike in California – and particularly in the state’s fabled Emerald Triangle region.

If California voters approve a recreational legalization measure next month growers in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties — the area making up the Emerald Triangle — will face a variety of new dilemmas.

One big worry involves speculators snapping up land in the region, and openly planning to exploit the area’s decades-old reputation for producing some of America’s best and most potent cannabis.

“It’s like a gold rush,” Humboldt County real estate broker Kevin Sullivan recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. “People are coming from all over the place, from different states, and they’re all buying to grow or to split the land up for multiple people to grow. It’s pot on crack, and it’s driving prices up.”

That land-grab frenzy has many Emerald Triangle growers and producers looking for ways to ensure their region remains known for its quality marijuana.

Local government has stepped in to help. Humboldt County initiated a pilot Track and Trace Program. The program began in August and concludes next month. It uses technology to monitor the movement of medical cannabis from its original growth phase and through the supply chain. The county notes that Track and Trace “will also help protect the Humboldt artisanal brand of medicinal cannabis, as required by the county’s Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance.”

And protecting those long-established, artisanal brands of pot in the Emerald Triangle has prompted some in the region to look into creating a cannabis version of California’s famous and lucrative Napa Valley wine country — by establishing the marijuana equivalent of wine appellations.

As Wine Magazine succinctly puts it, the appellation system “is based on precisely defined wine regions, some as small as a single vineyard.”

That’s why, by European law, a bottle of champagne must be made from grapes grown, fermented and bottled in or very near France’s Champagne region; otherwise it must be labeled as “sparkling wine.” And as of last year there were over 60 appellations from France’s largest wine-producing region, Bordeaux.

Here in the New World, wine appellations are usually defined by their distinctive features and what is known as “terroir” — the nearly mystical combination of soil, elevation, sunlight and climate that can give wines their distinct flavor and character.

In California, with its huge cannabis market, the marijuana appellation concept is being supported by the state’s Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, created last year. One of the licensing requirements addressed by the Act notes it’s unlawful for medical marijuana “to be marketed, labeled, or sold as grown in a California county when the medical marijuana was not grown in that county.”

Admittedly, the issue of how to market, label and brand legal marijuana from specific regions is far from the top of the list of cannabis issues that California has to deal with.

But according to Richard Mendelson, a Napa Valley-based attorney and expert on vineyard and wine law issues, “It’s important that there was recognition that (cannabis) appellations should not be misused.”

Mendelson, who also directs the Program on Wine Law and Policy at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Law, is now working with marijuana growers in Mendocino County, who are coming up with their own cannabis appellation system.

One of that plan’s major proponents, grower Justin Calvino of the Appellations Project, has proposed setting up 11 different grow zones within the county that would produce their own uniquely-cultivated and specifically-labeled pot strains.

Calvino said he believes that the concept of terroir is as important for cannabis as it is for wine. “Just like you have Anderson Valley pinot noir, you’d have Anderson Valley Pineapple (cannabis strain),” he recently told the Press-Democrat. “The Pineapple grows the way it does because it enjoys the same regional and environmental effects as the wine.”

During a phone interview with The Cannabist, Mendelson says Calvino understands that successful cannabis strains, like wine varietals, come from a unique blend of terroir, history and the grower’s understanding of their crop.

“A lot of what makes wine and cannabis special is that you’re dealing with a product that’s been grown for a long time, whether that was done legally or whatever,” he adds. “It’s been there and people have learned. They know their environment, they know their own culture, they share knowledge.”

Of course, cannabis cultivation and branding comes with its own unique set of challenges. Mendelson notes that a lot of marijuana is grown indoors, in green houses and hydroponically, so the issue of terroir is quite different when compared to wines.

“Because if you’re not in native soil, or you’re in water or you’re indoors, then … what do the appellations apply to, what products do they apply to?” he asks.

Part of the answer appears to be with the growing experimentation in cannabis clones, a.k.a. a cutting from a marijuana plant that brings with it the unique genetic qualities of the parent plant.

Mendelson believes that cloning so-called heritage or heirloom strains of marijuana will ensure those strains will maintain their integrity; much like you can drink cabernet sauvignons grown and bottled in a wide variety of regions and even countries.

“I expect the same thing will happen with cannabis,” he observes. “In cannabis, people are going to experiment with strains, they’re going to breed; they’re going to cross-breed. You’ll have a little bit of everything. You’ll have a certainty that the cannabis was grown in the boundary of whatever we call the appellation.”

But he expects any marijuana appellation system will take many years to become fully functional, and also require a lot of consumer input — as marijuana strains, and specific brands, are accepted and sought out by customers.

“This is really important,” he says, “because appellations are items of intellectual property.”

Some cannabis proponents believe marijuana appellations will help keep cannabis in the hands of small, independent growers, but Mendelson disagrees with that assessment.

“In terms of big versus small, it’s just like in the wine industry,” he notes. “There are lots of big companies that use the smallest of appellations. So an appellation does not per se favor a big or small company. But it does allow a small guy who’s looking for a legitimate hook, looking for a way to establish his or her identity, to say: ‘I’m a small producer, with a small prestigious appellation,’ and that could be a boon to the small producer or the small retailer.”

And Mendelson foresees a time in the near future when consumers can choose between the cannabis equivalents of a jug wine, versus something like a really fine Côtes du Rhône.

“There’s an aficionado element in the cannabis world that appreciates the heritage clone, the heritage strain, the characteristics produced by the environment that are special and that can’t be repeated elsewhere,” he adds. “Yes, I think there is going to be market segmentation and a whole array of price points, just like in the wine industry.”