The cannabis industry can learn about how to define quality and region from the wine industry.
The cannabis industry can learn about how to define quality and region from the wine industry. Vineyard photo by michael clarke stuff.

Cannabis is at a turning point in its long history. California legalization will create changes that will have far reaching repercussions on the world economy. The wine industry was in a somewhat comparable situation in the mid-18th century when they literally reinvented viticulture after tens of thousands of years of history. A new market based on a hierarchic classification of wine was created to support quality over quantity.

According to renowned expert Dr. Patrick McGovern (1), “Fermented beverages have been preferred over water throughout the ages: they are safer, provide psychotropic effects, and are more nutritious. Some have even said alcohol was the primary agent for the development of Western civilization, since more healthy individuals (even if inebriated much of the time) lived longer and had greater reproductive success.”

Wine Consumption Began as a Need

For over 10,000 years, the whole European continent from weaned toddlers to elders on their deathbed were consuming wine in large quantities. Our ancestors were not drinking gallons of wine daily for the pure pleasure of it, but as the only form of water sanitation.

The first competition to wine’s monopoly as the beverage of choice came in the 17th century with the appearance of new beverages like hard liquor, tea, coffee and chocolate. Consumers were more than willing for a change, if they could afford it. This shift forced viticulture as an industry into a total makeover.

How Wine was Rebuilt as a Symbol of Distinction

Wine had to be transmuted from a mandatory means to quench one’s thirst into an exclusive beverage expressing good taste and quality; the bourgeoning understanding of soil, climate and varietals (2) chemistry supported this change in public perception. Wines were acquiring an identity for the first time, specific attributes and characteristics of a wine produced in a precise region would appear in the vintage season after season, giving birth to the notion of “terroir.” (3)

The recognition that certain varietals expressed specific characteristics in vineyards within the regions laid the foundation for the emergence of the associated estates and domains classification, and the development of the concept of the “Bordeaux Classification”, the cornerstone of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC – “Registered designation of origin” in English).

In 1855 the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce and Vintners Association created a classification of wine hierarchy that focused on three points:

  1. The long-standing reputation for quality in a producing region.
  2. The constancy of the defining characteristics of the wine from the specific domains in the region
  3. The continuity of a wine’s identity over time and its public recognition

Bordeaux was the biggest trading port on the Atlantic coast of France, the region had been producing and exporting wines since the Roman Empire. The first “modern wines” were born in the region: wines with a legacy of quality and distinctive characteristics due to the dedication and insight of wine’s true potential held by a few visionary wine makers.

Today the Cannabis industry in California faces a somewhat similar situation as my ancestors did in Bordeaux. Since the decline of the lumber industry, cannabis cultivation has been the main economic resource for Northern California and the general norm has been to focus on quantity over quality. Prohibition and the black market are not quality precursors, but thankfully there is always the exception to the rule. The dedication to quality from a few families who, over the last three generations, have brought recognition that certain cannabis strains actually express specific characteristics within a region as grape varietals do.

The Emerald Triangle is the biggest producer and exporter of cannabis in the U.S. since the late 1960’s, and that offers as much heritage as many Domains and Chateaux (4) in France. The natural discovery of the Emerald Triangle’s quality terroir and the uniqueness of the local genetics offer a colossal economic opportunity as viticulture has demonstrated.

We just have to follow the blue print that created a multi-billion dollar industry over the last 160 years.

Learn more about how the cannabis industry can follow the wine industry’s blueprint for success in Part 2, coming soon!

Citations and References

[1] Patrick McGovern is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology. In the popular imagination, he is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.”

[2] Varietals refer to specific variety or type of grape used to make a wine.

[3] Terroir: the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. Origin – French, land, country, stretch of land in reference to its agricultural features, from Old French tieroir, from Vulgar Latin *terratorium, alteration of Latin territorium. First Known Use: 1863

[4] The terms “Domaine” and “Chateau” describe a wine estate that makes wine from grapes grown in its own vineyards. (


* 1855 A history of the Bordeaux Classification by Dewey Markham Jr.

* Inventing Wine by Paul Lukacs

* The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson

Photo credit: Vineyard photo by michael clarke stuff, French vineyards in the Bordeaux wine region of Blaye. The cannabis farm photo by The Ganjier, outdoor cannabis farm in the Emerald Triangle region of California. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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