This three-part series by wine and cannabis writer Tina Caputo explores the past, present, and future of the Emerald Triangle, looking specifically at factors that have made the area a venerable growing region; current efforts to divide the region into cannabis appellations; and questions of whether the region can maintain its preeminence as adult-use legalization hits California in 2018.

The counties of California’s Emerald Triangle—Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity—are already famous for producing some of the world’s best cannabis, but how many people have heard of Honeydew? Or Bell Springs? These regions and many others may soon become household names under a new program designed to divide California’s cannabis country into distinctive growing areas called appellations.

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The idea behind appellations—a concept borrowed from the wine industry—is to highlight distinctive growing areas and prevent outside producers from capitalizing on the names of those regions as part of their branding. Just as Napa Valley grape growers say that the region’s unique combination of soils, topography and climate make better wine, cannabis growers believe that the Emerald Triangle’s terroir produces distinctive bud.

More to Cannabis Terroir Than Soil

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly
A greenhouse in Humboldt County. (Courtesy of Scott Buttfield/Humboldt Legends)

“In the case of cannabis it’s a little bit of a different world because you have indoor-grown cannabis, you have hydroponic cannabis, and you have sun grown, so you need to make some distinctions right at the outset,” says attorney and wine law professor Richard Mendelson, a consultant on the Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP). While climate and soil can play a direct role in plant growth, flavors, and effects for sun-grown cannabis, not all grow methods are equal in that regard.

Appellations have been a pretty high-priority issue for about five years.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director, California Growers Association

That’s why California’s cannabis appellation standards will also include factors like “cultural terroir,” strains, and cultivation practices. Efforts to define the specific parameters are already underway, involving collaboration between multiple state and county agencies, consultants, and members of the local cannabis community.

“This has been a pretty high-priority issue for about five years,” says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association (CGA). “The first step was to get the appellations process written into state law.”

That happened in late June, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a trailer bill requiring the California Food and Drug Administration (CDFA) to allow “county of origin” appellations by January 1, 2018—the first day of adult-use legalization in California. By 2021, the department will create a framework for establishing appellations of standards, practices and varietals for geographic areas.

The California Growers Association is now working with the CDFA to set baseline appellation parameters, and Mendocino and Humboldt counties are busy creating an additional set of standards for their own regions. The tricky part will be getting the different groups to agree on what those standards should be. Should growers be required to farm organically? Can they cultivate in greenhouses and still use the appellation name? Do they have to harvest and trim by hand? All are questions with outspoken advocates on both sides of the issue, which makes setting a standard harder than it sounds.

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The Mendocino Appellations Project

Mendocino County has been working on a plan for the establishment of appellations since 2015, when cannabis advocate and grower Justin Calvino launched MAP. While the details are still being hammered out, the county’s standards will have three main qualifiers: traditional knowledge, terroir, and metabolomics.

Mendocino's appellation standards will have three main qualifiers: traditional knowledge, terroir, and metabolomics.

“Traditional knowledge establishes that cannabis is a heritage crop that’s been cultivated in the region over generations, and identifies specific cultivation techniques and genetics that have developed in that region over time,” explains MAP executive director Genine Coleman. As in the wine world, terroir includes physical factors such as topography and annual rainfall, which influence cannabis flower just as they influence wine grapes. Metabolomics refers to the chemical expression of the plant—its cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids.

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly
(Courtesy of Mendocino Appellations Project)

As a starting point, the MAP released a county map in 2015 and updated it last summer (as pictured above). The document outlines 11 proposed appellation zones. The next step is to work with researchers and strategic partners to collect information from the county’s cannabis growers. “Because of prohibition and the veils that exist in terms of accessing data, we really need to get community buy-in,” Coleman says.

Organizers for the project are currently working to capture the oral histories of the county’s aging pioneer growers and find farms in each region to help with cultural exploration and scientific research. The challenge, she says, is finding growers who are planting in the ground or moving in that direction, because only they will qualify for Mendocino County appellation of origin status.

Humboldt County Cannabis Appellations

The process and parameters will be slightly different in Humboldt County.

“Mendocino has had an ordinance for years that relegated cannabis cultivation to 25 plants per parcel, whereas Humboldt County’s ordinance allowed an unlimited amount of plants,” Coleman says. “That shaped the cultivation techniques differently, so it will require a different approach to research and standards.”

According to Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, Humboldt’s appellations will include standards, practices, and varietals (i.e. strains). These may include hand-cultivation and trimming, organic farming, and water conservation.

“Water is a big issue in California, so incentivizing sustainable practices would motivate growers to adopt them,” Carver says. “It would also encourage consumers to think about how their cannabis is produced and what is it doing to our environment.”

This is a participatory process where the growers themselves get to define what cannabis looks like when you put a map of California next to it.
Hezekiah Allen, executive director, California Growers Association

Allen, of the CGA, is particularly excited about the prospect of creating appellations for varietals. “We’ll be able to take specific strains and legally name them,” he says. “Then those strains can’t be patented by individual companies and they can also provide consumers with useful information about which strains they like.”

Trinity County is a bit behind Mendocino and Humboldt in drawing appellations, Allen says, but the Emerald Triangle overall is fairly advanced in the process. The CGA plans to have a detailed state map ready by the end of 2017.

“It’s less about a final map and more about a participatory process where the growers themselves get to define what cannabis looks like when you put a map of California next to it,” Allen says.

The Potential Benefits of Cannabis Appellations

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly
Pre-rolled joints filled with Humboldt-grown cannabis. (Courtesy of Scott Buttfield/Humboldt Legends)

While some skeptics question the ability of the average cannabis user to tell the difference between the same strain grown in Humboldt County versus San Bernadino, the real payoff will be in having legally verified information about the origin, standards, and practices behind the products. Consumers will no longer have to wonder if the cannabis they’re consuming is laced with poisonous pesticides, or grown in a way that harms the environment.

Appellations are also a learning opportunity: As counties are divided into smaller sub-regions, details will start to emerge about the microclimates and growing conditions that produce the best bud.

I’m talking about shades of perfection here.
Scott Davies, on the best places to grow cannabis within the Emerald Triangle

Scott Davies, co-founder of Humboldt Legends and owner of Winterbourne Farms, has been growing cannabis for three decades in the Honeydew area of Humboldt County, and views the region as ideal. “It’s sheltered enough from the Pacific Ocean by the Lost Coast that we get the warm days. Petrolia is really fine as well,” says Davies. “I’m talking about shades of perfection here. For me, Redway Garberville is just a little too far from the ocean, so you get 90 and 95 degree days. I also couldn’t take my show on the road to somewhere like Redding, because it’s too hot during the day and it doesn’t cool off at night. … The ideal is 80 to 85 degrees during the day, with a temperature drop of 30 to 40 degrees overnight. It’s the fluctuating temperature cycle that draws the most complex terpene profiles and colors, and the resin production out of the flowers.”

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California Growing Regions to Watch

Historically, many Emerald Triangle cannabis growers planted their crops in locations that were “great places to hide, but not great places to grow,” Davies says, quoting Allen of the CGA. But that’s starting to change.

Allen points to several high-quality growing regions in the Emerald Triangle likely to gain notoriety through the appellations process. The most promising areas include:

Mattole Valley (Humboldt County): This region in the shadow of the King Range mountains receives some of the US mainland’s highest rainfall, but enjoys bone-dry summers. Mattole Valley includes the Petrolia and Honeydew sub-regions, both known for producing excellent cannabis.

Bell Springs/Spyrock (Mendocino County): These remote ridgetop communities lie on the cusp of coastal and inland influences. Their higher elevations bring crisp, dry nights in the late season—superb conditions for maturing cannabis flowers.

Mid Klamath (Humboldt and Trinity Counties): Home to isolated and remote communities tucked into expansive wilderness, this area is known for hot summers, cold nights, and dry air that combine to produce some of the world’s best cannabis. Notable sub-regions include Willow Creek and Forks of Salmon/Orleans.

Hayfork Valley (Trinity County): Set on the banks of the Trinity River, this area’s cannabis-friendly conditions include hot, dry summer days balanced by cool, dry autumn nights.

It remains to be seen what the appellation parameters will be for these and other areas, but establishing those parameters and raising the public profile of the Emerald Triangle’s distinct growing regions is expected to have a major impact on its farmers and the surrounding community. What exactly the repercussions will be remains to be seen.

Part Three of this series explores the potential effects of creating cannabis appellations in the Emerald Triangle.