Packaged cannabis with labels bearing names like Tepusquet Canyon, Orcutt Hills and Santa Ynez Valley could become sought-after products commanding high prices and the appreciation of connoisseurs if a standardized appellation program can be developed.
“I think an appellation for Santa Barbara County on packaging would be a huge plum for us,” Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive officer, told growers at a recent meeting to provide updates on the status of the county permit and licensing programs.
Bozanich, who has his finger on the pulse of cannabis regulation in the county, also said the government should not be involved in developing a brand identity for cannabis grown here.
“I challenge the industry to come together to do that,” Bozanich said.
Santa Barbara County cannabis growers got the opportunity to provide input on that process Tuesday in a Lompoc workshop being held by CalCannabis, the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s division that oversees cultivation licensing.
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Proponents say developing cannabis appellations, similar those used for wines, could lead to a “craft cannabis market” that would give small growers a competitive edge against corporate megagrowers, allow them to establish their own level of pricing and create a new form of agritourism.
They say appellations could set stricter standards than the more general “county of origin” designation and could even allow production on certain varieties, which would prop up prices and create a “collector’s market” for hard-to-find strains.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture is mandated by Senate Bill 94 to create a cannabis “county of origin” program and develop a process for establishing geographical appellation standards, practices and varietals by 2021.
But the bill, put forward by state Sen. Mark McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and passed in 2017, is virtually devoid of details about how to do that.
So CalCannabis is gathering the opinions of growers through written comments, which are due by the end of September, and half a dozen workshops like the one in Lompoc.
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Establishing the county of origin for cannabis is already more restrictive than the wine appellations designated by American Viticultural Areas, which only require that 85 percent of the grapes be grown in that region and that the wine be finished within the same state.
“For a cannabis product to be designated as originating from a county, 100 percent of the cannabis in the product must have been produced within the designated county, as defined by finite political boundaries,” according to guidelines issued by CalCannabis.
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Some proponents, like the Mendocino Appellation Project that was launched in 2015, want standards for appellations to be much more strict.
In addition to being 100-percent grown within a specific region, MAP proposes that cannabis would have to be “sun-grown” and planted in the ground in order to use the appellation for that region.
Cannabis grown under artificial or even mixed light or in containers could not use the appellation under MAP’s proposal.
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In California’s Emerald Triangle — the 11,138 square miles of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties that’s still the largest cannabis growing area in the nation — growers say planting the same variety even a few miles apart will produce markedly different results in the flowers.
No one is sure whether the difference is the result of the humidity, the elevation, the soil, the method of pruning or any combination of those factors.
But the growers say it’s a solid argument for creating appellations, although they don’t really agree on how to establish an appellation boundary.
For example, in Mendocino County, growers tend to identify their growing regions by nearby towns or even fire protection district boundaries, while in Humboldt County growers use watersheds to define their regions.
Mendocino growers also think historic growing practices and strains developed and cultivated in a specific area should factor into defining an appellation.
And some believe the innovators and pioneers of cannabis cultivation should be used on cannabis labels to establish brands, which they say will help consumers develop an appreciation for the craft rather than just focusing on price and potency as they are now.
Officials in Santa Barbara County, which holds the most temporary cultivation licenses of any county in the state, say growers here have an opportunity to capitalize on developing local appellations.
At the county meeting with growers last week, Bozanich said he was recently asked in an interview what his vision is for cannabis in Santa Barbara County.
“I said, ‘world domination,’” Bozanich joked, adding that the comment was off the record because “some people would take it the wrong way.”
Speaking seriously, Bozanich said, “I’m most interested in seeing it done well, not being done poorly. And we should derive some benefit from that. … If someone makes some money on that, yay.”