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The Story Behind California's Cannabis Appellations

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the US Department of the Treasury (TTB) defines an appellation of origin as: a country, US state (or the foreign equivalent), US county (or the foreign equivalent), a multi-county appellation of up to three counties, or a government recognized viticultural area. What is key to all parts of the TTB’s definition of an appellation is that they are based on geography. According to the federal registrar, California has more than 180 American Viticultural Areas, which form the backbone for wine appellations in the state.

In what is likely the first such endeavor in the country, Mendocino County is being divided into cannabis appellations, or specific regions, for the purpose of protection and promotion of the county’s cannabis.

“Appellations can be really powerful because they can be a means to protect everything from the intellectual property, to the labor force, to the culture and history. They can be very rich vehicles for promotion, protection, and rural development,” said wine legal expert Richard Mendelson.

For the last 30 years, Mendelson has been a key player in the creation of Napa County’s wine appellations, and has been sought after for advice by the group called the Mendocino Appellations Project.

The effort, which began last year, is buoyed by legislation passed in October that redefined cannabis cultivation as agriculture. Under the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, the Department of Food and Agriculture will create state licensing requirements and address environmental concerns. The act also makes it a crime for medical marijuana to be marketed, labeled, or sold as grown in a California county when it was not. The protective rules closely resemble those put in place to protect California’s wine regions, which is regulated at the federal level.

But, unlike wine, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.

“You have a product coming out of prohibition, essentially. Marijuana growers are caught in a very difficult situation. It’s a bit of a ‘catch-22’. Even though it’s legal at the state level, it’s not legal at the federal level. They can’t operate in the normal way by creating bank accounts and the like. Appellations will help show the legitimacy of what they are doing,” Mendelson said.

Mendocino County is a cannabis grower’s community. Cannabis is in the culture. There are generations of farmers, a heritage, and a history of practices. With the legalization of medical marijuana, and the possibility of authorizing the legal recreational use of marijuana before the voters in November, there has been a lot of talk about big tobacco companies like Marlboro and R.J. Reynolds busting in and buying land and farms, said Justin Calvino of the the Mendocino Appellations Project. There are also concerns about land grabs from individuals outside the area, who pose a threat of diluting Mendocino cannabis.

“Mendocino is the Napa Valley of cannabis. It is by far the most conducive place for outdoor cultivation,” he said. “Mendocino is a growing culture you won’t find anywhere else.”

The project began when Calvino obtained a topographical map of the county, and started talking to growers and others in the industry. After a survey of local farmers last fall, an appellation map was created that now has 11 different micro-regions, based on ecological characteristics of that area, such as the watershed and microclimate, and information from those he talked with.

“Initially, some didn’t understand the concept, but then I also heard a lot of pride from farmers who felt honored and protected belonging to an appellation,” Calvino said.

The current proposed regions are Spyrock-Bell Springs, Covelo-Dos Rios, Long Valley-Branscomb-Leggett, Willits, Comptche, Ukiah Valley, North Mendocino Coast, South Mendocino Coast, Anderson Valley South Mendocino, Potter Valley, and Mountainhouse South Mendocino County.

“I like the way he’s gone about it, because he’s factored in not just the natural elements, he’s gone out and spoken to growers, asking the old-timers what they think, and is making revisions. He’s being true to the history. This is a template for the future, creating a dossier of physical and human, historical factors – I applaud him for that,” Mendelson said.

There are a few issues that need to be resolved. One thing they have to think long and hard about, Mendelson said, is whether they are going to brand the name “Mendocino” itself, or focus efforts on a lot of smaller areas.

Calvino said he’d like to see the county establish a certification such as “Mendocino Made,” much like “Napa,” which will allow local farmers to brand their products under a larger regional umbrella, as well as work in smaller groups to establish branding for the appellations and their associated characteristics.

Another issue is environmental standards.

“In today’s market there is a real focus on environmental standards. Abiding by good environmental standards, the same way we do in viticulture, is going to be a critical part of authenticity of the product. I think that’s going to be inevitable in the cannabis world,” said Mendelson.

One of the biggest on-going debates is whether cannabis grown indoors can have terroir, a wine term which means the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma. Calvino maintains he brings the same practices from his outdoor growing to his indoor growing, thus preserving the terroir.

Many growers, including Calvino, supplement their income with indoor growing that has artificial lighting and soil that may be purchased from outside the region.

As with wine, the creation of appellations will also allow growers to experiment with strains to distinguish flavor from each other.

“This is what makes wine so much fun for consumers, to experiment and to be able to go from the larger country and regional levels all the way down to the specific vineyard designation, and see, as a consumer if you can spot those differences and understand the effect of terroir on the final product,” Mendelson said.

Calvino agrees.

“Tourism is big. We want people to come out and visit our tasting rooms. We want the debate and the talk about our appellations, and which one does it better than another,” he said.

Along with Mendocino, Mendelson has also been in conversation with other counties in Northern California about the creation of appellations.

Calvino, who sits on the board of directors of the California Grower’s Association, a statewide cannabis trade and advocacy organization, has been asked to lead a working group on appellations for the state. The next place he has his eye on is Humboldt County.

Calvino also said he belongs to the Bioneers, a nonprofit for innovators with solutions to the world’s environmental and social challenges. The organization is made up of “visionary” leaders who, when they see something that needs to get done, they just do it. He would eventually like to see appellations for all types of micro-farming, including fruit, which he also grows.

“Like with wine, there are a number of young, serious cannabis entrepreneurs,” Mendelson said. “They want to do things right, they’re proud of their product and they’re doing their research. There’s a whole new breed, just like with the wine industry, the next generation wanting to build their expertise upon what other people have done. They are very serious about what they are doing and it’s good to see. The process will be fascinating.”

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