California cannabis industry strives for appellations, just like wine

California’s legal cannabis industry, not yet 4 years old, yearns for the same system of tying plants to the soil perfected by the French over centuries and a key to the marketing success of the state’s premium wine grape growers.

Tended for decades in legal darkness before voters ended the prohibition on cannabis in 2016, the intoxicating crop from Northern California in particular earned a global reputation for delivering euphoria as well as relief from various maladies.

Now, the burgeoning multi-billion dollar industry wants to stamp its products with geographic identifiers, just like France’s famed burgundies and Alexander Valley’s cabernet sauvignon.

The cornerstone of France’s appellation system is terroir — a word with no English equivalent but loosely translated as “sense of place” — based on the premise that soil, climate and topography endow grapes with unique characteristics.

Not everyone buys the concept of terroir, but winemakers and cannabis cultivators are united in translating it as “cha-ching.”

Cultivators are enthusiastic about a bill establishing the framework for California cannabis appellations as soon as this summer, cementing the system — the first of its kind in the world — in terroir.

To qualify for an appellation of origin, basically a geographic identity, cannabis products would have to be made exclusively from plants grown in the ground, in open air and under nothing but sunshine until harvest.

Plants raised in greenhouses or indoors need not apply.

Northern California cannabis already has global cachet, said Joanna Cedar of Sebastopol, a Sonoma County Growers Alliance board member.

“The reputation is already there,” the former Santa Rosa High School teacher said. “Appellations of origin will institutionalize the product … make it recognizable for consumers everywhere.”

“Appellations of origin generate a higher price in the market,” said Cedar, who considers herself a “policy wonk.” “This is the road map for what will be 10 to 15 years from now.”

“It’s a market differentiator,” said Joe Rogoway, a Santa Rosa attorney whose office exclusively practices cannabis industry law. “It’s a really exciting development.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat whose district stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border, including the famed pot-growing Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, introduced the appellation bill June 30, along with Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa.

“Consumers have come to trust appellation labeling for wine,” McGuire said, calling it “an indicator of quality in the United States.”

The roots of California’s cannabis industry lie on the North Coast, where gardens tended for generations by small family farmers constituted a durable economy as other industries, such as logging, declined.

Local efforts have sought to carve out cannabis appellations for years. The Mendocino Appellations Project, for example, was advocating for distinct, recognized growing regions in the county even before voters legalized recreational marijuana four years ago.

The bill from McGuire and Wood, SB 67, would create a statewide framework and will “protect our status as the world’s premiere growing region in the future,” McGuire said.

His bill has support from 15 cannabis-related organizations, including the National Cannabis Industry Association, a lobbying group headed by Aaron Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County and graduated from El Molino High School.

Humboldt and Mendocino county supervisors endorsed the concept of terroir recognition, with John Haschak, the Mendocino board chairman, saying it would “provide sustainable economic development by connecting craft cannabis to our land and help to support our heritage farmers.”

Genine Coleman, founder and executive of the Mendocino-based Origins Council, which has worked on appellations policy for five years, called McGuire a “champion of our cause.”

“It’s been a farm-driven advocacy movement for sure,” she said. Linking the “value of the product to the land itself is really the strongest protection we can provide to the small farmers.“

Borrowing the appellation system from grape growers makes sense, Coleman said. “It’s worked well for them,“ she said.

There are 18 wine appellations — also known as American Viticultural Areas — in Sonoma County, with a 19th in the works, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

To qualify, a vineyard area must have unique soil, climate and elevation as well as history.

“From a marketing perspective, the AVAs add value to the overall story of Sonoma County and have been an investment made by the wine industry for almost 40 years,” Kruse said in an email.

Cannabis appellations are “a creature of Proposition 64,” Rogoway said, referring to the Adult Use of Marijuana Act approved by 57% of state voters in November 2016. The measure allowed people 21 and over to consume cannabis, put taxes on it and established a bureaucracy to regulate the new industry.

Prop. 64 mentioned appellations only four times and set a vague standard for them, asserting only that an appellation of origin should be “applicable to marijuana grown or cultivated in a certain geographical area in California.”

McGuire’s first appellation bill, SB 185, last year mandated that the designation could appear on a product label only if 100% of the cannabis was produced in the specified geographic area.

SB 67 clarifies the standard by adding the terroir connection, he said. The bill needs a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and Assembly to qualify as an urgency measure, taking immediate effect — assuming the governor signs off — in time to meet the California Department of Food & Agriculture’s Jan. 1, 2021, deadline for completing appellation rules.

The prospects appear good, considering SB 185 made it through both chambers on a combined vote of 116-0.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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