What Is Terroir?
As a wine-grape grower, winemaker and Humboldt born native, I have a more than passing interest in the idea of terroir. For me, it is the Holy Grail of the art and science of winemaking and grape growing. As a small grower and producer in a small county with small economic base, I can imagine no greater goal than to produce an agricultural product with a unique signature of place that helps diversify our local economy, supports sustainable agriculture and elevates the brand that is my home.
And now that cannabis is legal, I believe terroir can be very useful, if not essential to a thriving cannabis industry. Moreover, it just might be the key to the long-term health of small, family-owned cannabis farms across California. If cannabis becomes just another consumable “commodity”, economies of scale will likely drive cannabis agriculture to consolidate and strip small rural communities of an important economic base. In other words, terroir in cannabis, can save small producers and growers like it has helped keep small boutique wine producers and growers alive in every part of California.
Simply defined, terroir relates to the effect environment has on wine-grapes. Plants grown in different environments develop a fingerprint or signature of that place. Terroir was originally a wine termed coined by the French to signify the fingerprint of place on a wine, but it can be generalized to any agricultural product. Coffee has terroir. There are clear differences in single origin coffee from Kenya compared to Costa Rica. Cocoa has terroir. Just try a single origin chocolate from Dick Taylor Craft Chocolates and be blown away in the different flavors and mouthfeel. Tobacco, grass-fed beef and cheese all have terroir. So, why not cannabis?
The answer is, of course cannabis can exhibit terroir. But just like most mass-produced agricultural products, most do not exhibit terroir. Dick Taylor carefully crafts single origin chocolate bars that exhibit terroir, but mass-market Hersey chocolate bars?
Terroir can be in agricultural products. But just as easily, the signature of place can be processed or blended out. When these agricultural products become mass-produced commodities, they lose their unique fingerprint of place. In the hands of a conscientious producer however, terroir can be revealed and subsequently used to help distinguish the product from the hordes scrambling to be recognized in a competitive marketplace.
Terroir is about conscientious farming, sustainable practices and proud stewardship of a unique place. And perhaps just as important to the farmers and producers trying to make a living, it is a meaningful and effective marketing strategy leveraging the intrinsic value of place.
The lesson for cannabis is clear. Farm for high yields, with cheap inputs and that type of farming will likely move to the central valley in the hands of consolidated agro-business. If California wine industry is any guide, terroir could be essential to keeping cannabis farming more distributed and in the hands of small farmers. Does terroir really exist in cannabis? How does one grow for terroir?
It’s Not About Clones or Strains.
Grape vines, like cannabis, can be grown from seed or vegetatively propagated, in other words, cloned. Clones are key in both products. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel are all clones, called varietals in the industry. All Chardonnay vines are very similar to one another. They are vegetative clones of one another. However, plant seeds from Chardonnay and they will NOT grow into more Chardonnay. Some offspring may be similar, but most will be wildly different. Same with apples and similarly with cannabis. Different varieties, strains and varietals do arise from growers planting seeds and looking for interesting offspring. But once that special new individual arises, it can only be propagated with 100% fidelity by cloning vegatatively, not from seeds produced by sexual reproduction.
What does cloning versus sexually reproduction have to do with Terroir? Nothing! These are genetic differences. Terroir is not about genetic differences. It’s not about the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot, it’s about the difference in Pinot Noir grown in the Russian River compared to Pinot Noir grown on the Trinity River in the Willow Creek, AVA.
How Is Terroir Expressed?
Unfortunately, environmental fingerprints are subtle and easily covered up by human practices. Over water and fertilize and all you have is a tasteless, bloated grape. Overuse of herbicides results in dead soils, lacking the necessary microbial community that helps extract the unique profile of nutrients in that local soil type. Or on the production side, a winemaker may put a Pinot Noir in a brand-new barrel for too long and all it tastes like is toasted, caramel and vanilla oak. All traces of terroir are erased by those choices. Terroir is elusive. One must seek it out carefully, knowingly, and then make choices to help express it. At the very least, not to cover it up.
Now imagine the same clones of cannabis growing indoor under lights in bags of potting soil versus growing in the sweet California sunshine. By all accounts from growers and consumers, indoor has a unique profile and is different the outdoor cannabis.
But what about a clone of cannabis grown outside in bags of potting soil? What about a clone started in a greenhouse, some lights and then uncovered to finish in the sunshine? What about the million different fertilizers and additives a grower can give their crop? What about the million little choices a grower makes to produce a profitable product ready to capture market share in an ever increasingly competitive consumer space? Where is the “fingerprint of place” behind all these choices? Does it still shine through all these layers of human choices?
As the cannabis industry develops here in California, I hear many of the same terms about clones and terroir being used. As a botanist, farmer, and winemaker, I believe terroir is real. But what does it mean in the context of cannabis? What does in mean for cannabis that is grown for extraction versus flowers? What does it mean for cannabis destined for edible products versus smoking?
Saving Small Farmers and Producers.
Cannabis is a new and developing industry. It is deep in the experimentation phase, just beginning to define itself. Let’s hope growers and producers can convince consumers that terroir is real and has value. If placed-based agricultural products don’t have value, I fear cannabis farming culture and economic output will leave the hands of small producers, just as all commodity farming migrates to the cheapest means of production.
One way to counteract this economic reality is to create value in “place”. The wine industry achieved this through the establishment of legally recognized and regulated use of “place-names”. In the United States these “places of origin” are known as AVAs – American Viticultural Areas. They define specific geographic zones that can be used only for wines produced from grapes grown in that region. On a wine label, one might see “Napa Valley”. That means the grapes only came from that area and not the Central Valley. Origin identification first developed in Europe to protect the good name of certain growing areas. Wines from Bordeaux, France were fetching higher prices and suddenly, all wines were being labeled as wine from Bordeaux. The impetus for these regulated “places” were first and foremost about protecting the value of the products coming from these places.
The larger wine industry in general, needs to reflect on their practices. If consumers want cheap soulless wine that requires harmful practices, then is it worth it? And ditto with a mass-market cannabis industry. The cannabis industry would be well to start educating its consumers of the value of “place”. It has helped keep small wine grape growers and producers alive and diverse. Let’s hope wines of terroir and flowers of terroir become the gold standard of agriculture and economic development. It just might be the only way to keep small farmers and producers alive and prosperous.
Wilfred Franklin is the vineyard manager and winemaker for the Trinity River Vineyards in Willow Creek, Humboldt Co. California and instructor in the Wine Certificate Program at Humboldt State University. From the central coast of California in San Luis Obispo to New Jersey, he has worked as a biology professor, winemaker, vineyard manager and retailer of imported Italian, German and French wines. He was born and raised in Humboldt and has degrees in Botany and Biology from Humboldt State University.