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LAYTONVILLE -- Score sheets in hand, the judges leaned over the table to get a better look at the color and density of the top contenders for the Emerald Cup. They opened the glass jars and took deep whiffs before sampling the strains of marijuana to test their effects.

The 15 pot aficionados already had used blind tastings to narrow down hundreds of entries to about 50 bud favorites when they met Thursday in Laytonville for the final round of judging to determine the best organic, sun-grown pot in the state. Within a few hours, they had picked the top 20, which will be showcased this weekend at the annual Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Some judges stomped their feet and shouted with excitement when they learned the name of the first-place “breeder,” or grower. The name will be kept secret until Sunday, when they announce all of the winners at the two-day festival.

“It’s huge. It’s like winning the Academy Awards,” said Nikki Lastreto, a judge from Laytonville.

Lastreto and her partner, who she introduced as Swami Chaitanya, both of whom are cannabis growers, have been judging the competition since it started 12 years ago as a way to celebrate the outdoor harvest in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

Chaitanya rolled a joint of the winning bud to celebrate.

The Emerald Cup moved three years ago to Santa Rosa. It’s expected to draw 20,000 people and will feature live music, two dozen organic food vendors and more than 150 cannabis-related vendors. Single-day admission is $55, or $100 for the weekend.

Doors open at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. The awards ceremony will be held on the main stage from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake said they received 421 entries for this year’s bud competition, as well as hundreds more entries for other competitions, including edibles, topicals and concentrates. Last year, he said, they had a total of 900 entries. Roughly 80 percent were for the bud competition.

The numbers decreased this year because of a new $250 entry fee, Blake said. The fee helps cover the cost to test each entry cannabis for pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals that would cause it to be disqualified. In previous years, only the finalists had been tested.

“It’s the first year we’ve gotten a decrease in entries,” Blake said. However, he added, “We’re seeing a lot more quality.”

That made it a challenge for the experts judging the bud competition. Most were longtime judges, or had been referred by someone in the marijuana industry.

Mike Lewis, a first-time judge from Sebastopol, said it was like being asked to pick the best wine from a table full of fine, $300-a-bottle selections.

“It’s brutal,” said Lewis, who builds equipment for the agriculture industry, including wine-grape and cannabis growers. “I have to be critical. Here, we’re dealing with the very best of the best.”

“They are all excellent,” he added. That’s why it’s so hard.”

Like the other judges, Lewis paid close attention to the smell, taste, and appearance of the entries, rating them on a 50-point scale. He said his top picks were separated by a mere half-point.

Blake said it’s so difficult to judge the competitions that some people don’t come back the following year. Judges, who ranged from age 32 to 72, have been evaluating the entries for the past month.

“These people are lifelong smokers,” he said. “They can look at it and already tell (if it’s good).”

One of the judges included painter Trixie Garcia, daughter of the late Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia.

“It’s an honor — it’s some of the best cannabis on the planet,” she said. However, she acknowledged it was a difficult task to pick a few favorites. It was her first time judging the competition.

“They’re like puppies. You can’t pick a favorite. They’re all wonderful,” said Garcia, 41, of Oakland.

Barry Wood, a manager at Peace and Medicine in Santa Rosa who has judged the competition for the past two years, said he looks at the crystal formation, colors and whether the smell stays with the weed through the burn. He likes the sweet and fruity smells more than the piney ones, Wood said.

“Ideally, you spend an hour with each,” he said after someone handed him joint with the number written on it.

Smell was important for judge Pearl Moon and her business partner, Joyce Centofanti, who helped with the sampling. If it doesn’t smell good, it’s most likely not going to get smoked, said the pair, who are certified cannabis therapy consultants and founded Bud Sisters, which produces a pain-relief salve made from organic extra virgin coconut oil infused with organic cannaleaf.

Looks are important, too, added Moon, founder of Humboldt Cannabis College.

“It’s a beauty contest,” she said before someone handed her another joint to try.

Centofanti was excited about the quality of the cannabis. She said the annual event highlights the benefits of medicinal marijuana. “People need to have organic, clean medicine,” Centofanti said.

She said the growers in the competition aren’t in it for the money. However, winning can bring in good money for the person.

“It’s like a race horse,” she said. “The bud is like a stallion. They’re able to profit from the breeding.”

Added Wood, “A lot of the ones that are up in the top 20 are from people who have been (breeding) for generations.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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