It’s high time the cannabis industry tear a page from the wine industry playbook. Much like wine lovers celebrate the qualities of appearance, taste and scent in their beloved fermented grape juice, so too can cannabis connoisseurs enjoy similar rituals when it comes to consumption of the plant.
But what can one do to make this a thing? We can create the concept of a cannabis sommelier, which goes far beyond the job of being a budtender.
Wine sommeliers are knowledgeable experts who work in vineyard tasting rooms, fine-dining restaurants and gourmet catering. They are educated professionals who pair wines with foods and dishes to provide an elevated dining experience to the consumer. But you can’t just decide you’re a wine sommelier. You have to be trained and vetted by organizations such as the Union de la Sommellerie Française, Wine & Spirit Education Trust, Court of Master Sommeliers and the International Sommelier Guild.
It takes years of education and on-the-job training to become a professional certified wine sommelier. You also have to be possessed of the intuitive gift and acutely sensitive eyes, nose and tongue necessary for sensing and detailing the subtlest characteristics of wine. It’s easy to have a simple, quick wine-tasting experience at a vineyard or fine restaurant. But a sommelier sees deeper into wine than just its taste; and their job is to take you deeper, too.
When you consider the wine characteristics that sommeliers delve into, you immediately recognize how the art and business of wine appreciation can be reasonably transferred into the world of cannabis appreciation. Consider the following wine traits as explained in sommelier training.
The Characteristics Of Wine Can Easily Translate To Cannabis
Appearance: Sommeliers and wine enthusiasts visually examine and classify the wine’s hue, how dark or light it is, and its clarity.
Aroma: Ascertain every nuance of scent. How intense the aroma is, how strong it is, its complexity and distinctiveness.
The mouth experience: Gauge intensity and amount of flavor, how much body — i.e., its perceived weight — the wine has, whether the taste and feel are astringent, acidified, smooth, viscous or sweet. Does it have qualities such as warmth or creaminess? Is there a diverse, rich complement of flavors? How interesting is the taste and feel? Does it have multiple qualities or is one quality overly dominant? How long after spitting out or swallowing the wine do you still taste it in your mouth?
These qualities are assessed during sommelier-guided sessions that consist of the following protocols.
Visual examination: Use crystal-clear wine glasses in perfect condition. Under special white daylight-style lights or in bright sunlight, hold the glass up and view wine with the light streaming through the glass. This will show any particulates or debris in the wine in order to determine its clarity. It also reveals the wine’s true hue, and how dark or light it is.
Agitate the wine: Being careful not to spill, swirl the wine around in the glass for a few seconds. This is done to release aerosolized volatile scent markers.
The nose knows: As soon as the wine is swirled around and has settled, hold your nose a couple of inches away from the glass, breathing in deeply. Next, move your nose slightly further away, then slightly closer to the glass. Take note of what the wine’s aroma reminds you of. In some cases, the volatiles released are similar to those released from cannabis terpenoids.
Tasting: Take a small amount of wine — a little more than a sip — into your mouth. Instead of immediately swallowing, allow the wine to rest on the tongue for a few seconds. A small amount of air is drawn in over the tongue, but not in an excessive, noisy way. Then, the wine is circulated to other parts of the mouth. Let the wine stay in the mouth for at least 10 seconds. Tasters then either spit out the wine or swallow it, deciding how intoxicated they’ll allow themselves to get during the wine tasting.
Hygiene: Rinse your mouth thoroughly with pure water and wait a few minutes before evaluating another glass of wine.
Using The Practice Of A Wine Sommelier For That Of A Cannabis Sommelier
The cannabis industry doesn’t yet have anything remotely resembling the training, certification and esprit de corps of the wine sommelier. However, many facets and protocols of wine appreciation can transfer to that of a cannabis sommelier. Plus, cannabis offers potentially more options when it comes to evaluating taste, due to the use of precision vaporizers and being able to play around with different vape temperatures to target the volatilization of individual cannabinoids and terpenoids.
Here is a cannabis sommelier adaptation of what wine stewards have been doing for years.
The Appearance Of Cannabis
Using a magnifying glass and under a daylight-balanced electric light, examine the trichomes, also known as resin glands. On well-grown and properly harvested, dried and cured bud, resin glands will be visible as crystalized round globes on stalks. They’ll probably not be standing upright like they do when plants are growing, but if they look like a bunch of stalks without many resin globes on top, it means they’ve been mishandled. In this case, most of the cannabinoids and terpenoids would have degraded or evaporated. Unfortunately, about 70 percent of the buds I examine, especially those sold in dispensaries, are severely degraded.
Scrutinize how the bud has been trimmed and its overall density and attractiveness. If there’s a lot of leaf on and in the bud, it indicates a strain with too high a leaf-to-calyx ratio, and/or a poor manicure job.
Also, look closely for any debris or contaminants, such as dead spider mites, insect droppings or pet hairs. This kind of examination is a must for anyone buying buds, especially commercially. If you see anything other than resin glands and leaf, it’s a bud best not consumed.
Next, evaluate the colors in the bud. Some are gold, others are scarlet or bright green. If your buds are hard as rocks and coated in gooey resin, that’s a great sign. If they’re fluffy and airy? Not such a good sign.
The Aroma Of Cannabis
Terpene scent is a major pleasure and quality indicator for cannabis enthusiasts. Some strains are genetically set up to produce fewer aromatic terpenoids than others, but lack of scent is often an indication of a poorly handled bud or an inferior strain. Strains in the cheese, skunk and diesel families are known for their copious terpenoids; you can smell those buds, even when they’re tightly sealed in a container. Make note of the variety of scents, not just the dominant one.
It’s not recommended you crush or squeeze buds to produce more aroma. Yes, it does produce a more intense scent, but only momentarily, because resin glands are broken open.
The Mouth Experience Of Cannabis
This is where a precision vaporizer is essential. When you combust cannabis to smoke it, you’re tasting the butane or match volatiles used to create the flame. You’re also tasting combustion byproducts. A precision vaporizer set below combustion temperature gives you only cannabinoids and terpenes that have been dispersed in vapor. You can set temperatures beginning at 310°F, below which most cannabinoids and terpenoids won’t dissipate. As you adjust the temperature up the scale, you’ll experience different tastes, sometimes a dozen or more, which are created by the vaporization of individual cannabinoids or terpenes.
To make a more direct parallel with wine tasting, set your vaporizer to 420°F, a temperature just below combustion. As this temp, all the cannabinoids and terpenes in the bud are evaporated, giving you a comprehensive tasting experience rather than the narrower range afforded by lower temperatures. You’ll be able to gauge the different flavors that are generated all at once to determine if one flavor dominates.
Experienced cannabis growers tend to notice if buds taste or feel metallic, or have a “chemmy” taste or scent like ammonia. This may be indicative of inferior nutrients used during cultivation that are loaded with such contaminants as heavy metals. It could also be that the buds weren’t flushed correctly prior to harvest.
You also want to gauge how smooth or caustic the vapor is. Hold the vapor in your mouth for a few seconds, then exhale. Some cannabinoids and terpenoids will transfer into your bloodstream through the mucous membranes in your mouth and you’ll start getting buzzed even without inhaling vapor into your lungs. Let’s face it, if you’re engaging in a serious cannabis sommelier session and you draw vapor from several buds into your lungs, pretty soon you’ll be blasted.
The Hygiene Of Cannabis
After every sample, rinse your mouth with hydrogen peroxide and then with room-temperature reverse osmosis water. Wait a few minutes between tastes. This will clear your mouth and taste buds so you can have a fresh start for each sample.
Conduct your sommelier session in a room with professional air filtration and exhaust fans. It’s difficult to evaluate cannabis scent and taste in a hot box hazy with cannabis vapor.
There are other evaluations you could do, such as inhaling vapor and seeing if it expands in your lungs or attempting to evaluate the high and potency of the bud. Problem is, after the first few inhalations, your endocannabinoid system is saturated with exocannabinoids. By this stage, terpenes have found their way to various neuroreceptor systems, too. After only a few hits of strong weed, you’ve lost the sobriety baseline necessary to objectively evaluate cannabis potency.
Perhaps the most reliable method to evaluate cannabis potency is to sample buds one day, abstain from any cannabis consumption for several days, then do another taste testing when your mind and body are relatively unsaturated with cannabinoids and terpenes.
Loving Weed More Than Wine Lovers Love Wine
If you’ve ever been to a wine industry event, you see the intense level of fetishizing people have for their ancient intoxicant of choice. They spend hours debating over the best type of oak for making wine barrels, the best age of barrels, and whether the wine was properly aged at all. They debate passionately about whether the wine has a hint of chocolate with overtones of cherry, or whether it’s flabby, rude, flamboyant, fruity, velvety — yes, these are among the many acceptable adjectives wine lovers use in their descriptions.
Especially after a wine-tasting event has gone on for some time, tasters have likely gotten dosed by ethanol through their oral mucous membranes and/or by swallowing liquid samples. The alcohol takes over. Discussions become raucous, hilarious, heated and muddied. I’ve heard interminable discussions about whether a wine was red with overtones of ruby, or scarlet with overtones of strawberry. And even though you’d think the clarity of wine would be an easy visual assessment to make, I’ve seen winebibbers nearly come to blows arguing about it.
Understandably, the most unfortunate intersection that exists between wine and cannabis is botrytis cinerea, otherwise known as gray mold. Cannabis cultivators fear gray mold and work hard to combat it, whereas some vintners love grapes covered in botrytis mold. They call gray mold the “noble rot,” because it dehydrates grapes, leaving them shriveled like raisins and creating a concentrated intensity of sugars and flavors. Wines made from gray mold grapes have a rich, complex, honeyed character and are high in residual sugar. Rieslings from Germany, Sauternes from Bordeaux and Tokaji from Hungary are such wines that boast botrytis-influenced taste and traits.
Alcohol intoxication can be narrow, dulling and dangerous. Wine contains only one active ingredient: ethanol. In contrast, cannabis contains at least 113 cannabinoids, including THC, CBD, CBN, THCV, plus hundreds of terpenoids that work together to create the entourage effect that you feel medicinally.
When it comes to taste and scent, wine and alcohol products can’t even begin to rival cannabis. This is because cannabis contains the actual volatile aromatics found in the likes of cherries, pine trees, lemons, oranges, roses and cacao, so you don’t have to guess about aroma traits. They really are the same compounds found in the plants and trees they smell like.
It’s high time our cannabis community showed the same kind of adoration for our favorite flower as wine enthusiasts do. Being a dedicated cannabis sommelier adds depth, education and appreciation that enhances the therapeutic and recreational value of our beloved bud.