Appellations: What Cannabis Can Learn From Wine

a cautionary tale


I feel compelled to raise a yellow flag (ok, maybe orange). A couple of weeks ago I went to the 3rd Annual Wine & Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa (YES to my two industries being together in one spot!🔥🔥) and across the board I heard a strong intention to build brands and value points in the industry around terroir and appellations.

The side of me that spent about 20 years in the wine industry before crossing into cannabis feels drawn to this like magnet. Beautiful! THIS is what it’s all about. Back to soil. People. Place. I’ve been waxing lyrical about these magnetic value points most of my career (except when I was schlepping all that commodity juice). This part of me? I get it. The wine industry is literally built on this. There is no separating wine from appellation. We’re all in.

Then, a record scratches in my gut. If there were a record player in my gut. This same soil-lovin’ wine geek side of me remembers…

  • How many appellation maps I’ve brought with me to consumer events… only to have my audience scan them politely and quickly ask for another splash.

  • How many distributor reps I’ve hosted at these appellations, from Napa to Barolo… only to have them promptly replace my product at their top account so they can win their next incentive.

  • How many planning meetings I've spent pinning hopes on incremental sales because THIS soil/appellation/hillside was so unique… only to program out a BOGO deal for the same wine three quarters later.

If I had a dollar for every time I watched a wine-geek wine go from being the Sexy Halo in the portfolio to Hidden Gem…

well, I may be typing from my own appellation right now.

I know, I know…it’s all quite deflating. Before you shoot the messenger, please hear that I am not advocating for commodity.

Here’s my key point:

An appellation is an extra pebble in the bag of rocks you are passing down through your channels.

Stay aware that you are asking people who don’t know you (and likely don’t care about your brand) to carry them all. Which data points are going to help your brand get out there and which are going to drop?

Some of you fall into this bucket

"We are our appellation. We are farmers. This is our home, our reason for being is to provide quality ingredients with a sense of place to a group of consumers who care about the same things we do."

Damn straight. There is clearly an audience out there for you (and I’m one of them, by the way).

To you I very respectfully say:

If you want to scale past where you are today, just know that your appellation likely means a lot more to you than it will to most consumers. I will pass on some tactical advice:

  • Budget heavily for education in the following areas, at least: packaging, merchandising materials, training for your team and all your partners, all your digital content which will hopefully also be entertaining and fun (because straightforward education, as I have learned in wine, loses people quickly). Budget for this in print, people, and digital.

  • Forecast for a slow build, and more flat trend lines than you are comfortable with.

  • Be like-minded in all your partnerships. Small, artisanal brands that try to scale by aligning with 'big brand' partners usually find themselves shivering in the cold.

  • Temper your excitement when you hear from consumers how important appellation is to them. What appears to be the beginning of a loyal customer at your demo table is likely to become, "Honey, that nice girl that showed us the soil in the jars, where was that winery/cannabis from? What was the name of it again? Something in Northern California, wasn’t it? She was so nice!” They LOVE hearing your story. It’s a 2-minute tale where they get to waft through the vineyards/grow and TRAVEL with you. Sometimes this will create conversion and loyalty… much - nay, MOST- of the time it simply gets lost. Names get forgotten.

  • Keep your branding tight. If you are anchoring around a concept most people do not understand, you do not want your messaging to further dilute their ability to get you. I shudder a bit when I say this, but: dumb the messaging down. Be careful not to talk over your audience (sommeliers are notorious for this and it’s hurt wine as a whole). Be militant about the copy. Make sure your aesthetics align with your message. I could go on and on...

  • Be who you say, own it, and be sure to message that clearly and consistently. Show your artisanal roots every chance you get as this is your secret sauce.

“Honey, that nice girl that showed us the soil in the jars, where was that winery/cannabis from? What was the name of it again? Something in Northern California, wasn’t it? She was so nice!”
— The most interested consumer at your demo table.. 3 days later.

Others may fall into this bucket

"We are/ want to get in the game, we have our veneer, but we don’t necessary know who we are yet (this goes for brands big and small)… this appellation thing may be the way to go.”

In this case my advice is: Consider that attaching yourself to an appellation may wind up being more of a distraction for your consumer, and inauthentic to what your brand is really about.

Can you put the ’Napa of Cannabis’ on the map and cash out? Maybe, but this is more a possibility than probability.

Lastly: what does the industry need?

I’ll admit it, I kinda don’t want to see cannabis go the way of appellations. It speaks to the sustainable seed-to-sale gal in me, but above all else I am an advocate for consumer clarity. Cannabis has a choice. Wine, by law, doesn’t. Aren’t there bigger fish to fry right now?

Basic education is a major problem. Indica and sativa are still primary ways of selling. Dosages are confusing (and potentially dangerous when consumers don’t understand them). Effect-based selling is only just starting to be figured out. Just like wine, we have a translation issue between a consumer describing what they want / need and a budtender or brand navigating them to a personalized choice. Now we are throwing appellation into the mix… I’m just sayin’…let’s not all rush there too fast. Let’s try to get stuff like ratio, strain, modality, terpenes, dosing, and effect a little more clear for the average consumer before we start throwing a sexy little appellation names in front of their confused eyeballs.

Just a thought.

Samantha Dickinson