Protecting the Champagnes of American Weed

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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.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, my error in purchasing a crémant doesn’t top the list, I’ll readily admit. But I was disappointed in myself. The rest of my family drank the crémant respectfully, but my grandfather—a man I’ve idolized since I was a child—was steadfast in his refusal. The matter-of-fact tone with which he explained himself made clear his position wasn’t personal, he just doesn’t mix alcohol, is all. And to be fair, while a Crémant de Bourgogne might employ the méthode champenoise, and use similar grapes grown in a similar region, it’s a well-known fact that crémants and champagnes can taste very different. One crémant winemaker described the two wines as “cabbage and carrots—the same class of wine, but completely different from one another.”

Can I taste the difference? Maybe a little, but that wouldn’t stop me from drinking a good crémant. “Tastes great to me,” my father agreed reassuringly. But my grandfather is ninety-four years old, with a discerning taste that was cultivated in his native France. If anyone can tell the difference between the two wine regions, it’s him. And after a lifetime of drinking good wines, he’d rather not drink at all than confuse his palate.

I paid a price for saving money—which is exactly what an effective appellation system is designed to do. Bring a bottle of champagne to a party, and you’ll get a reaction no other wine can elicit. Appellations can be used for quality control, but they’re just as capable of providing brand control and name recognition. This is as true for wine as it is for other products, like cheese, olive oil, or cured meat. The protected designation of origin differentiates the product and creates exclusivity. Mandatory quality controls or a region’s reputation do the rest.

There’s no reason this arrangement couldn’t work for the marijuana industry. Consumers could embrace commoditization and consolidation of cultivation, of course, providing everyone with cheap and plentiful marijuana.  The industry could, alternatively, reject that approach in favor of a marijuana appellation system that encourages the development of diverse farming regions and high-quality products. The cheap generic stuff will continue to exist (Big Marijuana will make sure of that). But consumers will also have regionally protected marijuana products to choose from, as well as the security of knowledge that the products’ designations of origin are authentic.

The current state of American marijuana farming exhibits many of the characteristics that make an agricultural product a natural fit for appellations. First, while a terroir isn’t necessary to justify protecting a designation of origin, whenever a region’s environment really does make a difference in the final product, a geographic marker is a logical means of capitalizing on that. While it isn’t clear if marijuana has a terroir, early indications suggest that it might. A research team at Portland State University has been testing marijuana plants to find evidence of terroir. Their preliminary results have exciting implications for marijuana agriculture:

While the genotype determines the range of possible traits that a plant may have, growth conditions determine where they will be on the spectrum of possibilities.…The presence of specific organic compounds seems tied to genetics, [but] preliminary data suggest that the relative abundance of those compounds among plants from unique farms may be related to differences in growing methods and terroir.

The terroir of marijuana, if strong enough for discerning consumers to detect, may give rise to a robust connoisseur market. That market already exists with respect to marijuana strains, but terroir may create an additional layer of sophistication for high-end consumers.

Even if marijuana’s terroir is negligible, the environmental conditions of a region dictate which marijuana strains are suitable for cultivation. Indica strains thrive in northern California because the arid climate allows indicas to produce their characteristically large, dense buds without attracting mold or mildew. In Jamaica, by contrast, marijuana farmers cultivate sativa strains that are accustomed to tropical humidity and temperatures. Seed companies have responded to these realities by marketing strains to match a diversity of outdoor conditions.

Instead of competing with one another to produce the most popular generic strains, appellations allow regions to embrace the strains that grow well in their environment. France’s Burgundy and Northern Rhône regions are well known for growing pinot noir and Syrah grape varietals, respectively. Neither region is threatened by outside producers or forced to adopt ill-suited varietals because they have created individual markets for their own well-respected grapes. The same could be true of marijuana farming regions.

A second reason appellations are a promising model for the marijuana industry is that regional marijuana farming cultures are developing across the country due to the persistent federal marijuana prohibition. While the U.S. government’s enforcement of its own marijuana laws may be inconsistent, the federal prohibition is effectively preventing legal marijuana markets from engaging in interstate commerce. Black-market trade is still prolific, and crosses state lines. But legal supply chains are strong enough that whenever a state legalizes marijuana use, an in-state agricultural sector must emerge to supply consumers with the legal marijuana that only instate farmers can provide. And state governments, of course, have a strong incentive to protect their regional farming industries.

In the case of other agricultural products, the product may be grown wherever a region has captured the market first or wherever a crop grows most efficiently. But in the case of marijuana, until the federal prohibition is lifted, plants must be grown in states with a legal market and cannot be sold across state lines. If the trend continues uninterrupted, each state in America will have a constituency of legal marijuana farmers.

When the federal prohibition is eventually lifted and Big Marijuana threatens to flood the national market with cheap, generic marijuana, will states sit idly by while their constituents are driven out of business? Or will they take steps to protect their farmers and rural economies? If states choose the latter, appellations would be an effective tool. Appellations won’t be needed to create a national landscape of marijuana farming regions; they’ll just be needed to protect the landscape that already exists.

Excerpted from Craft Weed: Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry by Ryan Stoa, Copyright 2019, The MIT Press.

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