What Humboldt County Can Learn from the Wine Industry

By David Silverberg on March 26, 2019

Sean Stamm has been farming cannabis in Humboldt County since he was a teen, thanks to a family farm passed down from one generation to the next. Now the president of Southern Humboldt Royal Cannabis Company (SoHum RC) sees a major challenge for him and his fellow cannabis farmers in the region, one that could be solved from looking at what the wine industry has been doing for decades.

Ever since this California region, and others like it, became known for high-quality bud, other growers and dispensaries have been claiming their flower is from Humboldt, even if it’s not. “It’s insulting when I see cannabis labeled as ‘From Humboldt’ when it most definitely is not from our region,” Stamm, 33, says in an interview.

To address the challenge, California will soon usher in an appellation model similar to what winemakers in Champagne, France or Napa Valley have developed. When a wine label says the bottle comes from Champagne, consumers know it truly is from that region thanks to a legal framework that only permits affixing that label to winemakers who are truly producing the drink in Champagne, France.

Appellations provide a legally protected designation of origin, which cannabis farmers desperately need to highlight the uniqueness of their grows. Such a policy is coming to California in two years: The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) must establish an appellation of origin system for cannabis cultivators no later than January 1, 2021. The government is currently fielding input from stakeholders in the region and holding meetings with select insiders. 

“Appellations can be so valuable to our community,” Stamm stresses, “and it can show how special this land is, this climate and help protect our genetic library.”

California is a treasured state for cannabis growers who have established unique cultivation methods and strains that often thrive in the state’s various microclimates. One strain might blossom better near the coast or further inland, or on a hillside that receives more or less sun, for example. 

A wine-inspired appellation model could also increase safety standards for consumers and cannabis patients. “Our products are craft and not a commodity,” says Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, stressing how consumers value coffee, wine or cheese that is produced in specialized regions known for quality output.

Ryan Stoa, who wrote about appellations in his new book Craft Weed, says that consumer safety is the top priority with appellation models because buyers “get assurances of where a product comes from, which is especially important for the cannabis industry where someone can buy weed off the street, and it could’ve come from someone’s basement or Mexico or who knows where.” 

A well-organized appellation system provides a measure of transparency by conveying data to the consumer, which can go beyond where it was grown. Stoa sees a future model where a cannabis item’s psychoactive characteristics or terpene levels are also affixed to a label.

“I envision an appellation system working where a certain region says, ‘Our farm is best known for OG Kush,’ which will also help the consumer,” Stoa notes.

Plus, appellations can promote agrotourism to Humboldt County: a win-win for consumers and farmers.  

As to the proposed framework coming to California, Stamm would like to see each community weigh in on what will be developed. “Farmers should be hashing out the details because the state doesn’t know anything about our local ecosystem, especially with so many Humboldt County farms being different from one another.”

Few drawbacks of an appellation system crop up, but Stoa points out the key challenge will be the added bureaucracy and time that farmers will take to fill out the right paperwork, consult with the state and hold meetings to finalize what a legal appellation would look like. “In the end, though, this system could be a very good vehicle to accomplish the environmental and social goals this industry should be striving for,” he adds. 

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