Protecting the Champagnes of American Weed

The future of artisanal marijuana may rely on appellations, the legal system behind fine wine and cheese.

Photo by Getty Images/The Cannabiz Agency.

Allow me to illustrate the power of appellations with a personal anecdote. The setting: Christmas Eve day, 2016, Aix-en-Provence, France. The French side of my family—my mother’s side—is gathered together in the living room of an apartment we’ve rented for the holidays. It’s a crisp, sunny, late afternoon in the south of France, and the empty bottles of champagne accumulating in the kitchen present a rather incriminating case that we’re having a particularly good time. Luxury goods aren’t a common presence in this family, but on special occasions we, like many families all over France, splurge on good food and good wine. A few days earlier, my uncle François came down from Grenoble with a whole case of champagne, delighting the rest of us with anticipation.

But, as the late afternoon sun starts to set on Christmas Eve, my brother begins to open the last bottle left in the case. My father stops him, proposing we save the bottle for later, seemingly under the impression that we’ve had enough.  This does not go over well with the crowd. But the logic of having some champagne on hand for an as-yet-unascertained future date is undeniably compelling. Solidly in the “open it” camp, I suggest a third option to resolve the dilemma: why not go to the wine store and buy some reinforcements? Before the matter can be put up for debate, I’m flying out the door, skipping steps on my way down to the street.

A few moments later, standing in front of a wall of champagnes, I realize what many a novice wine enthusiast has realized before me. Champagne ain’t cheap, even in France. I ask the gentleman behind the register for some guidance, explaining that in an ideal world I’d leave the store with some change left in my pocket. He points out a few mid-priced champagnes, then steers me to an adjacent wall. “Crémant de Bourgogne,” he says. Sparkling wine produced in Burgundy, a well-respected wine region along Champagne’s southern border.

Crémants are made using the méthode champenoise, the traditional champagne production method that requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Many of them also use the same grape varietals that champagne-makers use, just that they’re grown a few miles to the south. Crémants aren’t cheap (they’re now the second most expensive sparkling wines in France, after champagne), in part because the appellation imposes strict cultivation and winemaking protocols to keep quality high. But a crémant doesn’t carry the same luxury tax a champagne bottle does, the gentleman explained. “Sounds good to me,” I thought. I grabbed a crémant and one of the mid-priced champagnes off the shelf. “Parfait,” said the gentleman. “Joyeux Noël.”

I hurried back to the apartment just in time to keep the momentum of the festivities going. Both bottles were put on ice, and the champagne was opened and enjoyed in short order. When my uncle pulled out the crémant, a subtle look of confusion came over his face. Not a champagne, I could tell he was thinking (this is the moment I start doubting my purchase). Ever tactful, he opened the bottle anyway and refilled our glasses. But when my grandfather leaned in for his share, my uncle made sure he knew what he was getting. “Ah. Non alors,” my grandfather said as he pulled back his glass. “Je mélange pas le champagne.” Thanks, but no thanks, he was saying. “I don’t mix champagne.” And that was the moment I start regretting my purchase.

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