Champagne, Roquefort, and . . . Mendocino? The Appellations Discussion Warms Up

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Just as the terms Champagne and Roquefort are reserved for a certain wine and a certain cheese from particular parts of France, California is developing standards that will undergird the certifications officials will bestow on cannabis that is cultivated in jurisdictions throughout the state. 

Establishing these appellations is part of an effort to prevent the misrepresentation of regional products. Plus, at a series of workshops on the subject, state officials signaled that appellations could also serve to promote local businesses and maybe even “Encourage local municipalities to participate in the licensed cannabis marketplace”—a significant feat given that large swaths of the state still ban adult use sales. 

The move, however, has not gone without controversy. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is tasked with implementing the CalCannabis Appellations Project, envisions a petition process to establish an appellation. During six public workshops hosted across the state in September 2018, the department noted that though the American Viticultural Areas model recognizes geographical features of winegrowing regions, “it does not include regulations for the characteristics of the product or specific production standards and practices.” In contrast, the department pointed out, California statutes governing cannabis appellations do “mention standards, practices, varietals, and geographic areas.”

So in preparation for the project’s launch, which is slated for January 2021, state officials have invited stakeholders to join them in determining what standards, practices, and varietal restrictions should be included in a county appellation. They’ve also called for input regarding what the process itself should look like, who should be allowed to petition for an appellation, and how the petitions should be evaluated. 

Thus far, stakeholders have suggested that the boundaries of cannabis appellations should be defined by: growing conditions, elevation/altitude, precipitation, temperature, and native soil, among other factors. Also, in a summary of received public comments, the department noted that, with regard to standards, officials have been asked to consider sustainable practices, as well the drying and curing of the plant in the specific geographic area of the appellation. 

As Cannabis Wire reported, in August, some unlikely stakeholders answered the department’s call for input. In a letter to the Department of Food and Agriculture, the Southern California Coalition asked that indoor cultivators in the city of Los Angeles be granted their own appellation. According to the trade association, Los Angeles indoor cultivators merit a unique appellation because they successfully produce high-quality products, despite hostile temperatures, water shortages, and arid soil conditions. 

In addition to certified appellations, the Department of Food and Agriculture will also provide baseline county-of-origin designations, which, per the state’s Business and Professions Code, will be “defined by finite political boundaries.” A county-of-origin designation, however, was deemed insufficient by the Southern California Coalition. In his missive, Adam Spiker, the group’s executive director, underscored that the county of Los Angeles is so large that it encompasses various microclimates. Plus, should the county’s ban on cultivation be lifted in the future, cannabis produced in one part of the jurisdiction will likely be markedly different from cannabis grown in another. Granting an appellation to indoor cultivators in the city, Spiker argued, will enable them to protect the reputation of their crops. 

But not all cultivators agree. In its letter to the state, the Southern California Coalition said it had caught wind that some stakeholders are advocating for a “sun-grown” restriction, which would limit appellations to cannabis grown outdoors in full sunlight. To learn more about why some cultivators are calling for a “sun-grown” restriction, Cannabis Wire spoke with Genine Coleman, one of the restriction’s proponents. As co-founder and executive director of the Mendocino Appellations Project upstate, Coleman has worked alongside other local cultivators to develop appellations in the area since 2015. 

“I totally hear their concerns,” Coleman said, noting, as the Southern California Coalition did in its letter, that because several cities and counties in the state share a name, restricting appellations to entire counties “is something that not only affects Los Angeles.”

Then, pointing to the painstaking efforts cultivators in the city of Los Angeles have taken to successfully grow cannabis in a less-than-ideal climate, Coleman also agreed that “Los Angeles has a history and craft that should be protected.” Still, she maintains that appellations should not be granted to these urban cultivators. To explain her position, Coleman asked that stakeholders think on a global scale, in which an appellation has a “legally defensible causal link between the environment, farming practices, and product qualities.”

“The tradition of appellation of origin,” she added, “is used and established in many countries throughout the world. It is a very powerful tool, particularly in countries with a deep tradition of cannabis cultivation—some of whom have been cultivating for hundreds of thousands of years.” 

As countries throughout the world open up to a regulated cannabis industry, “small operators are in a very difficult position, particularly as corporate money comes into play.” Appellations, in Coleman’s view, can serve as a means to protect vulnerable groups in the global economy. “One of the beauties of appellations,” she said, “is that the standards provide a way to protect genetics, and it ties that protection to the dirt itself. This is a tool that enables traditionally-producing communities to remain on their land.” 

Though California is solely developing standards for its cultivators, she added, it is also setting “precedent for the whole world,” crafting a model other states and countries will emulate. Additionally, if the CalCannabis Appellations Project “becomes recognized internationally, it will be a type of intellectual property right.” 

Appellations, she insisted, should therefore be reserved for “the kind of craft where you’re working with the environment,” not against it, like in the city of Los Angeles. Cultivators who are part of the Mendocino Appellations Project, for instance, not only subscribe to the sun-grown requirement, but are also barred from using pots past the nursery phase, so as to maintain the plants’ ties to the land. 

Still, with regard to indoor cultivators in the city of Los Angeles and those who could face similar challenges, Coleman said that cannabis cultivators “need to support each other and lift each other up.” Shortly after the Southern California Coalition issued its letter to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Coleman told Cannabis Wire: “Maybe we can come up with a different tool for the cities,” “Maybe we can create tiers . . . or geographic indications to support them.”

Most recently, Coleman told Cannabis Wire that the Mendocino Appellations Project has been in dialogue with the Southern California Coalition “by way of a common organizational ally.” 

“We’re working for solutions,” she said. 

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