The Value of Terroir and Appellations

It has been reported that there is a movement afoot to claim appellations for Mendocino County Cannabis. The rumor is almost correct! It really is much bigger than just one county, it concerns all cannabis producing regions of California and ultimately the whole country, as cannabis becomes legal throughout the United States. The movement is still in its formative stages, yet I believe it is the single most important proactive action small, artisanal, craft cannabis growers can take to carve out a tiny niche in the coming mass market and the inevitable takeover by big business.

The Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP), working with the California Growers Association (CGA) and the International Cannabis Farmers Association (ICFA), leads this grass roots effort designed to develop consensus around collective recommendations to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) for program parameters and baseline qualifiers for Appellation of Origin. CCIA has been peripherally involved in this discussion as well.

We have agreed to and are recommending that, in order to qualify for Appellation of Origin (AO), California cannabis must be cultivated outdoors, in full sun and in the ground. We are recommending that additional qualifying standards beyond these baseline qualifiers be regionally developed based on local input and research. ICFA is introducing legislation to enact County Agricultural Commissions for outdoor cannabis, which will support the regional research for these AO standards.

But what is appellation? In French, it means “to be called,” which is what one learns in French 101: “Je m’appelle Pierre,” meaning “I call myself Pierre,” or “My name is Pierre.”

For wines produced in France, there are very specific rules that determine the use of “appellation d’origine contrôlée ” (AOC), or “use of the name of origin is controlled.” In other words, French wines are labelled by the region from which they originate.

The use of AOC for wine is fairly recent. The first Appellation was created in 1855 by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. In 1905, the French Government created laws regulating the nation’s entire wine industry. The most well known names are Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Today, worldwide, there are many AOCs for wine. (We encourage you to check out Zoe Wilder’s excellent article on the topic in MERRY JANE.)

In the United States, curiously, “appellation of origin” (AO) is not used. Instead, there is a system called American Viticultural Area (AVA) which is simply a Geographic Indicator. AVAs are defined solely by geographical provenance, such as the name of a local Post Office, or the name of a mountain or a cliff under which grapes are grown. The Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association’s “Mendocino Grown” label is an example. There is nothing qualitative about it. Unlike AO’s, the AVA system does not include producer requirements related to agricultural practices, local varietals and region specific qualitative standards. In this regard, California Senate Bill SB94 has set out to create an appellations system for cannabis that is much more akin to the Old World appellation d’origine contrôlée  of France. SB94’s language mandates the inclusion of “standards, practices and varietals” in a statewide appellation of origin program for cannabis.

Appellations of Origin are a special kind of Geographic Indicator (GI). GIs fall under intellectual property rights. They grant exclusive rights to use the name of the place on labels of qualifying products produced in that place. Appellation of Origin designations are awarded to products that have proven that the qualitative characteristics of the product are an exclusive result of the product’s geographical origin and the cultural heritage of the place.

In France, appellation is also used for other food items such as various regional cheeses, honey, lavender and other agricultural products. (Apparently, Roquefort cheese was granted an appellation in 1411.) The key concept is that there is something very special about a particular region that is remarkably noticeable in the final product, be it cheese or wine. On the first sip one can instantly tell that a wine is from Bordeaux and not from Burgundy or the Moselle.

Frenchy Cannoli, respected cannabis hashishin, has written about Appellation d’origine Contrôlée . He highlights three attributes the wine industry has defined as necessary for distinction:

  1. A long-standing reputation for quality in the producing region
  2. Consistent characteristics that define the wine from the specific domains in the region
  3. A public recognition of the wine’s ability to maintain this identity over time

Frenchy asserts that, “The Cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle and other regions of the U.S. meet all these same prerequisites:”

  1. “A long-standing reputation for quality known the world over.
  2. 60+ years of defined genetic characteristics from specific farmers within the regions.
  3. Long term public recognition of the superiority of the cannabis grown in the area.”

To compare cannabis with wine tasting: Can a connoisseur really tell the difference between the same strain of OG grown in Humboldt, Mendocino, Nevada or Santa Cruz Counties? More precisely, the question becomes, “Which strains have been found to grow the best in which specific areas and so become signature strains for that area?” In essence, it all boils down to the question: Is a cannabis strain grown in the Bell Springs Appellation of Mendocino noticeably different from the same strain or phenotype grown in Anderson Valley Appellation Mendocino?

For the food and wine connoisseurs of Europe, there are three basic elements determining the essence of an appellation: Character, Quality and Personality. Character is defined or created by the terroir. Quality is the result of winemaking, the skill of the vintner. Personality is the result of weather, which is different every year. (See The Vintner’s Art, How Great Wines Are Made, by Hugh Johnson.)

Ask a Frenchman, “What is Terroir?,” and you will trigger a passionate exposition of this most subtle, indefinable yet quintessential notion. It begins with the statement that every single plant or animal that evolved on this planet was a particular product of the exact environment in which it assumed the present form. Every terroir produces species uniquely adapted to all the features of that place: soil quality, water quality, air quality, climate conditions, geology and geography, as well as the other plants and animals which occupy the same environment.

Applied to cultivated crops terroir also includes ethnobotany, the interaction of humans with a plant species to improve it for our use. For example, the development of tiny little ears of corn from Meso-America into the the giant varied forms of corn today or the genetic development of cannabis strains in many different climates or the worldwide distribution of crops with special local qualities such as Virginia tobacco, Egyptian cotton, Idaho potatoes, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, Darjeeling tea, Basmati rice, etc. All of these crops gain value because they’re tied to a specific, respected “place.”

Depending on the region, cultivators develop agricultural methods that dovetail with an area’s unique conditions and breed strains which thrive in that environment. Over time, a cultural body of knowledge grows. That knowledge gets passed on organically from father to son, neighbor to neighbor: How to do things best? What to do at each time of year? What to do when a crisis occurs? “Oh! This is just like what happened 80 years ago when your grandfather was alive, and this is what he did…” This cultural component of terroir is the most difficult to define, but is just as essential as any of the other physical elements.

Of the three essentials: Character, Quality, Personality, the last, Personality, is the indication that weather affects each cannabis crop differently. The Quality of the smoking experience (Is it harsh or smooth, flavorful or not, stoney or not?) is witness to the skill of the grower, who is also master of the harvesting and curing of the flowers. And, yet, there is something else. It’s called Character, which is sensed in the balance of cannabinoids, the array and proportion of terpenes, the color and shape of the bud. There is something ineffable, something that tells you after the second puff that this is “Mendo”, this is the real stuff, this is the best. That’s terroir!

Today in France terroir is also commonly used to mean simply “local” as in “cuisine du terroir,” meaning local dishes or “produits du terroir,” meaning local, regional products. Terroir is everything that makes a place unique. Every place is special, but what exactly are the conditions that make each place different?

Obviously, Mendocino is not the only place with terroir. Any other cannabis growing region can organize their community of cultivators, gather the data and demonstrate an area’s uniqueness through strains, methodologies used, etc.. The advantage of this are what are called “value added” qualities. For example, hand-trimmed, grown from seed in full sun using organic methods: all are features adding to the value of the flowers. Adding the designation of Potter Valley, Anderson Valley or Bell Springs Appellation to one’s label will first and foremost be a guarantee of quality and distinction, as well as rewarding the farmer for their extra care and labor.

This is where the local farmers are the source of the data on rain, sun, fog, frost, heat, pests, genetics, nutrients, soil conditions, water sources and quality, planting times, harvest procedures, etc. The point is that each area that wishes to claim a unique terroir needs to gather many kinds of environmental and cultural data which can be combined with data for California State’s required Track-and-Trace program so as to highlight valuable distinctions between various genetic strains produced in different climate and soil conditions.

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