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When Grahm Met Gallo: A "Language of Yes" Love Child
By Roger Morris
Nov 1, 2023
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So, who called whom first?

A hearty, though sophisticated, laugh at the other end.

“I would never think of approaching the Gallo company with a business proposition,” says Randall Grahm, the original Rhône Ranger and the present Pope of Popelouchum.  “Joe Gallo approached me.  It was shortly after I sold Bonny Doon [January 2020], and, yes, I was surprised.  I had not met him, although I had met his dad.”

And so, the yclept “The Language of Yes” brand of wines was conceived three years ago, with Grahm as winemaker in chief, and Gallo as grape supplier and marketer of the resulting wines.  Of course, those who follow Gallo realize that while the company is best known as the originator of “Hearty Burgundy” jug wine, in recent decades it has also developed a wide portfolio of well-reviewed, high-end wines either in-house or through buying other wineries.

Nevertheless, most of us were as surprised as was Grahm that the ubiquitous California wine producer had a crush, so to speak, on one of California’s most free-wheeling, higly-talented winemakers.  And so this odd couple was joined at the altar of Dionysius, and three years later there is still no talk of divorce or annulment.

Other than the late Robert Mondavi, there probably isn’t a better-known California winemaker and wine personality than Grahm. I have talked or corresponded with him several times for articles since the turn of the century, including a long conversation outside of Philadelphia in 2011 for an article in The Daily Meal. At the time I wrote:
In the 1980s, when everyone else in California was still gaga over Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Grahm’s Bonny Doon winery in Santa Cruz County started churning out Rhône varietal blends.  Instead of giving his creations ‘serious’ names, he trotted out ‘Le Cigare Volant,’ ‘Big House Red’ and ‘Cardinal Zin.’  His label designs were – well, different.  You didn’t need a corkscrew to open his wines, just a strong wrist.  Deciphering his promotional prose was like reading CliffsNotes for Cervantes.  He spelled Grahm without the second ‘a.’  Oh, yes, he made delicious wines.
But then some things changed, Grahm told me as we sipped wine at a restaurant on Route 202 as rush hour traffic whizzed by outside.  “When I turned 50, I had a child [daughter Amélie],” he said.  “The next year, I had a serious medical problem. I suddenly got a whiff of mortality.”

He sold off Big House Red, Cardinal Zin, Pacific Rim and his Soledad vineyard and started a new, experimental grape yard eventually named Popelouchum in the hills near Hollister.  Grahm recently began selling its wine made from “lesser known Provençal varieties as Tibouren, Grenache Gris and Cinsaut, exotic and arcane cépages such as Ruchè and the Brave New World of new varieties that we have bred ourselves at Popelouchum.”  In many ways, Popelouchum is as much about the vineyard as it is the winemaking.

In our recent phone conversation, Grahm updated me, saying, “I am delighted with what I’m seeing so far, and I’m thinking about all those people who told me Popelouchoum [pope-loh-SHOOM] was a very bad idea.”  In other words, Grahm is still Grahm, just an older version who turned 70 – the new 50? – in April.

So, the elopement of Grahm and Gallo might not seem like such a surprise on second thought, even though he was already in the midst of a career-changing project.  Grahm got some financial security and also got to play with Rhône and Provençal varieties.  Gallo has a good investment and a sterling brand to add to its portfolio.

“Gallo handles the sales and marketing, although I help out as needed,” Grahm told me.  “They gave me autonomy with the winemaking decisions, and we’ve mainly used grapes from Gallo’s Rancho Réal Vineyard on the Central Coast, although we do buy some grapes.”

Last year, he made 10,000-12,000 cases of The Language of Yes (the name involves a convoluted Grahmarian story that begins with a declension of the meaning of “Languedoc”), “and we expect to grow that to 15,000 to16,000 cases next year,” he says.

The wines, not surprisingly, are quite good. I recently tasted three of the current releases:

The Language of Yes (Central Coast, California) Pink Wine “Le Cerisier” 2022 ($35):  A blend of 60% Tibouren (Grahm’s new favorite grape), 26% Cinsault and 14% Grenache, the latter a substitute for Mourvedre, which was used in the 2021 vintage.   It is well-structured and complex, with a lilting fruitiness (red cherries, red raspberries, and a hint of orange), stony minerality, but also an under-layer of whey/lactic/white cheese flavors that come off as dull in most Pinot Grigios (where the characteristic frequently appears) but here add richness and texture.  Also, nice tannins.  The color is an eye-of-salmon, light copper-gold.  92        

The Language of Yes (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, California) Rancho Réal Vineyard Grenache 2021 ($45):  A lovely wine if not a particularly complex one, with smooth cherry flavors in a nest of dusty tannins clinging on like Velcro.  This is a bit more like a Provençal Grenache than a southern Rhône version.  92

The Language of Yes (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County, California) Rancho Réal Vineyard Syrah 2021 ($45):  Bright fruit meets a savory grounding:  This is almost like a blend of Grenache fruitiness of black raspberries (southern Rhône) with a lovely, almost dusty chocolate earthiness (northern Rhône) that we Syrah lovers so lust after.  93

The whole package for these wines reek of classiness, especially the art-print, gold-embossed labels that make me want to soak them off and paste them to my cellar walls. Of course, the closures are screwcaps, as it is not in Grahm’s nature to professionally or personally put a cork in it.

And so the Legend of Randall not only lives on, but is added to.  I’ve not yet tasted the “Pope” wines, which are selling in the $50 - $80.  When I do, I’m sure it will be a blend of Grahm expectations and Randall surprises.

Finally, I ask Grahm what’s next, and if there is an exit strategy.  He says his daughter Amélie is now 20, but, “She hasn’t shown much interest yet in the business.”  He sighs, “but I hope she will.”

He’ll figure it out.  He always does.