What We Talk About When We Talk About Weed

The dialogue around marijuana is starting to sound a lot like a conversation about wine. Christopher Ross on the movement to elevate marijuana from its second-class status, and how a new breed of "weed connoisseurs" is taking cues from drink.

The color displays “purple hues,” the flavor is “incredibly sweet” with “hints of cherry” and it’s grown via a “no-till system.” Is it a montepulciano? A Sicilian nero d’avola? Nope—these descriptors apply not to wine but to a sticky, pungent strain of indica cannabis called Cherry Kush.

The tasting notes were drawn from a recent review published by The Northwest Leaf, a glossy Seattle-based monthly magazine that, since 2010, has attempted to raise the level of marijuana writing to resemble the kind of coverage that’s long been accorded to wine and craft beer. The similarities in critical vocabulary to reviews of alcohol—taking into account flavor, aroma, texture, the methods of growing and production used—are no coincidence. Marijuana advocates are borrowing from the discourses surrounding wine and beer in an effort to show consumers that a nug of organically grown pot can have the same complexity and craftsmanship as a bottle of Oregon pinot noir or a glass of imperial IPA.

For a long time, marijuana was considered a second-class citizen in the league of recreational substances. “Even for me, seven or eight years ago, when I bought pot I would just be buying pot,” says Wes Abney, founder and editor-in-chief of The Northwest Leaf. “You got whatever you got, which if anything was a choice between the good, the bad and the ugly.” But thanks to shifts in legalization, it’s experienced an explosion of both eager consumers and indie growers that has drawn comparison to the craft beer boom of the last decade. The challenge facing the marijuana industry now is to create a culture of connoisseurship around a substance that, for decades, was regarded at worst as a serious health risk and at best something nonconformists and slackers smoked to escape from reality.

At the forefront of this movement are journalists and event planners working the weed beat who are trying to popularize new, more subtle ways of talking about and experiencing marijuana. As Kimberly Johnson, an editor at Culture magazine points out, “Even calling it ‘cannabis’ instead of ‘pot’ or ‘weed’ is a way of rebranding the substance and talking about it in a more refined way.” One of the most effective ways of accomplishing this has been by proximity to wine and beer, which, after all, are often consumed alongside pot, if in a less discerning manner than some might prefer.

This fall, Abney launched the inaugural installment of Tannins and Terpenes, a public event in Portland, OR, that paired pot with wine and beer in the same way you might match food and wine, counting on the duality to reveal new dimensions of each component. For now, Abney says, just putting alcohol and pot on an equal footing as products that can command different levels of appreciation is the goal, though Abney thinks marijuana could someday be regarded as even more complex than wine. Despite lingering stigmas, the idea of wine-and-weed pairings has also gained momentum with outspoken individuals across the divide, like Ben Parsons, the owner of the Denver winery Infinite Monkey Theorem, who exclusively supplied the wines for a marijuana pairing dinner at the Winter X Games in January.

One of the other major moves writers and advocates have made to legitimize marijuana is to highlight the terroir and the particulars of pot growing, inserting it into the larger national dialogue surrounding the sourcing of our food and drink. The Clever Root, a quarterly magazine dedicated to farm-grown products, recently hired Allison Edrington, the editor-in-chief of the online publication The Ganjier, to be their Cannabis Editor, effectively acknowledging “herb” as just one other element in the bounty of Mother Nature to be enjoyed. “Clever Root looks at everything good that grows,” says Edrington. “That’s farm-to-table cuisine, that’s wine, that’s cannabis. Talking about the terroir of cannabis benefits the farm as well as the consumer, because it informs customers about where it’s from, who grew it and how it was grown, much like wine. That comparison is definitely going on.”

At The Ganjier, writer Frenchy Cannoli published a twopart blog post entitled, “How the Cannabis Industry Can Learn from the History of Wine,” which compared the winemaking traditions of the Bordeaux region of France to the rich lineage of cannabis growing in California’s Emerald Triangle. Cannoli points out that it was the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 that helped acknowledge that different grape varieties express certain characteristics and flavors depending on where they are grown, and established a quality hierarchy which could determine the value of a given bottle. “Wine had to be transmuted from a mandatory means to quench one’s thirst into an exclusive beverage expressing good taste and quality; the bourgening [sic] understanding of soil, climate and varietals [sic] chemistry supported this change in public perception,” he writes.

Granting similar distinctions to the farms and families in the Emerald Triangle—in turn, acknowledging that “certain cannabis strains actually express specific characteristics within a region as grape varietals do”—would represent a serious shift in the drug’s reputation. Much like in the wine world, critics and connoisseurs have already become conversant in the concepts of climate, elevation, solar orientation and irrigation and how such variables combine to explain why California’s Mendocino County will produce different pot than Washington’s Okanogan County.

But the notion of a field of serious, (somewhat) sober cannabis journalism is itself something of an innovation. When the Denver Post hired a cannabis critic in 2013, it made a stir, but the Post’s editors argued that if wine and food had reviewers, there was no reason legalized marijuana shouldn’t as well. To describe and rate their subject, marijuana writers rely on a lingo and vocabulary—strains might alternately produce a “body,” “euphoric” or “cerebral” high,” a nugget may be “dense” or “fluffy”—developed over decades in online forums and chatrooms as well the language growers use to describe marijuana. “Chatrooms and the Internet were what connected a grower in Spain with a grower in Washington,” says Abney.

Abney encourages his writers to take classes in wine and food writing, in addition to referring them to wine, beer and even car reviews (to capture experiential effects) as they hone their own critical approaches. He evaluates marijuana he’s reviewing in the morning, even before coffee, to optimize his sensitivity. He pays attention to the aroma as he opens the bag or jar, the feel of it in his hand, how it crumbles between his fingers or in a grinder, the moisture content, the flavor and texture of the smoke and of course the quality of the high itself. Describing how a specific strain of marijuana makes you feel has yielded its own subset of descriptions, ranging from “couch-locked” to “playful sativa headiness.”

“We don’t want to just say, this weed is cool. And it made me feel groovy,” says Johnson. “You want to get colorful.”

While the average Joe isn’t likely to start to remarking upon the resin levels of nugs and extolling the benefits of the Northwest’s farming methods, most culturally conscientious people are already hip to distinctions between indica and sativa strains and could probably name a few off the top of their head. It’s not that dissimilar from the way the average wine drinker probably has an intuitive sense of how cabernet differs from malbec, but couldn’t tell you much about the soil types of the Cahors region. The main goal of marijuana advocates—one that is already well-accomplished in many parts of the country—is primarily to change the perception of pot, taking it out of the realm of the criminal or juvenile and into a sphere where, like wine or beer, it is not just a means of intoxication, but a higher pleasure to be savored.

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