There's No Taste Like Home

By Clay McGlaughlin

Sheltered behind the Redwood Curtain between sun-drenched mountains and miles of foggy coastline, Humboldt County features an incredible variety of microclimates with vastly different ranges of temperature, humidity, topography, soil type and other factors large and small. Taken as a whole, these factors are sometimes referred to as a region’s “terroir” (pronounced “tehr-wahr”), a French term that describes interacting environmental conditions that create the unique characteristics of products like wine, cheese, coffee and cannabis.

“Climate and cannabis are intertwined,” explained Steve Dodge of Humboldt Growers Collective. “Look at the ideal climatic conditions for cannabis. It grows best between 60-90 degrees (Fahrenheit) and 40-60 percent humidity. … Now let us superimpose those conditions on a climate zone map of California. You will see that Southern Humboldt is a unique convergence of humidity and temperature that exists nowhere else.

“ With the coast giving us cooler temperatures and moisture, and the inland areas giving us heat, it turns out that right here in Humboldt is one of the best cannabis growing areas anywhere,”

Dodge said. “Cannabis is like any other plant: If you plant it in an advantageous place, it will fully express its genetic heritage. But if you put it in a stressed environment, it will adapt to that and it won’t show itself off as well.”

Terroir = Nature + Nurture. In addition to naturally-occurring conditions, the concept of terroir also encompasses farming practices that impact the quality of finished products, including decisions about planting, pruning, irrigation and harvesting.

By carefully guiding the growth cycles of plants in order to promote some characteristics and suppress others, cannabis cultivators play an active role in creating the distinctive strains, flavors and potencies that give Humboldt County cannabis its global appeal.

Because terroir is a complex combination of nature and nurture, Dodge emphasized that the concept is very much “a floating target. … You can be more or less purist about it, but Burgundy wines, for example, come only from the region of Burgundy (central France). … You can grow the same types of grapes in Napa but the result is not Burgundy. It tastes a little bit like it, but that’s not what it is. I think the same thing applies here. You can grow pot anywhere pretty easily, but not like we grow it here.”+

While many small-scale growers are concerned they will be driven out of the market by industrial competitors, Dodge said leveraging the concept of terroir could be key to maintaining a competitive edge. 

“I think the large industrial operations starting to light up down south are probably going to have a serious problem grasping and holding anything that resembles terroir,” Dodge said. “Growing indoors is not going to fly if you’re trying to put a terroir label on your brand because you’re not interacting with anything unless you put it in there. … A city can’t really have terroir unless car fumes and chlorinated water are part of your terroir.

“Sometimes people ask me what’s going to happen to local growers when companies are producing tons and tons of cannabis, and my first response is to ask, ‘Do you like [boxed] wine?’ I think most people would say, ‘Well, not really.’ A lot of people might buy [boxed] wine and that’s fine … but when you want to step up in quality you’re going to come to Humboldt and it’s going to be better, and you’re going to taste the difference.”