By Ryan Burns | Photo By Beau Sanders
The analogy gets used so often it’s practically a cliché: Humboldt County is (or perhaps still aspires to be) to cannabis what Napa Valley is to wine — that is, a geographical locale so widely renowned for producing a particular agricultural product that the name alone serves as an imprimatur of quality.
Existing law — namely, the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MAUCRSA) — protects against imposters by allowing licensed cultivators to designate a county of origin if and only if100 percent of the cannabis was grown within that county. (It also protects against misleading branding, like when an L.A. cannabis startup christened itself “hmbldt.”)
But a new law aims to enshrine even more rigorous standards for geographically specific excellence while incentivizing eco-friendly outdoor farming. And once again, the model was borrowed from the wine industry.
Senate Bill 67, which was introduced by North Coast legislators Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblymember Jim Wood and signed into law last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom, opens the door for small-scale cannabis cultivators to establish appellations of origin based on terroir, a French term that describes a region’s distinct environmental conditions — such as soil, climate and sunlight — which manifest in crops grown there.
“This legislation really sets a new standard across this nation for quality in cannabis,” McGuire told the Outpost in a phone conversation Friday. “We all know that world-class cannabis originates from Humboldt County and other Northern California counties, and we have to protect that.”
This new law says that the California Department of Food and Agriculture can only approve appellations of origin for cannabis that’s planted in the ground and grown under the sun, without any structures or artificial light.
“This is the first appellations-of-origin law passed in the United States, and we hope this becomes a model around the country,” McGuire said.
The idea is for farmers in a specific region to come together and agree upon a set of cultivation practices that, along with their region’s environment, will define the terroir of their particular appellation. In this context, an appellation won’t be anything so large as an entire county — more like a valley or watershed with its own microclimate.
One of the local cannabis farmers looking to take advantage of a terroir-based appellations program is Drew Barber, who owns and operates East Mill Creek Farms, a 10,000-square-foot outdoor operation in Southern Humboldt.
“We have kind of a unique climate in the Lower Mattole,” Barber said. This microclimate — not a lot of wind or fog, plenty of sun but few scorchingly hot temperatures — gives his cannabis distinct characteristics. “We get slightly different terpene profiles than other farms,” Barber said, referring to the organic compounds that give weed its aromas.
Barber enjoys talking about how a plant’s environment influences its expression. “Plants are producing secondary plant compounds — CBD, THC, terpenes — in response to environmental stressors,” he explained. “We don’t have a problem producing those stressors in the outdoors. There’s wind, temperature fluctuations, you have animals digging around at the roots [and] worms in the native soil.”
All these variables contribute to what Barber calls each harvest’s “unique fingerprint.”
“If we refine our abilities to perceive that, either through testing or tasting, then we can recognize some of those environmental influences,” he said.
If such talk reminds you of wine aficionados waxing poetic about the”voluptuous tannins” and “angular body” of a certain vintage, well, that’s no coincidence. Wine grapes are the model, here. But Dr. Dominic Corva, co-director of Humboldt State University’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, said the concept of terroir isn’t mumbo-jumbo.
“Absolutely, the environment matters in terms of producing distinct characteristics in a plant,” he said. “You don’t just have a clone or a seed that comes out the same whether it’s grown indoors under artificial lighting or outdoors in the soil. It’s always different. Absolutely, the environment matters. That’s cannabis cultivation 101.”
While acknowledging that he’s not a soil scientist (rather, he’s a social scientist and geographer), Corva said he “knows an awful lot about the cultural and physical aspects of cultivation that are appropriate for appellations.” And he thinks that a terroir-based appellation system will benefit small-scale craft producers in particular.
“It’s not just the physical location or microclimate,” he said. “There’s a strong cultural element to appellations. … There’s a shared set of practices around cultivation.”
Referring to the wine-growing regions of France and the larger Mediterranean, Corva said winemakers in each little valley and community historically produced quite similar-tasting wines. “People who are dependent on each other tend to develop a shared set of meanings and practices,” he said. “Maybe they all do the same thing during different parts of the season because they learned from each other. Maybe they’re using the same genetics.”
It’s also a matter of banding together to gain a competitive advantage. Referring again to regional European winemakers, Corva said, “Their wine and their neighbors’ wine need to be the same quality so they can gain a marketing edge. “
Barber invoked the famous Champagne region of France, where the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne has established rigorous regulations governing harvest times, curing, pressing and more. For example, the grapes must be hand-picked by or else the finished product can’t be called champagne.
“The extra touch of hand-harvest helps more people be employed,” Barber said, “but it also helps because there are more eyes on the grapes, so you end up with fewer moldy, dis-flavored grapes in the product. The same is true with cannabis, whether you’re dealing with a dandelion head or a flower mold.”
Such labor-intensive practices can be a competitive disadvantage in a lucrative agricultural-commodity industry that includes hundred-acre mega-grows in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties.
“That’s where we hope the consumer will appreciate that value-add,” Barber said. He and some of his neighbors in the Mattole Valley have formed an agricultural cooperative called Uplift, and as the terroir-based appellations legislation wended its way toward the governor’s desk, Barber and his neighbors — co-op members and non-members alike — have been talking about the concept and the opportunities it may present.
“We’re actively discussing it and organizing ourselves so we can implement it,” Barber said. The process of establishing a set of communal practices, obtaining a certified terroir-based appellation, and then getting those products to market may take years. “We all realize it’s a really long play,” Barber said, “but we hope it’s a way to preserve outdoor growing, not only to stay viable but so the culture of outdoor growing continues to exist.”
Indoor grow ops have advantages such as climate control and the ability to produce multiple harvests per year, but Barber and other so-called “legacy” farmers believe in the environmental benefits of sun-grown cannabis. They also believe that there’s a market for it.
“If people care enough to have a hybrid vehicle and they’re mindful about climate change then I hope they would make a consistent decision with their values and ethics when they go to purchase their cannabis,” Barber said.
Hannah Whyte, who co-owns Emerald Queen Farms in Willow Creek with her husband, Riley, has also been keeping close tabs on the appellations legislation, and she agreed with Barber about the challenges inherent in outdoor growing.
“It’s a big gamble,” she told the Outpost in a recent phone conversation. “It’s essentially the most difficult way to produce this plant, but it gives that craft and marketing edge that I think discerning consumers want.”
Whyte described SB 67 as “kind of a Hail Mary” attempt to change the regulatory framework established with the passage of Proposition 64, the 2016 Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), which legalized recreational cannabis in California. She believes that by providing for terroir-based appellations, the state government can leave a window of opportunity open for craft-scale farmers.
“I really feel like it’s a pay-it-forward [gift] to the future by creating more opportunities for farmers to see a market advantage in reducing their carbon footprint and enhancing this product,” Whyte said.
Terra Carver, who recently resigned from her position as executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, a nonprofit cannabis industry group she co-founded in 2017, said she was thrilled by the grassroots effort that culminated in SB 67 getting signed into law.
“This is a bold statement and I’m gonna say it: Democracy is alive and well from Humboldt County to Sacramento,” Carver said. “This bill shows that.”
There were no high-powered lobbyists or big business interests advocating for an appellations-based regulatory system. Instead, Carver said, a group of farmers worked with the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors — “Estelle [Fennell, the Second District supervisor] was key on this,” she noted — which endorsed the concept. That, in turn, activated Senator McGuire and the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, creating a “domino effect” that landed the legislation on Newsom’s desk.
“It says a lot about people — literal people, not lobbyists or big money — coming together with an idea and utilizing local and state government representatives to do their jobs and get that governor’s signature,” Carver said. “I’m really proud of everybody involved, and it worked.”
According to the HCGA, the wine industry provided more than just inspiration. “[T]he California wine industry was a powerful ally, lending both political support and technical expertise in establishing terroir-based appellations,” the group said in a press release.
However, Ross Gordon, HCGA’s policy director, said there’s one more regulatory hurdle to clear before terroir-based appellations become fully enshrined in the state’s regulatory framework. The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently closed a public comment period regarding a slew of proposed regulations in the cannabis industry, including SB 67.
The coalition that helped pass that bill is concerned that the CDFA might create a system in which appellations could be based not on terroir but merely on a region’s reputation. Under that type of model, simply being located in the Emerald Triangle region of Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties might be enough to qualify for appellation status.
“We’re asking for reputation alone not to be the basis” of an appellation, Gordon said. “That can be a part of it, but there needs to be a tie to the physical land.”
In order for the system to have integrity, he argued, “it needs to be shown that when you talk about appellations, you’re talking about the relationship between the land, the climate and the final product.”
McGuire agrees. “What we have said to the Department of Food and Agriculture is, ‘Let’s not remake the wheel,’” he said, adding that a terroir-based system “set up worldwide standards for quality wine, so our whole intent is to replicate what’s been successful for the cannabis community. Why upset the apple cart? We believe the two standards — wine and cannabis — should be similar. We see no reason to differentiate between the two.”
The CDFA’s deadline to implement regulations for cannabis appellations is Jan. 1, 2021. Barber hopes that regulators in Sacramento will recognize and respect the “causal link” he sees between environment and product. “If you take the environmental fingerprint out of it,” he said, “appellations have very little meaning.”