Member Blog: Growing Beyond THC – Terroirs and Terpenes Are The Future Of Premium Cannabis
By Bethany Moore
February 2, 2021
/ Education

Member Blog: Growing Beyond THC – Terroirs and Terpenes Are The Future Of Premium Cannabis

By Eric Sklar, CEO and Co-founder of Napa Valley Fumé 

I’m a serial entrepreneur and my roots in Napa Valley run deep. I’ve been a cultivator in this beautiful terroir for over 40 years, initially as a wine guy from a family of growers and makers, and now as the Co-Founder and CEO of a premium seed-to-sale cannabis company. I see a lot of similarities between wine and cannabis, comparisons that paint a bright, accessible, and profitable future for our industry. 

Wine + Cannabis Offer Interesting Comparisons

Both are agricultural products that are highly regulated, though cannabis far more so given the industry is still in its infancy. 40 years ago, when my family started in the wine business they experienced similar business challenges, or as I like to call them – opportunities. 

Like wine, cannabis comes in a variety of strains and formats. Also, like wine, cannabis is extremely well suited to the growing conditions of California’s terroirs, especially those where I live in Northern California. If you think about the wide variety of wine varietals – Cabernet, Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings, and so on – there is an even greater variety of cannabis strains – Lemon Sour Diesel, Double Chem OG, Budzilla, Bogota Berry, etc. There is something for every palette, which pre-legalization, I am not sure many people really paid attention to. This is all to say, that just as there are many different ways to enjoy wine depending on your tastes, your budget, or your intentions and preferences, the same is true for cannabis. 

There’s so much more. If you’ve ever had a great wine or even a decent wine, you know that there are all these flavors and aromas that layer on each other and evolve over time, interacting in different ways to create this wonderful sensory experience that’s both about taste and smell. The same goes for cannabis. Premium cannabis is as complex as the most complex wine. Both wine and cannabis contain terpenes and it’s the variety of different terpenes in each of them that determines the flavors, aromas, and overall experience. Coming from wine, this is something I understand and I think as people explore cannabis without the stigma of prohibition, they will begin to seek out terpene-rich strains, just as they now seek out complex wine profiles – perhaps unknowingly given how wine is such a normalized product in today’s society.

Of course, there are obvious differences between cannabis and wine. The plants themselves are very different. One’s an annual plant and one’s a perennial vine. But, they both produce very similar compounds that make the sensory experience of their flower and fruit so much richer. 

Let’s Talk Terpenes

You’ve probably been hearing a lot more about terpenes lately. They’re kinda the new ‘it’ thing in our industry. Terpenes are organic compounds in plants responsible for the unique smells and tastes of your favorite plants, flowers, and fruits. Most people don’t know this but with both wine and cannabis, most of what you think you’re tasting is actually what you’re smelling. It’s these terpenes that give your favorite wines and cannabis strains their signature scents.

Some of them overlap — there are some of the same terpenes in both cannabis and wine grapes like limonene and myrcene. And then there are some terpenes that are more unique to one plant or the other. But it’s the same compounds and so coming out of wine, it was such a natural thing for me to say, I’m not in this to build the strongest, highest-THC-get-you-wasted product. I wanted to develop something that honored the terroirs I’ve come to know and love. A premium product offering, with the same wonderful components of the wines I’ve been creating and the same rich variety of flavor profiles as the grapes I’ve been growing for all these years.

As chemicals go, terpenes offer delicate but very distinctive aromas but they are volatile and, if you’re not careful, will disappear quite quickly. You have to work to maintain them to keep them from evaporating from your flower as from your wine. Taking the time and care to capture and preserve these aromas and flavors that are truly unique to each strain and varietal makes for a much richer experience than the extreme high that some people chase, the cannabis equivalent of Night Train. With cannabis, quickly harvesting the flower and getting it into a temperature and humidity-controlled drying room helps maintain these volatile compounds as does the way you cure and store the flower after the initial drying. In wine, we preserve the terpenes with careful barreling and bottling.

The best way to enjoy terpenes is to use a flower vaporizer. Just heating it up enough to release everything without burning it and without burning rolling paper that covers up the subtle aromas of the terpenes.

Outdoor Growing Enriches the Final Product

The cannabis plant has been growing outside for millennia and our hypothesis at Napa Valley Fumé is that growing outdoors creates a wider range of terpenes and a richer, more nuanced consumption experience. A plant, like a human being, is a holistic entity, it’s a being of a sort. If you took a person — like in The Truman Show — and never let them outside, what would that do to that being?

In truth, we don’t really know what indoor growing does to the plant. But what I think is that these plants are meant to be grown outside. That’s where they do their best. They have to contend with elements that make them stronger, and other factors like pests, which over time create resistance, again making them stronger. They are also receiving full-spectrum sunlight that changes each day of the year. As the year goes on, the color spectrum starts to vary. It is bluer in the spring and redder in the fall. So while I get the efficiency of indoor growing, I believe that all of these environmental elements together with the heating during the day and cooling at night and the fact that different growing regions have different climates and terroirs, you get the best, most interesting plants when you grow outdoors.

Terroir: As Important to Cannabis as They are to Wine Grapes

Terroir is a great word because it’s not just about one element, it’s about everything in a given place. The altitude, the soil, the mineral content of the water, the directional exposure to the sun. In Napa where we’re based, the terroir is affected by the fog that comes up from the Bay. We measure the temperature days over the course of the whole growing season, assessing the total heat that the plant received. All of these things contribute to the terroir and the terroir informs and enriches the sensory experience of the resulting fruit and flower.

Plants, whether you’re talking about grapes or cannabis, will perform differently in different terroirs and will express themselves in different, nuanced ways. For me, this suggests a bright future for sun-grown cannabis with a wide variety of strains each displaying the unique signature of their terroir. The same seed grown across different terroirs expresses really differently, resulting in a distinct profile in the flower and an enhanced consumption experience. 

Bottom Line: Terpenes, Terroirs, and Outdoor Growing Paint a Bright Future

This plant has so much to offer and is so expressive. While there’s a place for both indoor and outdoor, it seems to me that the most expressive form of this plant, with the most interesting aromas and flavors, comes when you grow in the full spectrum of sunlight outdoors. To attain the same rich variety in your cannabis experience as you do with wine, you want to do it outdoors, you want to tend them for the greatest terpene expression, you want to pick your strains at the beginning for that. Optimizing for terpenes doesn’t just have a flavor effect, it also shapes the psychoactive effect of the flower. The right terpenes and compounds can make the resulting high sleepier or more energetic, as well as providing other health benefits that are currently supported by anecdotal evidence and will likely be born out in the research that is currently underway.

As with the trajectory of the wine industry, we believe that educating consumers about terpenes and terroirs and offering them a wider variety of products and consumption experiences, will expand the category, creating a bright future for all of us. I’m excited and encouraged by articles like this one from Wine Magazine that suggest that we’re on to something. 

Eric Sklar is an entrepreneur, Napa Valley vineyard owner and public official. He and his family have been growing grapes in Napa Valley for 40 years and he planted his first licensed cannabis garden in 2018. Eric is the CEO and co-founder of Napa Valley Fumé, LLC, a cannabis management and branding company that has launched brands such as LAKE GRADE with a few others in the works. He is also the co-founder of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association and the President of California Fish and Game Commission, a position he has held since 2016.

In 2005, Eric founded Alpha Omega Winery in Rutherford, CA and was managing partner until 2013. He’s held positions on the Board of the Napa Valley Vintners, as well as Napa Valley Vintners’ Community and Industry Issues Committee. In 1989, he founded Burrito Brothers’ Inc., a restaurant chain based in Washington, DC, which he sold in 1999. Eric was also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Business where he taught courses in entrepreneurship, business strategy and marketing. He has held several other political positions including Assistant Press Secretary to Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

Eric received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley in 1984, a Diploma in Business Studies at the London School of Economics in 1986, and a Master of Business Administration at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1997.

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