Weed, wine enthusiasts gather at annual Emerald Cup

It's that time again, and we don't mean 4:20: The annual cannabis convention comes to Santa Rosa's fairgrounds this weekend.|

Emerald Cup XIII

When: Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14-15

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds

Admission: Weekend passes $105-$155, or $90 - $100 each day. Attendees must be 21 or over to attend.

More information: theemeraldcup.com.

The Emerald Cup returns to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on the second weekend in December, bringing with it hordes of cannabis enthusiasts, secret growers gone public, medical patients seeking relief and everybody trying to figure out just what CBD does, anyway – if anything.

But it’s not just cannabis enthusiasts who will be attending, but wine enthusiasts as well. Among them will be Virginie Boone, the Napa-Sonoma editor for Wine Enthusiast, who will be moderating an hour-long panel discussion on “Tannins and Terpenes” on Saturday, Dec. 14, at 2:45 p.m.

And later that same day, at 5:15 p.m., a session on Cannabis Appellations will be held – just two of dozens of specialized study groups, lectures and roundtables on all things cannabis at the 13th annual Emerald Cup. The event, founded by Tim Blake in Mendocino County, moved to Santa Rosa in 2013.

Tannins are an astringent component of plants that lends character to wines, especially red wines. Terpenes are organic compounds that produce strong aromas and, as found in the oils of a cannabis flower, produce a range of distinctive smells – cedar, spice, citrus, pine, even skunk. Both, intriguingly, are defensive mechanisms for plants to deter animals looking for an edible.

But their primary association in the cannabis world is to create an alliterative connection between wine and pot, and that’s really the subject of this particular Emerald Cup educational session. Finding the key to unlocking the recently-legalized economy of cannabis, not only in marketing and tourism, but in cuisine and even health, is what more traditional wine growers and vintners are looking for in this growing “green economy.”

“The wine business has been pretty good to Sonoma County, but now the winds of change are out there, for sure,” said Glen Ellen resident Mike Benziger, who along with his father founded Benziger Family Winery in 1980.

Many are more like Boone, a former wine editor for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “My interest in taking part in the Emerald Cup is learning, not necessarily for personal consumption as much as learning what people are doing out there and where it does potentially overlap with the wine world,” said Boone.

There are certain clear overlaps between wine and cannabis: both are agricultural products, both have a lengthy history of human consumption, both are “intoxicating” to some degree. And both, at least recently, have become the topic of day-long tours – to fields where the plant is grown, to labs where the harvest is converted into its highest and best use, leading in some cases to a tasting room for product sampling.

Though sampling the product is part of both wine and cannabis tours, there are more restrictions on the latter. In some cases, the cannabis experience is communicated entirely through aromas – the terpenes.

“I was at a dinner that was held at Gary Farrell winery where (cannabis) consumption was not allowed because it’s a winery, and their permitting doesn’t allow that,” recalled Boone. “The way that the organizers talked about the different properties of cannabis was by having little jars of things that people could smell, like whether something was a little bit more citrus spice or something was a little bit more piney or mushroomy or peppery - different things that the people in the cannabis space talked about in terms of the aromatic profile.”

Just as there’s a “wine wheel” with various aromas in categories and subcategories – from butterscotch to sauerkraut, oak to cloves – so, too, there’s a terpene wheel which includes not only the chemical component of the terpene itself (b-caryophyllene), for that cinnamon character, for example. Terpenes, however, are also aligned with effects or benefits. Such as the euphoria of cinnamon, as well as its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory uses – a step further than most sommeliers will go with their sniff testing.

Of course, the medical benefits of marijuana (and THC, CBD or their terpenes) have long been posited, but rarely proven. Similarly, remember the French Paradox? The seemingly positive effects of red wine on heart health, through its component resveratrol, has become widely accepted. Can the same benefits of consumption be claimed for cannabis as well?

“I think it rings true,” said Boone. “I think that’s where there’s crossover with a wine audience – that even if cannabis is not something that you personally want to enjoy, you can understand that there would be different strains of plants that would have different things to offer.”

The crossover wine-to-cannabis market may be interested in the aromatics or even the taste, and how those work with foods – but it’s in marketing that the two seek to learn from one another. Both industries share a keen interest in the trend known as “premiumization,” focusing a campaign on the distinctive value of a wine or flower due to its provenance, quality, labeling (or branding) and, of course, price.

“I think people are willing to pay a higher price for that, and that’s certainly been true in wine,” she said. “I think it makes sense to me that you’re going to have that same interest in cannabis, especially if you’re getting people to cross over into something that they’re not as familiar with.”

The Saturday 5:15 p.m. session explicitly deals with the appellation question – geographic designations awarded to products, not just wine (as in Bordeaux) but cheeses (Parmigiano), liquor (Tequila) and others. The presence of geographic origins, character and cultural heritage are paramount; can these criteria be applied to cannabis, too?

“Appellations are extremely important in protecting heritage cannabis production, varietals, and, yes, for marketing and branding,” said Gretchen Giles of the local Sonoma Valley Cannabis Enthusiasts group (SVCE). “It may be the best way to protect craft sun-grown producers from being eclipsed by large conglomerates.”

It’s not just a pipe dream, either: the state’s Department of Agriculture has a “CalCannabis Appellations Project” to develop an appellations process by January, 2021. Efforts to establish appellations for cannabis are already underway in several California counties, including Mendocino and Humboldt, and the SVCE has made pushing to make local appellations a priority.

Another member of the local Cannabis Enthusiast group, Benziger has high credibility in both the wine and cannabis business. He’s quick to point out the differences between the two crops that might make the appellation comparison less than exact. “Grapes are equally oriented toward the earth and toward the sky, and over time they develop a complex root system,” he told the Index-Tribune. “Cannabis is almost 100 percent oriented toward the sun and with less emphasis toward earth, there’s a difference there.”

Of course, a high percentage of commercial cannabis is grown indoors, the outdoor grow is the exception. So “terroir” and the elements of the landscape are far less relevant.

But Benziger is more than willing to adopt the appellation metaphor for the still-developing cannabis trade.

“I say, why reinvent the wheel? We already have a system out there that the consumers and the customers and the public are already somewhat familiar with,” said Benziger.

For her part, Boone simply believes the time is right for grape and cannabis growers to find common ground.

“You know, there are a lot of people that are overlapping at this point, so I think it’s good that the two sides are having conversations to understand each other better,” said Boone.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

Emerald Cup XIII

When: Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14-15

Where: Sonoma County Fairgrounds

Admission: Weekend passes $105-$155, or $90 - $100 each day. Attendees must be 21 or over to attend.

More information: theemeraldcup.com.

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