Sonoma County cannabis experts and leaders in the industry gathered at Elyon Cannabis in Santa Rosa last week, Nov. 6, to discuss pursuing appellations — that is, regional designations — for cannabis and how a designation could be advantageous for growers and the industry as a whole.
The Nov. 6 meeting featured a panel of cultivation, government and cannabis consulting experts: Genine Coleman, executive direction of the Origins Council and the Mendocino Appellations Project nonprofit/policy advocate organization; Andrew Smith, deputy ag commissioner with the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture; Elyon Chief Executive Officer Ron Ferraro; Craig Litwin, CEO for the 421 consulting group; and Shivawn Brady, vice president of regulatory affairs at Justice Grown.
The joy of boundaries
An appellation is a legally recognized regional designation for a product from a certain area. The designation is generally awarded by a regulatory or government agency to a group of producers from a certain area. It’s also a marketing tool.
To acquire an appellation designation, producers have to come together to get a petition that outlines the physical boundaries of an appellation area, as well as that area’s product and cultivation standards. The petition is reviewed and if issued, the designation is granted and can go on the label of a product.
“What it’s really defining is how the place itself has a special and unique product with an element of quality and consistency,” Coleman said.
Appellations are already used to officially designate wine-growing regions such as Caneros, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley or Rock Pile. Each area is often known for different varietals — Carneros and the Russian River Valley for chardonnay and pinot noir; Dry Creek and Rockpile for zinfandel — although those are usually not the only varietals grown in that region. The idea behind a wine appellation is that different varietals will express themselves differently in different appellations.
Appellations as emissaries for different growing regions
If appellations were used for cannabis, the same concept of establishing certain strains for different growing regions could be applied.
As Coleman put it, the product becomes an emissary for that specific region.
“The standards and the story of that region are behind that label,” Coleman said. “It can really speak to the story and the heritage of the community … and elevate the value of a product.”
Brady echoed Coleman, saying that it can add to what makes the product stand out.
“The cannabis that is grown in Bennett Valley or Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley is very different than what is coming out of Laguna de Santa Rosa. These are all different microclimates that deserve recognition for the flowers coming out of these regions,” Brady said.
As a business owner Ferraro said that highlighting the fact that Elyon’s products are Sonoma County grown makes a difference in sales.
“We brand Sonoma County grown cannabis and right now we can barely keep up with our orders. We have such a demand, and we have a waiting list of stores that want our product. I’m convinced it’s the quality that we are growing here with our microclimate. I think that speaks miles,” Ferraro said.
Coleman added that an appellation can also help attract tourism.
“So there is a lot of downstream economic development value to an appellation,” she said.
Brady pointed out than a designation can be beneficial in helping local cultivators feel empowered to stay on their land and feel good about where they are growing and how they are growing, and keeping that land healthy and sustainable.
Permitting process a roadblock in Sonoma County
However, a unique challenge to adopting a cannabis appellation in the county is that cannabis cultivators who are still trying to develop their own farms are hitting lengthy roadblocks with the county’s Permit Sonoma (PRMD).
“My biggest critique has been ‘What is the hold up?’ Let’s go, move it along,” Litwin said. “There’s nothing without the farmers. And right now we are being left behind. If you look at other places like Santa Barbara, we’re just not keeping the pace.”
The event moderator, Joanna Cedar of Cedar Consulting Group, asked the group what can be done with the Sonoma County cannabis ordinance in order to speed up the process and work toward pursuing an appellation.
“There is no reason it can’t succeed,” Smith said, adding that the appellation discussion is important to the marketability and sustainability of the industry in the long run. “We’ve just been held up and burdened by road blocks that have been put on us by our own local government, and I definitely don’t agree with the speed at which Permit Sonoma has been processing permits.”
He recognized that PRMD is understaffed and that they need to streamline the process.
“I feel for all of you that have to go to Permit Sonoma,” Smith said. “I think there is some light in that the board of supervisors is strongly considering making a lot more of these permits more ministerial in nature so that our department can handle more permits.”
Smith also believes they need to allow for more than 10,000 square feet of canopy to be permitted.
Appellation efforts at state level
From a state perspective, Coleman said that her advocacy group is working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to establish a comprehensive package that would outline the designation process for those who are interested.
“We’ve been working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture for the past two years. They developed a really robust team of five scientists to help develop the program … and they are working on drafting a comprehensive regulatory package to be released for public comment that will outline the entire substance of the program and the process for applying,” Coleman said.
They are moving forward with a petition for appellations.
“Only cultivators that are part of that petition or potentially opt in later will be able to legally wear that appellation label. That’s generally how it is working at the state level,” Coleman explained.
For county-level appellations, it’s diary time
Brady said county-level pursuits to get an appellation for the area are a bit behind due to the aforementioned cultivating and permitting issue.
In this early stage she said it would be helpful for cultivators to track what’s exceptional about their regional to define what sets a certain region apart from other cannabis areas.
“Unless we can identity the uniqueness of that flower coming from that region, then it doesn’t really mean much,” Brady said. “In order for us to identify that, we need to start capturing the experience that we are having with those finished products — what is the taste, what is the feel, what are the effects, what type of terpene profiles are coming out of these regions? How does it differ from Russian River to Laguna de Santa Rosa? What we can begin right now is journaling that and reaching out to one another to share experiences.”