It’s The Terroir, Stupid!

cabernetgrapesEveryone has their hot buttons. The things that make them yell at the TV and throw things. For me, it’s people who pontificate that some crop, when it hits a particular price-point or is organically grown,¬† is “just like fine wine from Napa or Sonoma”. Yesterday, it was some commentator on MSNBC who prompted a flying shoe to hit the flat screen. He was discussing the recent legalization of pot in Colorado. His prediction was that soon organic pot farmers would be making high-priced varieties¬† — wait for it! — “just like fine wine from Napa or Sonoma”.

Not so fast, Buster! If you think the only things separating a Screaming Eagle Cabernet and a Franzia White Zinfandel in a box are organic practices and a hefty price tag, let me school you on the dealbreakers here. And why, even if a grower is producing primo weed without pesticides, he’s still not farming or producing a product in any way shape or form “just like fine wine from Napa or Sonoma”.

The difference, my friends, is terroir.¬† And I won’t say “never”, but I would fall down in amazement if there is any pot grower — no matter how dedicated to organic farming and crop quality — who is in any way approximating the terroir-driven practices that produce a product “just like fine wine from Napa or Sonoma”. Before you say, “But Lisa, certain types of pot grow best in certain climates and good pot growers will know that”, let me explain that just growing a crop in an area where it is likely to thrive is NOT terroir. Terroir-driven crops are those where all the farming and production of that crop is aimed at having the particular and unique characteristics of the specific micro-climate, soil, geology, etc. expressed through that product in a way that makes it different from the taste or characteristics of that same crop should it be grown in any other place. For instance, the specific minerals in a certain soil will give certain unique tastes to wine, and many winemakers process their wines to play up those unique taste elements. With artisan cheeses, especially in France and England, the mineral content of the soil affects the taste of the grass the cows eat. So cheese made from a Jersey cow grazing in on a limestone rich meadow in south coastal England will taste differently from cheese made from that same Jersey breed of cow grazed in the similar climate but different soils of Tomales Bay, California. And finer cheesemakers in Jersey will try to create a product that expresses and highlights that unique quality.

One of these things is NOT like the other.

One of these things is NOT like the other.

Here’s where I see the important difference between something that is just produced organically and optimally from a product that is truly terroir-driven. Let’s take that organic pot grower who wants to produce a unique, high-end and higher priced product. What does he do? Well, I don’t really travel in drug circles. But everything I’ve read about pot growing tells me that improvements in crop are made with hybridization and cross-breeding. The goal is to produce a better plant, however better is defined: seedless, smoother smoking, higher THC content or whatever.

Now let’s go back to that wine. Here in Napa and Sonoma, we aren’t hybridizing or cross-breeding our grapes. We are growing grapes that are actually clones of the same grapes grown in France and grafted on the same rootstocks everyone uses because they are Phylloxera resistant. The variables are our particular terroir. And, for many of us, the way we farm those grapes and process that wine to bring out the unique tastes and characteristics that terroir imparts to the crop.

Granted, our pot grower may find that Northern Humboldt County is the place where his particular hybrid grows best. But is he specifically trying to farm so that the particular tastes of the soils and minerals are expressed in his crop? Well, cigar manufacturers have argued that they express terroir — although, since a given cigar can have a wrapper grown in Kentucky, interior tobacco from the Dominican Republic and assembly in Jamaica, it’s hard to argue for a “sense of specific place”. I’m not going to say pot growers will never become terroir-driven. But I think I’d lay good odds that they’ll always be talking more about the particular strains they’ve developed than they will about their particular geology, climate and soil.

So good luck, Colorado pot growers. I would love to see legalization lead to more organic farming of your crop — especially since, here in California, many large scale pot growers are polluting and damaging the environment. But terroir-driven pot crops? I’m not betting the farm on that one.

And, remember — no matter how organic you are or how high a price you are charging — if you are growing indoors or hydroponically, your product is NOT “just like fine wine from Napa and Sonoma”.

In fact, grapes and the fine wines made from them are almost unique in the way they are cultivated, processed and marketed. There are very few artisanal food products that are “just like them”. That’s what makes them so magical.

Note: If I haven’t made terroir clear to you, Randall Graham from one of my favorite vineyards, and other winemakers do a better job here.

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Author: Lisa

Although I'd like to think of myself as a rootin', tootin', wine-makin' cowgirl, I currently only live in Sonoma part-time. Mostly I'm on freeways between San Jose, San Francisco and Sonoma. With two yapping terriers in crates behind me. We try to enjoy all three places and points in between. Which will explain why my post subjects are all over the map.

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4 Comments

  1. Kinda tough to make claims of being grown in certain soils if they’re actually raised hydroponically in potting soil……

  2. Yup, Jeffro. Exactly.

  3. Schooled. Totally.

  4. It is what makes the pastures tasty for racehorses in Central Kentucky – limestone under the soil perhaps makes for stronger bones as a perk. But, it is the terrior, all of it. Not a fine wine or stupendous weed (although we used to be leaders in hemp production legally, and the thc not bred out of the stock). That whole train left the station a long time ago. Simpler times.

    Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery. Or maybe annoyance and irritation in some cases :)

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