Tasting Humboldt

Weed and wine pairings

by Nora Mounce

Photographs by Amy Kumler • Styling by Jacqui Langeland & Lynn Leishman

The late world-traveler and chef Anthony Bourdain believed that food, culture and landscape are inseparable, and one can begin to understand both people and place through flavor. In today’s food-focused culture, we’re fascinated with exploring why a particular soup, bread or wine tastes the way it does. More and more we are beginning to see how flavor is both an expression of cultural identity and of geographic location. 

The stuffy sounding but simple French concept terroir — how the soil of a region is expressed through flavors and aromas — gets to the heart of the matter more quickly. Wine is the archetypal example but the concept applies to any form of agriculture, pastoralism or even seafood, known as merroir. Most anyone who has passed an afternoon in a tasting room (or watched the movie Sideways) is familiar with the concept. But in Humboldt County — a wildly diverse foodscape — it’s challenging to identify a regional style or distinctive terroir from food and wine alone. Perhaps we’ve missed a course?

Humboldt County is the cultural home of cannabis. It’s a corner of California bordered by the rugged Pacific Ocean and tooth-picked by majestic redwood trees. While cannabis doesn’t grow wild behind the redwoods, at times, it’s been perfected here. Just like an apple or a wine grape, cannabis can be cultivated in countless varieties (strains) that offer various scents, flavors and nuances. The final product is also crafted for different delivery systems (i.e. dried flower, concentrates, oil, edibles, salves) and quality ranges from the mass-produced to the boutique. Finally, cannabis has more scales of measure than most agricultural products: Do you prefer a strain by bud size, aromatics or its psychoactive effects? The variables are endless.

In order to pair cannabis with wine or food, it’s useful to understand terpenes. Naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis and other plants, terpenes are responsible for the signature aromas and tastes associated with different strains. Even seasoned winemakers are hard-pressed to analyze their wines with such specificity, though a high level of “terps” is comparable to a wine with a “big nose.” Terpenes such as linalool, myrcene, humulene and limonene are indicative of quality and help to distinguish a particular strain or brand of cannabis with aromas such as pine or tangerine. As the newly legal industry evolves and more cannabis knowledge flourishes, consumers will have the opportunity to pinpoint their preferences: Would you like your OG from a coastal climate cooled by off-shore breezes or heady, dry-farmed flower grown in the inland heat? 

“Terpenes are how plants communicate and express themselves,” explains Jamie Evans, a former wine industry professional with a degree in enology and viticulture from Cal Poly. After taking an early interest in pairing wine and cannabis, Evans created her blog The Herb Somm in 2017. Billed as “Your gourmet guide to cannabis,” Evans writes about food, wine and cannabis in addition to partnering with winemakers and cultivators to host upscale events throughout Northern California. 

At a recent “Terpenes and Terroir” dinner, Evans invited cannabis farmers to talk about their growing practices while guests passed around wine glasses of green buds, inhaling the rich terpene profiles. For now, state regulations prevent almost any THC consumption at licensed cannabis events, putting an innovative sector of the cannabis industry on hold. Still abiding by 2018 regulations, Herb Somm events educate guests on the interplay between of food, wine and flower as an immersive and experiential tool. “Terpenes directly reflect the region in which they are grown, which is why organic farming is so important if you’re trying to achieve an expression of place in your cannabis,” adds Evans. 

Winemaker Adrian Jewell Manspeaker refers to “expression of place” as “site-reflective.” As a producer of premium pinot noir — considered the most nuanced style of wine — Manspeaker strives to create wines that tell a story through taste. Raised in Southern Humboldt, today, Manspeaker is the co-owner of Joseph-Jewell Wines in Sonoma. In 2004, Manspeaker started making wine in the garage with a buddy and “caught the wine bug,” as they say. As newcomers to the wine industry, they had trouble finding grapes grown under the coastal influence that many believe is essential for premium pinot noir. “All of a sudden, all these lightbulbs popped,” says Manspeaker, and his home in the foggy redwoods beckoned.

“We make Pinot from three different vineyards in the Russian River Valley [Sonoma] and three different Humboldt County pinots. Each one reflects different soil types and character,” explains Manspeaker. Using cool-climate fruit from Southern Humboldt, Joseph-Jewell markets their Humboldt County single-vineyard pinot noirs as a style between fruit-forward Sonoma and the subtlety of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “People love our Humboldt County wines,” adds Manspeaker. 

Until your next exploratory visit north, try these wine and weed pairings in the comfort of your own home. Each was selected to highlight the character of Humboldt and elevate the nuance of each strain or style. 


Coates Sangiovese + GSC Sungrown from Talking Trees Farms

In the far northeast reaches of Humboldt County, Coates Vineyards has farmed certified organic and biodynamic grapes overlooking the Klamath River since 1996. An Italian varietal blended into Tuscany’s most famous Chianti and Super Tuscans, Sangiovese is characterized by a light tannin, high acid and herbal aromatics. Naturally, the wine is a great pairing for tomato-based Italian dishes, yet it’s light body and hints of sage perfectly highlight Humboldt’s proudest daughter, Girl Scout Cookies (GSC). Cultivated under the full sun at Talking Tree Farms, premium GSC flower is packed with the terpene caryophyllene, providing the sweet spice and earthy aromatics.

Amy Kumler.


North Story Vermentino + Papa & Barkley’s Satsuma Orange Rosin

Papa & Barkley’s extraction artists are devoted to capturing the unique character of every strain with their live rosin, a solvent-less extract made from trichome and terpene-rich plants. Its Satsuma Orange Rosin bursts with ripe citrus, honeysuckle and jasmine — the perfect match for North Story’s vermentino. An underrated white-skinned varietal originally cultivated in Sardinia, vermentino is beloved by wine nerds for its grapefruity profile with notes of river rock and white tea. Knittel explains that because vermentino is such an aromatic grape, it’s perfect for pairing with the citrus and floral terpenes of cannabis. Get the two together for a Humboldt match made in heaven.

Amy Kumler.


Joseph-Jewell Humboldt Eel River Valley Pinot Noir + Cherry Pie 

True to its name, Cherry Pie is a Humboldt heritage strain that tastes and smells like sweet cherries, accented by forest floor and skunky aromatics. The flower gets its distinctive nose from sky-high levels of myrcene, a terpene that’s known to relax muscles and alleviate depression. The bud practically begs to be paired with a juicy red pinot noir and its cherry, mushroom and herbal aromatics. From Joseph-Jewell’s line of Humboldt County reds, the Eel River Valley pinot is crafted from fruit harvested from three different vineyards in Southern Humboldt’s legendary Eel River Valley. Expressing the quintessential polarity of Humboldt County’s culture and landscape, Joseph-Jewell showcases the ripe red cherry of Humboldt’s summer sun, underscored by earthy subtlety. 

Amy Kumler.


Briceland Phelps Vineyard Chardonnay + Sunset Sherbert by UpNorth

Both grapes and green are grown under the full sun of Southern Humboldt’s warm summers. Briceland’s winemaker, Andrew Morris, learned the art of fermentation from his stepfather, Joe Collins, who opened the winery in 1985. Today, Briceland Vineyards is known for producing a range of varietals with restrained fruit, reflecting the cool Pacific breezes and short growing season. Morris’ 2017 chardonnay is aged in stainless steel and does not undergo malolactic fermentation, negating the two primary conditions for buttery chardonnay. Instead, Briceland’s white wine is bright and verdant with the food-friendly acidity reminiscent of just-picked green apples. Try a glass with a green salad or cheese plate and a fresh joint of Sherbert from UpNorth. A relative of the Humboldt legacy strain Girl Scout Cookies, Sherbert retains the same sweet and funky notes with the addition of citrus and ripe tropical fruit when smoked. The terpene limonene helps to bump up the citrus fruit profile of both wine and weed, supporting the anti-anxiety and no-bad-vibes pairing.

Amy Kumler.