Mendocino County Creates Cannabis Appellations

In a move that signals a long term investment in the legal marijuana industry, California's Mendocino County has begun dividing land into specific appellations for cannabis, allowing growers to take advantage of the same regional prestige and promotional power used by vintners to market their wine.

So far, Mendocino has 11 proposed cannabis regions: Spyrock-Bell Springs, Covelo-Dos Rios, Long Valley-Branscomb-Leggett, Willits, Comptche, Ukiah Valley, North Mendocino Coast, South Mendocino Coast, Anderson Valley South Mendocino, Potter Valley, and Mountainhouse South Mendocino County. The goal of the local cannabis growers' community is to establish the same brand recognition and desirability for cannabis as the term "Napa Valley" has for wine.

Traditionally, the practice of establishing appellations, or protected geographical regions, has been mostly reserved for the wine industry. An appellation designates not only the area where wine grapes were grown and harvested, but also the type of grapes planted, and overall terroir of the product, or the environmental factors that have contributed to its distinct taste profile and characteristics.

Sparkling white wine, for example, can only be called Champagne if it is produced within France's Champagne wine region, which is legally defined by the European Union.

In Mendocino, cannabis appellations will be used to establish the value of medical marijuana grown in a California county, and make it illegal for producers to mislabel non-California cannabis as such. Though the use of both medical and recreational marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, California is one of a number of individual states to invest in the enormous business potential of legal cannabis.

"Appellations can be really powerful because they can be a means to protect everything from the intellectual property, to the labor force, to the culture and history," Richard Mendelson, a wine legal expert told the North Bay Business Journal. They can be very rich vehicles for promotion, protection, and rural development. Appellations will help show the legitimacy of what [growers] are doing."

Since October of last year, when the state redefined cannabis cultivation as a form of agriculture, farmers in Mendocino have been eager to buy dedicated land before larger companies get involved. As in winemaking, the creation of a special "Mendocino Made" certification will also allow growers to establish sustainability standards that will set the local cannabis apart, and perhaps create an industry standard.

At the moment, the California Growers Association, a statewide cannabis advocacy group, is working on creating a process to establish appellations, with more certifications for more California counties to follow. Mendocino farmers are eager to take advantage of potential cannabis tourism, with tours and tasting rooms, just like those offered by established vineyards. 

"Like with wine, there are a number of young, serious cannabis entrepreneurs," Mendelson said. "They want to do things right, they're proud of their product and they're doing their research. There's a whole new breed, just like with the wine industry, the next generation wanting to build their expertise upon what other people have done."