Cannabis could go Champagne in western Colorado

 

In the garden of my cousin, Sepp, in Germany’s Black Forest, there is a big tree that produces lots of yellow plums every year. Sepp, a retired forest worker, keeps the grass cut very short around his Mirabellenbaum, so he doesn’t miss a single fallen fruit. Every evening in the fall, he gathers the plums and throws them into a big barrel to ferment. When winter comes, Sepp brings the barrel to a local distiller, who will return him some 10 bottles of Mirabellengeist, clear plum spirits. It is a unique and wonderful drink.

I thought about Sepp and his plums during a recent visit to the small town of Paonia, population 1,600, in western Colorado, where I met a handful of local marijuana growers during a reporting trip for a Swiss newspaper. Their pride as cultivators, their fierce dedication to quality, reminded me strongly of the farmers and vintners I have met in the Black Forest. But unlike traditional growers such as Sepp, the cannabis cultivators in Delta County acquired much of their expertise working alone, learning their trade over decades of trial and error.

“We learned to grow world-famous pot from nothing,” one of them told me at the town’s microbrewery, Revolution Brewing.

To this German reporter, they seemed like good examples of American self-determination. And while the “guerilla growers” I met disliked the idea of “working for the tax man,” they said that the legalization of marijuana has now brought them, their state and the country to a historic juncture: Colorado’s rigid regulation of cannabis legalization smartly squeezes them into either giving up or going legitimate.

The growers I talked to all expressed a desire to take this opportunity and go legal. All of a sudden, I had a vision of this place’s future. Given the ideal microclimate around Paonia, many small fruit farmers struggling to maintain their operations could start growing cannabis, maintaining their families’ and the region’s way of life that way. As their production expands, new jobs and opportunities would be created.

Legalization of recreational marijuana has already created a new reality in Colorado. From my interviews with elected officials, growers and investors in Denver and Boulder, I came away with the impression that there is a massive “green gold rush” underway in the state. Growing cannabis in Colorado has begun to attract capital from all over the country, and the state is becoming a laboratory for the rest of the United States and perhaps for other parts of the world as well.

Investors and politicians expect national legalization to become a reality in the next 10-15 years. As state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, told me, growing cannabis could quickly turn into an industrialized, nationwide endeavor controlled by big corporations.

While this train gets under steam, though, a window is opening for the town of Paonia and Delta County, one of the poorest counties in the state. Growers can’t compete in an industrialized market that handles cannabis as just another agricultural commodity, but they could build on the global renown of locally grown marijuana, and follow the example set by the wine and liquor industries.

Think Oregon pinot noirs, French Champagne, single malt scotch or small batch bourbon. Paonia cannabis could have that same cachet and pedigree, as an artisanal, “premium” agricultural product grown by local farmers in a sustainable fashion.

One way to achieve that and preserve the North Fork Valley’s unique characteristics would be to found a cultivators’ cooperative, create and protect a brand such as “Paonia Grown” (along the lines of the Italian Denominazione di origine controllata — DOC — for wines such as chianti) and then establish their own labels, just like a Glenfiddich scotch, a Knob Creek bourbon or a Taittinger Champagne. This would put Paonia on the map globally for generations to come, much the way the monk Dom Pérignon did in the 1600s for Champagne and the Champagne region of France.

I was told that there is an intense debate underway in Delta County over cannabis cultivation, and a referendum on how marijuana will be handled will be held in November. Marijuana comes loaded with symbolism, be it as the “evil weed” or a “food of the gods.”

As a reporter, I was captivated by the tensions over the issue, which seems to have grown out of deeply ingrained -- and antagonistic -- cultural and political convictions. For my part, I look forward to a place called Paonia and the North Fork Valley becoming the Champagne region of cannabis. This would benefit all of the region’s inhabitants.

Andreas Mink is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column syndicate of High Country News (hcn.org). Born in Germany and married to an American, Andreas Mink has worked in the United States as a journalist since 1996. He is the U.S. correspondent for the “JM Jüdische Medien AG” and a reporter for the Sunday edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland’s leading paper. Mink lives in Connecticut

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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