How the new California cannabis appellations law borrows from the wine industry

California’s marijuana industry has no further to look than the Napa Valley when establishing regional identities for its cannabis products.

The Napa Valley Vintners Association, in fact, offers a blueprint for California cannabis producers to follow.

“Wine is really the ultimate product of place,” said Rex Stults, vice president of the association. “The microclimate, soils, geology – all of that factors in to the types of grapes that grow well in certain areas.”

Wine producers have long used appellations to establish reputations for quality and distinct characteristics of products from specific regions as well as to educate consumers about unique flavors and profiles generated by a certain place.

California’s new appellations law, Senate Bill 67, affords marijuana growers similar opportunities.

Legacy cannabis farmers can claim, market and protect the unique character of the marijuana produced in their regions, highlighting flavor, potency and quality differences for each place. (How California cannabis growers can make best use of the new law.)

Protecting the reputation of those regions is critical to the success of the wine industry, Stults added, and that can be applied to marijuana as well.

“Place names are really important and can be a really critical tool to developing and strengthening the cannabis industry,” Stults said.

So far, it seems to Stults that the cannabis industry is doing everything correctly, including making the appellations meaningful and putting enough teeth in the regulations to ensure consumer confidence.

One point of contention was early discussion that the California Department of Food and Agriculture was going to allow appellation names for indoor-grown cannabis.

Stults called that “absurd,” asking how indoor-grown cannabis could claim terroir.

Now it’s up to the cannabis industry to build trust so the place names connect with consumers in a positive way.

“If you develop a reputation for having a delicious, high-quality product, then the name of the region becomes synonymous with the product,” Stults said. “The product has to be good consistently year after year.”

Another parallel from wine that the cannabis industry might consider – farm tours to taste the product and see where it’s grown.

The Napa Valley has benefited from such a plan to the tune of more than 3 million visitors a year coming to tour vineyards and taste wine.

Stults said building that personal connection from consumer to grower has worked well.

“The cannabis industry would be wise to look at that and see if there’s a way to adopt it,” he added.

To that end, Genine Coleman founded the Origins Council, based in Mendocino, which is focused on the economic development of legacy-producing regions in California.

She’s been advocating for this appellations designation for about five years, highlighting the causal link between the natural environment and how humans have adapted to grow cannabis is specific regions.

“It’s really setting up this program to be a traditional casual-link program like we see in Europe with wine,” Coleman said.

She’s also interested in how terroir would present national and international market opportunities in the event of federal legalization.

Coleman believes the small craft producers that grow on less than a quarter of an acre and make up the majority of farmers that she works with will be able to “compete in a global craft cannabis market” under the new law.

Terroir-based marketing should serve to expand consumer awareness around the genetics that have been stewarded for generations by these legacy producers and also help to educate shoppers about the farming practices the growers use, she said.

Coleman pointed out that cannabis is very responsive as an annual plant.

“It adapts to the region and the farmer working to choose the genetics that are best for the environment,” she added.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at [email protected]

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