The wine industry has had a long established method of classifying growing regions, regional laws and other standardized rules. For example, the name ‘Champagne’ can only go on bottles of wine grown and produced in Champagne, France.

Bordeaux’s official Classification of 1855 established a hierarchy of first growths, second growths all the way down to 5th growths on the left bank of the river running through the region. Each house (such as Chateau Montrose) must abide by rules in their appellation.

Here in the U.S. we have the AVA system for wineries. Napa and Sonoma are wine growing regions, and in those regions there are smaller designated areas called American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) where there are standardized rules for things like harvesting and how much of a single varietal has to be in a bottle for the varietal to appear on the label. Generally, 75% of a grape varietal has to be in the bottle. A Cabernet Sauvignon actually has 25% other varietals in it such as Merlot.

It was only a matter of time before cannabis appellations were defined for their unique growing conditions. There’s no better place to start defining cannabis “terroir” than in Northern California where some of the world’s best cannabis grows. In the emerald triangle plants grow like giant redwoods with incredible terpene profiles.

A number of cannabis cultivators in the Emerald Triangle proposed the “Mendocino Appellations Project” a few years back, but MAUCRSA, via Business and Professions Code Section 26063(b), required the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to develop the process by which state-licensed cannabis cultivators may establish appellations of origin by January 1, 2021. The CDFA’s proposed regulations laid out the process for establishing cannabis appellations of origin and provide additional clarification on the use of county of origin.

“This is really an effort to help those small farmers in rural areas to make sure they’re competitive and make sure we have a diversified market here in California,” the group’s outreach director Josh Drayton told North Bay Business Journal upon passage of the bill.

According to cannabis law firm Harris Bricken, some of the requirements for cannabis advertising laid out in the proposed regulations are as follows:

  • “Cannabis shall not be advertised or marketed containing any statement, design, device, or representation which tends to create the impression that the cannabis originated from a particular county or appellation of origin, unless the label of the advertised product bears that county of origin or appellation of origin.”
  • “A country of origin, appellation of origin, or any similar name that is likely to mislead consumers as to the kind or origin of the cannabis shall not be used in the labeling of cannabis unless:
    • One-hundred percent of the cannabis was produced in the named county or appellation of origin;
    • Records demonstrating compliance with subdivision (b)(5)(A) of this section have been retained by the licensee pursuant to section 8400 of this chapter; and
    • Within 30 days of the use of an appellation of origin, Notice of Use of the appellation of origin has been filed with the department pursuant to section 8212.1 of this chapter.”
  • “For purposes of labeling and packaging using a county of origin or appellation of origin, cannabis is produced in a county or appellation of origin if all cultivation as defined in Business and Professions Code, section 26001, subdivision (l), starting from the time the cannabis plants were taller or wider than 18 inches, was conducted within the county or appellation of origin and according to any applicable standard, practice, and cultivar requirements.”
emerald triangle rain

What makes Northern California’s (specifically the Emerald Triangle‘s) terroir so special and worth protecting is the unique combination of climate, sun exposure, soil and elevations. For example, the average annual rainfall (and humidity) in the three counties making up the Emerald Triangle is ideal for the amount of sunlight the plants get during the growing season.

Out of the three counties in the Emerald Triangle, Mendocino county has come the farthest with solidified proposed appellations. Addtional counties in Northern California and around the state are expected to submit proposed appellations shortly after.

The Emerald Triangle region

Emerald Triangle map

Three counties that make up the Emerald Triangle are a region much like Sonoma or Napa are a wine region. In Napa there are 16 sub-appellations such as Rutherfold, Stag’s Leap or Atlas Peak.

Each sub-appellation or AVA in Napa has a unique combination of soil, sun and location that can be defined by the final wine products. Each county in the Emerald Triangle will eventually be divided into sub-appellations if all goes according to plan.

Proposed appellations in Mendocino county

Cannabis Appellation Map

Mendocino county is home to a magic combination of elements making it ideal not only for wine growing but cannabis as well.

Sonoma’s rugged northern coast can best be defined by climate extremes that can’t be replicated in a grow room. The marine layer and cool temperatures at night combined with long, sunny days give grapes and buds two main tent poles of structure—heat and cold. The diurnal shift between the two creates contrast much like the tension between two characters in a movie create drama. In wine grapes cold gives the grapes acidity whereas sunshine gives the grapes sugar.

In cannabis plants the heat helps the plants grow huge while cold temperatures can help manage pests.

Mendocino’s real secret is the elevations of the peaks and valleys. Those pristine rural mountians have little valleys tucked away where cannabis plants are protected from extreme winds coming off the ocean while still having enough absolute humidity.

Like grapevines, cannabis plants like to grow around 500 feet to 1,000 feet in elevation, and that’s what Mendocino is covered with. There’s peaks and valleys for days all with fertile land sitting right in that sweet spot.

And that’s why protecting the unique growing conditions is so important. Consumers expect a Mendocino-grown cannabis product to be a certain kind of experience. In essence, a brand is a promise; a promise to deliver on the consumer expectation. Mendocino cannabis is the brand California wants to protect.

The proposed appellation map will start to become official some time in early 2021 after the CDFA meets in January. Rollout of the entire system could take until 2022. We’ll keep updating the map accordingly with fresh updates.