A trailblazer in the winemaking industry, Randall Grahm is always thinking outside the box when it comes to wine. Now, he’s partnering with E. & J. Gallo to create a new line called “The Language of Yes.” The project draws inspiration from southern France and the California coast to create distinctly unique blends featuring unlikely grape combinations.
On this episode of “Next Round,” host and VinePair CEO Adam Teeter and tastings director Keith Beavers chat with Grahm about the boutique winemaker’s unlikely partnership with wine company giant Gallo; explore the regions and grapes that inspire him most; and discuss what consumers can expect from the Language of Yes. Wondering where the name came from? Tune in to find out.
Listen and visit languageofyeswine.com to learn more about Grahm’s latest winemaking project.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regularly scheduled podcasts on Monday in order to give you a better idea of what’s happening in the world of beverages. Today, I’m really excited because I am joined by my good friend, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers. What’s up, Keith?
Keith Beavers: What’s going on, Adam?
A: We’re joined by one of our favorite winemakers. This is one of the winemakers that made us both fall in love with wine, Randall Grahm. Randall, thank you so much for joining us.
Randall Grahm: My pleasure.
A: So, Randall, I actually first encountered your wine around 15 years ago at Keith’s wine shop in the East Village at ABC Wine Company. It was Cigare Volant. You made so many other incredible wines under the Bonny Doon label. You’ve since left Bonny Doon, and you’re starting a cool new project called The Language of Yes that I was hoping you could tell Keith and I a little bit more about.
R: Absolutely. First of all, I have not completely left Bonny Doon. I still have an association with them, and I’m consulting for them on the blending and winemaking protocols. I’m not out of the game entirely. But Language of Yes is definitely taking up a large part of my life these days.
A: So, what is Language of Yes?
R: It’s a little bit of an unexpected association between myself and Gallo Wine Company. It’s a little bit like, forgive me, “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” So it’s somewhat unexpected.
A: That’s very funny. It’s a great movie.
R: It was very short and tragic, but this seems to be working out a little bit better than it did for Bambi. It’s really leveraging what I do well and what they do very well and creating a very useful synergy. We’re kind of pushing the limits. I mean, I’ve been working with Rhône grapes for quite some time, almost 40 years. I think I reached a plateau in what I could do by myself. I’m wanting to push things a little bit further, and make wines that are more soulful, meaningful, and kind of unexpected. That’s what Language of Yes is about. It’s working with Rhône grapes, but moving them in some unusual directions. We’re doing some unusual things in the vineyard as well as in the cellar.
A: You’ve been known, for your entire career, for pushing boundaries and trying different things. What do you mean by doing some unusual things?
R: We’re using some very old techniques, like passerillage, which is the drying of the grapes for several days prior to crushing. That’s working out really well. We’re doing that on a more extreme level. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done this with Cinsault, but we’re doing a two- or three-week passerillage with Cinsault this year.
K: What? That’s great. Wow.
R: As I used to say at Bonny Doon Vineyard all the time: What could possibly go wrong?
K: I love that.
K: Drying out Cinsault. That’s awesome.
R: We’ve also been working with some new varieties and have had a tremendous reception with the Tibouren rosé, which we just released last week.
A: I heard it sold out in two hours. Is that true?
R: About an hour and a half.
A: That’s insane.
R: We should have made like six orders of magnitude more.
A: That’s incredible. You live and learn. That’s really crazy. So you mentioned the Tibouren. I was lucky enough to taste it with you recently. Can you explain to some of the listeners who may be unfamiliar, what that wine is and what you’re doing with those grapes?
R: Tibouren is one of the genius, largely unknown grapes. It travels under another name in Italy, in Liguria by the name of Rossese. I love both Rossese and Tibouren equally in different ways. What’s interesting about Tibouren is that it’s a Mediterranean grape that is actually capable of elegance and finesse. That’s essentially been my conundrum in the wine business for as long as I can remember. I’m a would-be continental guy who’s stuck in a Mediterranean life. This is the conundrum for California. How do you make elegant wines in an area that’s warm and dry? And warm and dry wines, warm and dry climates, produce wonderful wines, but they’re not what you would call delicate and refined. They’re exuberant, and that’s nice. I’m trying to retain the exuberance but also impart some elegance. Tibouren and Cinsault are two grapes that are actually capable of doing that.
K: Where is the source of these two varieties? Are they in the Santa Cruz mountains?
R: Alas, no. The Tibouren and Cinsault are grown in the Paso Robles area. The Grenache and Syrah are grown in the Santa Maria Valley at the Rancho Real Vineyard, which has the advantage of being one of the coolest vineyards, climatically speaking, in California. It’s one of the coolest places you can possibly grow grapes. That’s exceptional.
K: Just to refresh, you’re doing a few different kinds of wines. You’re doing the Tibouren rosé and you’re doing a white and red as well. Are they blends as well?
R: There is white in the Syrah. Syrah’s a Syrah-Viognier blend. Then, we’re doing a Grenache. This year, we’re doing a new wine, which is the Cinsault co-fermented with Syrah as well. I’m hoping to plant some Roussanne at Rancho Real. I’d like to make an extremely important white wine as well. It needs to be perfect, though, so until we can line up perfection, we’re going to have to hold off a little bit.
K: That Roussanne has that structure, so, good luck. I can’t wait.
R: I’ve been lucky to work with Roussanne over the years, but it’s a tricky grape. You have to find the exact right site for it. One of the things that’s quite interesting about California is our growing season. We can grow grapes in very cool climates because of the length of our growing season. That gives us a great opportunity to make really nuanced, fine, articulate wines with a lot of detail, in virtue of this cool climate.
A: In terms of the overall project, is this a project you had thought about in the past? Had you been wanting to do it? You mentioned that it’s sort of like Godzilla and Bambi. But partnering with Godzilla has a lot of benefits. They can help with the marketing and distribution. Had you thought about The Language of Yes prior? How did this project come to be in the first place?
R: I got to know the Gallo family through other means. One thing led to another. It was a fairly long courtship, as these things go. We discovered that there was a commonality of interests, and we decided to make something happen, so we did.
A: Very cool.
K: You talk a lot about elegance. You also talk about how you’re finding these very cool spots and trying to get the sun, retain the acidity, all that stuff. Is this project focused on a certain style of wine you’re trying to create in the United States? Is it about acidity? Is it about elegance? Is it just about balance?
R: My gosh. I think it’s about all of those things. I’m a believer in all those things. I don’t know that I could reduce the argument to just those things. It’s also my aesthetic, my sensibility, and wines of restraint. It’s great to have elegance and balance, but the wines also need to be exciting. There needs to be something about the wine that has a “wow” element to it as well as elegance. It can’t just be a tepid, pale version of a proper wine. It’s got to tell a story as well.
A: That makes a lot of sense. That also just speaks so much to what these wines are. Is there a specific story you are trying to tell with these wines? You’re using grapes that a lot of American consumers may not be familiar with. Syrah, I think a lot of Americans have gotten familiar with, but Grenache not as much. What sort of experience do you want the consumer to have with these wines when they first encounter them? With the methods that you’re using — in terms of the techniques of drying the grapes, etc. before you crush them — what experiences do you want them to have?
R: I think it’s the experience of familiarity. Even if they’ve never tasted the wine, there will be a recognition that there’s something about this wine that has a truthfulness to it or a frankness to it. One of the conceits that I have about the wines I’ve made over the years is that they’re a bridge between Old World and New World. I think it’s really important that we don’t try to copy the Old World. At the same time, there’s a certain sensibility that the Old World has that I think is really instructive. I think it has to do with a profound respect for the land, which is where the grapes derive. If you can bring some of that sensibility into the New World, I think you can really improve the quality of the wine to make the wines a lot more soulful, if nothing else. One of the things that’s important to me is that we not pander to the lowest common denominator and that we try to elevate our customers. The wines are accessible, but they don’t pander. When you first taste them, you understand that they’re wholesome and delicious, but they’re not taking advantage of the customer. They’re asking the customer to follow them down the road a little ways.
A: I love that. Right now, how can you find the wines? Are they only online?
R: They’re only online. We actually have a website called LanguageofYesWine.com. That’s the way to get the wine.
A: Now the rosé’s sold out. What do we get?
R: Stand by next year on the rosé. The Syrah and the Grenache will be out in the middle of October. You definitely want to get yourself signed up well before that, if you can.
K: I’m literally signing up as you talk right now.
A: I can hear you typing. In the broadest vision of this, how many wines would you want to make under this label? Have you thought about how many wines? Have you sketched it out?
R: In my own mind, it would be a million.
A: I like that.
R: That’s just me. I think Gallo has a little more restraint and good sense than I do. It’s going to be a relatively finite number, probably a half a dozen.
A: Do you know if this is always intended to be online only? Will there be restaurant placements? Wine shops?
R: There’ll be broader distribution. As soon as we have a little bit of wine to sell, there’ll be a broader distribution.
K: This is the kind of wine I want to see in almost every American wine bar. This is the kind of exciting, new, fun stuff that America can produce to let everyone know that we’re not only a wine-producing nation, but we actually make this, too.
A: Randall, when you were thinking about the name for the wine, why did you choose Language of Yes?
R: Excellent question. I wanted to try to find the link between the Old World and the New World and, specifically, the southern part of the Old World, in the south of France. Southern France is very different from northern France. There’s a whole different language, dialects, and different sensibility. My colleague, the label designer, sent me a Provençal dictionary to study the various terms. He was very excited about the whole history of language of the south. We were looking for different wines, grapes, and vineyard terms, and it occurred to me that how the people think of themselves in the south is the Languedoc. The Languedoc means the language of yes. It’s the entire expression that is interesting and evocative. Not coincidentally, I think Language of Yes tells you everything you want to know about the sensibility of the people. They say “yes” to things. They are very life-affirming. Certainly, life affirmation is kind of what we need more than anything these days. It seemed very timely as well.
A: Keith, you have a massive soft spot for the Languedoc.
K: It’s one of my favorite places in the world for wine. The Languedoc and Roussillon, for me, are some of the most under-the-radar places. They have so many co-ops and they’ve gone through so many different things. The history of that area’s pretty involved and a roller coaster, like most of Europe, but still. I’ve been obsessed with Languedoc for a very long time. I worked with Sud de France for a while. I went to the Languedoc. I was able to travel from Montpellier, all the way to the Pyrenees. I got to see the amazing geography and taste those amazing wines. That’s why I’m really excited about this idea of taking this beautiful, unique place in the world called southern France — it’s actually one of the largest wine regions in the world that no one talks about — and going for that kind of style. The Languedoc can have New World vibes, but it always retains that Mediterranean style. That’s why I’m so excited about this project. Doing that Languedoc style in the United States makes me really excited to try this stuff. It’s awesome. Tibouren in America. Bring it.
A: I’d like to tell you that the Grenache is really amazing. Sorry you haven’t gotten to try it yet, but it’s pretty amazing. I like the Syrah as well. I really love the Grenache. I think Randall is a little bit upset that I didn’t talk about the Syrah as much, even though they’re both beautiful wines.
R: I love all my children equally.
A: Good. Randall, when can we expect, besides the two reds coming out, other releases? Are we waiting on this vintage? How many vintages of these wines have you made so far?
R: With the ‘20, the fruit was the first vintage. The Syrah and Grenache will be out at the end of October, which is just around the corner. It’s not too far off.
A: Right. Then, ‘21 will be the second vintage of these wines. Awesome. Will you make these three, and then are there plans to add? If so, what do you plan to add?
A: We’re adding the Cinsault this year with this vintage. Ultimately, I’d love to add Roussanne or some other combination. I would love to get my hands on some Mondeuse Blanche. I don’t know if any exists in California, but a Roussanne Mondeuse Blanche would be my dream team.
K: Me, too! I’m raising my hand over here. Me, too.
A: Would you be willing to go outside of California? Maybe to Oregon, Washington, etc.? Or do you really want to stick to the grapes from California?
R: I think for now we stick to California. Otherwise, that becomes mission creep.
K: Oh, man. Can I ask a really geeky question? This is one of these questions that wine people always ask. What would be the average age of the vines that you’re playing with? The reason I ask that is because of the average age of vines in the Languedoc. I’m just curious about the difference.
R: These are young vines. At Rancho Real, I think they’re about 15 years old. They’re productive. They’re not baby vines, but they’re not wise oldsters yet. The whole point in the viticultural practice is to try to turn young vines into old vines and give them the characteristics of old vines, which are resilience and resistance. Having a very vibrant soil flora is super important to developing that resilience.
A: That makes a ton of sense. Randall, how can we find the wines again?
R: Go to the website LanguageofYesWine.com.
A: These wines are amazing. Everyone who listens should go out and grab these wines. They’re absolutely phenomenal. Everything you do, Randall, is so awesome. We always talk about you in the office and how you are one of the winemakers in this country that has done so much for American wine culture. Thank you so much for everything.
R: My great pleasure. Thanks, guys. I appreciate it.
A: It was really great to talk to you. It’s absolutely an honor.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.