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Henry Blackwell of Petaluma smells a large flower at the Emerald Cup festival at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday, December 14, 2013. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Here are three recent reviews of highly-sought-after products:

Product #1 “offers up notes of creme de cassis, graphite, truffles, blueberries and blackberries as well as a colossal mouth feel with no sense of heaviness, layer upon layer of fruit and glycerin, astonishing purity and a finish that is at least 50 seconds. A magnificent effort…”

Product #2 was “raw, sweet, super bitter, semi-dry, kernel of malt sweetness, hop oil, orangey, mouthful of grass.”

Product #3 tasted of “lemon meringue pie and peach brandy, methol and myrrh, and finally, we got really stoned.”

Any guesses as to the products in question?

#1: 100-point review in the Wine Advocate by critic Robert Parker of  Turnbull’s 2010 cabernet sauvignon, fortuna vineyard;

#2: 96-point review in The Beer Advocate of Heady Topper double IPA by The Alchemist brewery in Vermont.

#3: Judges’ notes for the winning strain of cannabis in the annual Flower competition at the 10th annual Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa.

I spent the day Sunday at the Emerald Cup, an event that Rolling Stone once dubbed the “Academy Awards” of the pot world. I am not totally unfamilar with marijuana, but this was the first time in my life in the company of a crowd of aficionados who understood and could discuss the relative merits of various strains and producers. It was the first time I had ever heard (or even thought about) the language that judges might apply in blind tastings of pot.

In many respects, the discussion was familiar from blind tastings and reviews in the wine and beer worlds. The cannabis judges weighed the flavor, mouthfeel, and aroma of the product, just like wine and beer critics. They found essences of fruit, whiffs of diesel fuel and solvent, they used descriptors such as “bubble gum” and “cola.” It wasn’t all that unfamiliar from any alcohol tasting.

One thing that did bring me up short, however, was the frank discussion of the intoxicating effect of each of the samples. One judge described the winning entries in terms of  “that bump we all enjoy.” One of the top contenders was described by judges as “a maximum cerebral experience, super stoney.” Another offered a “yummy, energetic high.”

To be fair, this was officially a convention about medical marijuana, and there was a fair bit of discussion of the therapeutic effects of cannabis and its various derivatives. But the most emotional discussion, certainly  the main topic at the climactic awards ceremony, was straight-up legalization. And even in the medical marijuana discussions, there was discussion of the intoxicating effect of pot and many related medicinal products. Or as one panelist pointed out “When you’re high you feel good; when you’re undergoing chemotherapy, you don’t feel good. Positivity is an important part of your treatment.”

It occurred to me, sitting in the fragrant pavilion at the Fair Grounds, just how unusual this kind of talk of intoxicating effect is at wine and beer tastings. You do hear some discussion of “heat,” and occasionally even “alcohol.” For example, in the Beer Advocate’s 100-point review of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, the website founders say “Alcohol becomes sentient as the beer warms, speaking to us in tongues.”

But you will just about never hear a beer or wine reviewer say, “A great buzz.” Or “it got us really drunk.” This despite the fact that a key property of both beverages, indeed, one of the key attractions, is that they are powerful intoxicants. The judges’ notes for nearly every highly-rated bud at Sunday’s event, meanwhile, made some reference to the power or quality of the high it produced.

I don’t know how it is in the wine world, but in the beer world, one sure way to provoke a battle is start a thread on a beer discussion group with a question like “Would you still drink if beer didn’t have any alcohol.” People tend to get worked up about this question, with a few passionately insisting that they care only for taste and not the buzz and others accusing craft beer drinkers of using high-falutin’ language to dress up a drinking problem. Most of the rest of us are in the middle, grudgingly acknowledging to one degree or another that, yes, the buzz is nice but it’s not the whole point.

There appeared to be none of those mixed feelings at Sunday’s award show. The smokers proudly declared their allegiance to the mind altering properties of what one judge called “the sacred weed.”

“We don’t like it; we love it,” the judge, known simply as Swammy, told the crowd. “It shows us the way … it is our guide, our spiritual guide.”

Why the difference in the way the various communities talk about their favorite intoxicating substances?

I don’t have any hard evidence, but in part it might be the lingering effect on beer and wine of the Temperance movement, which defined alcohol as something shameful or sinful. That leaves more than a few of us feeling conflicted about enjoying something that is now legally legitimate but is still not supposed to be good for us, something that that some still suggest represents a moral failing. Marijuana smokers, however, are still in the grip of their own Prohibition era, so they are rebels for merely picking up the hobby. Perhaps they see no point in denying the effects in order to make the activity seem more genteel – they have enough to worry about keeping out of the grips of the authorities without worrying about what anyone else thinks about them.

There could also be, in alcohol drinkers, some distinctions of class and taste that have built up since Prohibition ended. Fine wine drinkers might not want to be associated with cheap rotgut. Likewise, craft beer drinkers might want disassociate themselves from the lunk-headed advertising of mass market beers, or grow beyond the drink-all-night cheap beer fests of college. De-emphasizing the buzz and enjoying the flavor is a way to move on in both cases.

Despite recent victories, however, marijuana smokers are still very much a community under legal seige. Smokers of all social status, economic means, and taste are united by the fact that what they are doing is still illegal in most places. I suspect that alcohol drinkers were in a similar position during Prohibition, when what they were doing was equally illegal whether they were guzzling crude bathtub gin or delicately sipping a Grand Cru Bordeaux smuggled in from France; making distinctions between them was a luxury drinkers could ill afford.

What would be interesting would be to go back to some future Emerald Cup, held in a day when pot is fully legal in California or perhaps across the United States, to see if some kind of stratification develops between the expensive, high-end stuff and the everyday run-of-the-mill marijuana, the way a vast divide has opened between mass market and craft brew, or between bulk wine and the cult estate wines of Napa and Sonoma counties. I want to see whether the high-end pot fans of the future, and the judges analyzing the best bud in the contest, begin to downplay their exhalation of the high or whether they can maintain their startlingly frank admission that they smoke because it makes them feel good.

- Sean Scully

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