By Zusha Elinson
ALBION, Calif. -- Justin Calvino maneuvered his mud-spattered black Ford truck away from crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and into the piney hills of what he hopes will become "the Bordeaux of cannabis."
The cool, marine air that blankets the Mendocino coast gives the marijuana grown here a distinctive "fresh, earthy taste," he said as he gunned the V8 turbo diesel engine.
"If you're growing a Coffee Kush, you can almost taste the moss and the sea," said Mr. Calvino, a 37-year-old marijuana farmer who lives here with his wife and seven children.
With recreational pot becoming legal in the state in November -- though it is still illegal under federal law -- growers in the Emerald Triangle, a remote portion of Northern California known for its prolific cannabis crops, are trying to model themselves after the wine industry, which places great worth on provenance.
State officials said they would set up a governmental body to decide whether certain parts of California deserve their own exclusive appellations for cannabis, like Champagne and Bordeaux wine in France, or Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon just down the road.
Soon, a Mendocino Kush could take its place in this pantheon -- not to be sold by growers from any other region.
Behind the push is the notion of terroir, which holds that unique climate, soil and farming practices influence agricultural crops. It stretches back centuries to the grape-growing monks of Burgundy, France, who, legend has it, tasted the soil in an effort to demarcate different wine regions.
Wine connoisseurs taste the subtle differences between grapes grown just miles from each other in slightly different climates. Now, as pot laws relax around the country, "cannasseurs" are refining their own taste buds for buds.
Surrounded by the towering redwood trees at Mr. Calvino's Mendocino County farm, where bright blue peacocks roam free, he and two other cannabis aficionados extolled the virtues of the local product on a cold afternoon in January.
"A lot of it starts with nose and look," said Nick Smilgys, whose palate has earned him a position as a judge at the Emerald Cup, which Rolling Stone magazine has called "the Academy Awards of the cannabis industry."
Mr. Smilgys eyeballed a sample of Coffee Kush, noting the "bluish highlights." He held it up and took a deep whiff, declaring it was "leaning more toward fruity than fuely. You got earthy in there, too."
It doesn't taste like coffee -- the effects are like a drinking a cup of it, he said
Later, the men smoked a joint and commented on Long Valley Royal Kush, a strain that does particularly well on the Mendocino coast because it can grow in the shorter warm season here, Mr. Calvino said.
"The taste is amazing, it's like lavender and gas," said Brett Canady, the man who tends the crops here.
The effect is unique as well. Even though it is an indica, a relaxing variety known to plaster people to the couch, "you'll still be able to do your work" after smoking it, said Mr. Canady. "It's not too couchy."
In the pot world, citrus, pine, earthy, floral and spice odors are good things, while buds that smell "strongly of salt and pepper" and those that evoke "rancid old gym lockers" are negatives, according to instructors at the Trichome Institute, which trains cannabis sommeliers in Colorado.
"Cannabis itself has a bad stigma because our culture makes it that way -- every TV show or movie shows cannabis users as stoners," said Max Montrose, 28, Trichome's president. "Cannabis is also ancient, and it's way more sophisticated in how many types there are and how it affects people in so many ways."
Mr. Montrose teaches people how to discern the effects of a particular marijuana strain by smelling and looking at it. His students have been growers, pot shop owners and even chefs who want to pair food with cannabis.
Indica "has more earthy tones and goes better with red meats," said Philip Wolf, who leads $249 tours in Colorado that feature cannabis-food pairings. In contrast, the more stimulating type of cannabis called sativa has "citrus flavors, which go naturally with fish or chicken," he said.
At home, the 31-year-old, who is the CEO of Cultivating Spirits, said he is partial to a combination of fish tacos with some Golden Goat, which has "a lemony pine taste."
"Braised Oxtail with Creamy Corn Porridge and Orange-Poblano Marmalade" paired with Blue Dream, which "balances full-body relaxation with gentle cerebral invigoration," was part of a seven-course dinner hosted in Boulder, Colo., last week by the Mason Jar Event Group.
Of course, cannabis famously stimulates the appetite in ways that wine doesn't. "We don't have a lot of leftovers, I'll tell you that," said Kendal Norris, the founder of Mason Jar.
As California's cannabis farmers gear up to make the case for their unique location, there is still debate over whether the Emerald Triangle -- Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties -- is as special as France's Bordeaux region.
Ed Rosenthal, a founder of High Times Magazine who is known as the Guru of Ganja, said this foggy region of Northern California was chosen by growers in the days when marijuana was illegal because it was easy to conceal from law enforcement, not because it is the ideal climate for the plant.
"The best stuff I could grow is if I were in the Central Valley," he said, referencing the sun-drenched region that produces much of the country's fruits and vegetables as well as large cannabis crops.
Emerald Triangle farmers are hoping to snag the high end of the market in the competition with production from the Central Valley, which can be cultivated year-round.
Legal cannabis sales in California could be worth about $6.2 billion in five years, according to estimates from the Arcview Group, a cannabis industry investment and market research firm.
Part of that will be marketing Northern California's outlaw past, reminiscent of Prohibition-era bootleggers, said Mr. Calvino, who has been growing in the area for close to a decade.
"We're like an American treasure: we've lived through some s -- ," he said. "The hipsters are going to love that -- it's like meeting Machine Gun Kelly."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 05, 2017 14:04 ET (19:04 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.