Justin Calvino raked a hand beneath a shimmering marijuana plant, combing through chips of century-old apple trees and manure from his stable of miniature horses.
Come fall, the rich soil on his North Mendocino coast pot farm coupled with other factors like characteristic foggy mornings will yield high-grade sativa buds dripping with mind-altering potency — as well as notes of chocolate and lime.
It’s a unique product for discriminating palates and one Calvino hopes to market to consumers across California through a legally defined and protected geographical identification system similar to what’s used in the wine industry.
The onetime Haight-Ashbury dope dealer is leading a movement to establish the nation’s first countywide cannabis appellations recognizing the region’s diverse topography, climate and weed-growing culture. The hope is it will cement Mendocino’s reputation as a premier growing region in a market that could be flooded with more generic weed.
“This isn’t your average wake-and-bake stuff,” said Calvino, 36, looking over his crop at the Albion Ridge homestead he shares with his wife and seven children. “It’s more of a dessert.
The effort comes on the eve of a historic November election in which voters will be asked to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use — 20 years after the state voted to approve medical marijuana.
Given approval, California’s current multibillion-dollar market is expected to explode, quickly dwarfing those in four other states where cannabis is now legally grown, sold and consumed.
Entrepreneurs are hoping to cash in, developing indoor megafarms across the state to fill the demand for potent strains with names such as Sour Diesel, Blue Dream and Ghost Train Haze.
But the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Proposition 64, also is mindful of the plight of farmers of small outdoor plots. The measure delays the issuance of licenses for five years to anyone planning to grow 1 acre of pot or more. And state regulators with the new Bureau of Marijuana Control will have broad discretion to discourage cultivation monopolies.
At the same time, Proposition 64, along with medical marijuana legislation enacted last year, opens the door to establishing county-level appellations, requiring cannabis labeled with any county to be grown there — just like with wine.
In addition to touting the Mendocino brand, Calvino proposes carving the sprawling county into 11 smaller zones he says produce pot with distinct variations in psychoactive strength, smell and taste.
The idea is to call out regional influences — known in the wine world as terroir — including the amount of sun and water plants get, soils and farming innovation passed from generation to generation dating back to the 1960s.
“Just like you have Anderson Valley pinot noir, you’d have Anderson Valley pineapple,” Calvino said, referring to a whimsically named strain of pot. “The pineapple grows the way it does because it enjoys the same regional and environmental effects as the wine.”
Exact boundaries and names are still being hammered out as some of the county’s estimated 700 marijuana farmers weigh in with a range of opinions. Calvino is meeting with groups and circulating a questionnaire seeking input.
But he’s got the general idea. The Mendocino Appellation Project divides the 130-mile coastline into separate northern and southern appellations while identifying nine inland regions from Piercy to Hopland. Mirroring the American Viticultural Area, Anderson and Potter valleys will get their own appellations. Others are unique to cannabis including Spyrock-Bell Springs, Covelo-Dos Rios, Long Valley-Branscomb-Leggett and Comptche.
A final map will be published by December in time for the annual Emerald Cup outdoor marijuana competition in Santa Rosa.
“It’s a really cool thing, especially from our perspective,” said longtime northern Mendocino County pot farmer Casey O’Neill, whose Strawberry OG would be included in the Spyrock appellation.
The higher-elevation zone with its hot days and low moisture is known for big plants, high THC content and a hard-to-define “chunky, dense” quality.
“It’s a very smooth and tasty product,” said O’Neill, a second-generation farmer.
California’s 50,000 pot growers have been eyeing appellations for years but have only recently made real progress.
It’s a way to develop brand recognition, similar to the way North Coast winemakers have built the Napa and Sonoma labels.
But it’s also a means to legitimizing a product that has been in the shadows of a nearly 80-year federal prohibition, bringing transparency about origin and growing conditions that isn’t often associated with buying weed on the street.
“In the past, most products go into the trunk of someone’s car, never to be seen again. All the marketing happens downstream,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association. “Appellations put branding at the producer level, giving growers the ability to improve their labels. It will transform the marketplace.”
Just what it will do to cannabis prices remains to be seen.
Mendocino may not command the respect of Humboldt County — the most renowned member of the famed Emerald Triangle pot growing region that includes Trinity County. But it is on the radar of connoisseurs, said Megan Crandell of The Higher Path dispensary, more than 500 miles south in the San Fernando Valley.
“We get an older, more educated demographic,” Crandell said. “When they hear Mendocino, it piques their interest. From a branding perspective, it’s pretty good.”
The appellation idea opens other business possibilities for the region such as pot-themed tourism and tasting. Fittingly, advocates are turning to wine industry types for advice.
Tom Wark, a Napa-based wine marketer who is watching the marijuana industry, said appellations hint at something uncommon and out of the ordinary.
“If you want to go upscale with your brand, the best way to do it is to communicate its exclusivity and rarity,” Wark said. “And the best way to do that is to link it to a special place.”
However, Wark cautioned growers must be able to show pot from a specific region is unique. If they fail to do that, the appellations have no meaning and lose credibility with consumers, he said.
“I mean, is an Anderson Valley bud really going to have different characteristics than a bud from Redwood Valley?” Wark said. “They’re going to have to make the case and they’re going to have to do it convincingly.”
Calvino said that won’t be a problem. Environmental and cultural influences affect most things that are grown. They express themselves though molecules called terpenes that influence taste and smell, he said.
Like their oenophile counterparts, cannabis aficionados can pick out distinguishing characteristics, whether they smoke it or consume it in food.
And it’s not all about potency. If alcohol content were the most important feature of wine, “Mad Dog 20/20 would win all the contests,” Calvino said, referring to a brand of fortified flavored wine.
“We’re trying to refine the palate,” he said. “This is the part of the industry that’s most exciting.”
To be official, Mendocino growers must get their proposal recognized by a government or quasi-government agency. That will allow them to protect trademarked terms from being misused or to mount legal challenges.
In the case of wine, the federal government handles those duties, but since pot remains illegal under federal law the state Department of Food and Agriculture will oversee it. The agency has yet to establish specific guidelines for creating appellations but those are expected next year.
At that time, growers are likely to submit recommendations, which would later be officially adopted.
Cannabis appellation projects are underway in several Central Coast and Sierra Nevada counties but so far only Mendocino County has produced a map. Growers in nearby Humboldt County are bogged down in disagreements and an “anti-regulation vibe,” Allen said.
“Mendocino growers have come to understand that regulation done right provides a clear pathway forward,” said Allen, a former Humboldt grower.
Sonoma County growers are pursuing a similar zoning but it is in the beginning stages, said Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, who represents growers across the North Coast.
Eventually, advocates hope to establish statewide “California Cannacultural Areas” that will have the legal weight of wine’s American Viticultural Areas.
“Defining these areas will allow mom and pop growers to compete with big ag producing Two-Buck Chuck weed in the Central Valley,” Figueroa said.
Calvino came to California from Rhode Island as a teenager and started selling pot in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Along the way, he developed an interest in sustainable gardening and decided to turn his attention to growing. He has since bought acreage in Mendocino and Lake counties where he runs four different farms.
His Albion property sits about a mile from the ocean next to fog-shrouded redwoods. It includes a Victorian house, scattered shingled outbuildings and an old apple orchard which is being converted to a marijuana grove.
He grows vegetables and raises pigs and miniature horses, in part for the manure. His 5-year-old son, Ociel, plays next to the plants as Calvino examines the soil.
“I’m breeding for terroir,” Calvino said. “Terroir is love.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.