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In a sign of the burgeoning marijuana cultivation industry and its mainstream acceptance, an estimated 10,000 people flocked to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds over the weekend to honor the growers behind some of the finest and most powerful strains of pot in Northern California.

The Emerald Cup, now in its second year in Santa Rosa, drew a record number of people and entrants to the competition to acknowledge and celebrate “the best outdoor cannabis in the world.”

Almost 900 entries were received this year, more than three times the amount vying last year for best marijuana buds, and other forms of cannabis, including concentrates such as hash oil, edibles and topicals.

The pot tasting competition in the heart of Wine Country was replete with judges’ observations on smell, look, taste and effects.

The winner, Joe Peinado of Laytonville, won for his strain of “Sweet Serenade,” which judges described as “solid big buds with densely packed crystals” redolent of “cardamon and eggnog, zabaglione, cherry turpentine.”

And the effect of smoking it? “Big expansion and a clear mental high. Good for creative focus.”

Peinado, who entered the contest for the first time, won a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica for two.

“I feel great. This is crazy. I never expected it,” he said after stepping off the stage and being handed a glass bong and Emerald Cup trophy.

He said he feels great knowing that his cannabis “helps people that are sick.”

As a grower or “breeder,” for the past 20 years, he said, the Emerald Cup “elevates us. Before, we were scared. The scene has changed to where we can do this. Never in my life did I imagine this at the Sonoma County Fair.”

As recently as 10 years ago, he said, “we were still outlaws. Now it’s changed. We’re farmers, we have families. We have kids.”

But just by being in the finals, the winner said the price of his product that he provides to medical marijuana dispensaries already had gone up to $2,400 per pound, from $1,400 three days ago.

Winning the competition, said Tim Blake, Emerald Cup founder, is big business for seed breeders, like a gold medal in the wine industry.

“It’s like wine. You have to win best of show to have your branding,” Blake said. “It’s becoming like any industry.”

The Emerald Cup began 11 years ago as a celebration of the outdoor harvest in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, as a private event intended to avoid law enforcement scrutiny. Now, it’s more like a fair with scores of booths offering bud samples and seeds, cannabis-infused food, pipes, vaporizers and other items. Single-day admission was $45.

The festival, dubbed “the Academy Awards of the cannabis industry” by Rolling Stone magazine, drew twice as many attendants as the 5,000 estimated last year.

At the fair, smoking cannabis is largely confined to a (Proposition) 215 area, named after the voter initiative that legalized medical marijuana in California in 1996.

Reflecting the proximity to Christmas was the specter of a man in a Santa Claus suit in the 215 area smoking a bong. There were marijuana baked goods in the shape of gingerbread men and large snowflakes.

The marijuana grown for the competition comes from an area stretching from Shasta County in the north to Santa Cruz in the south.

Eleven years ago when it first was held in Humboldt County, there were 34 samples, as opposed to the 898 samples this year, and 200 people attended.

One speaker on Sunday said the 14 judges “proved once again that it is impossible to overdose on smoking marijuana,” drawing laughter from the crowd awaiting the contest results.

One of the judges, Swami Chaitanya of Laytonville, said the entries are judged over a six-week period in a way similar to a blind tasting.

“The judges get samples and go home and smoke them,” he said, to winnow out the finalists for further evaluation.

Organizers said winners get bragging rights and the plant seeds become good sellers.

For example, Aficionado dispensary, which won two years ago, was selling 10 seeds Sunday for anywhere between $150 to $250, depending on the strain.

“The growth in this contest is just exponential,” said Daniel Reyes, a resident of Hayforth, who was there with a grower from Trinity County. “It’s just an honor to be in it.”

His friend who identified himself only as Adam said that being in the top 40 means for a grower that dispensaries will be calling and people will want to collaborate on breeding projects.

Emerald Cup founder Blake said cannabis is the largest agricultural product in the country, estimated at $1 billion in both Mendocino and Humboldt counties annually.

He said it’s gone from a black market underground the past 30 and 40 years to becoming a legitimate industry that will become one of the largest agricultural lobbying groups in the country.

“It’s a peaceful revolution taking place,” he said.

He predicted that legalization will happen in California in 2016. But he said it is important that it remain in the hands of small growers, “organic, sustainable and environmentally correct” and not become a corporate endeavor.

Marijuana went from being grown outdoors, to going into greenhouses, and is now back increasingly outdoors again under “full sun,” said publicist Yvonne Hendrix, “It’s come around full circle.”

She said the Emerald Cup is “more than just a High Times event where people come to sample the wares.”

There were panel discussions on everything from current cannabis research, to the future of the marketplace, legalization efforts and the use of cannabis to heal veterans.

On the “cultivation stage,” attendees could learn about integrated pest and mold management, current trends in cannabis genetics, advanced organic farming methodology and the future of artisan hash in California.

Doctor evaluations were available on site for adults to obtain a medical marijuana card.

Skunk Magazine publisher John Vergatos said marijuana is “a medicine that helps people and the planet.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @clarkmas

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