Prior to the pandemic, a significant chunk of my job was spent visiting vineyards and wineries, from the mountaintops above Santa Cruz down to the desert-ish hills of Temecula. Often, when my travels were in Santa Barbara County or nearby, the trips would serve multiple masters: I could write short features for the Santa Barbara Independent while reporting on larger trend pieces and getting to know people and places as a contributing editor and critic for Wine Enthusiast.
When I’d go outside of this paper’s interest zone, my trips were more about the latter, and that’s what I’ve been doing this whole week, visiting nearly 20 vintners and vineyards across Monterey County, from the depths of Carmel Valley to the rocky slopes of Chalone. But the trip started off with a dual-purpose bang: lunch with American wine legend Randall Grahm, who’s started a new project called The Language of Yes with the backing and structural support of the all-powerful Gallo family. And given that he’s sourcing grapes from Rancho Real Vineyard — also known as Murmur, which lies alongside 101 just south of Orcutt — Grahm is now a Santa Barbara County story. And for that, we should all be stoked.
“In a slightly tangential and somewhat unexpected note, you may (or might not) have heard of my recent joint venture with E & J Gallo Wine Company, a small outfit out of Modesto, CA,” wrote Grahm in an August 11 email to fans, his verbiage as subversively humorous as ever. “Yes, I know, it’s a bit of a Bambi meets Godzilla scenario, but so far, so good, and there are some really astonishing wines arising therefrom and it has been a great experience.”
We decided to meet at the Cork & Plough in King City, one of the few modern restaurants in the Salinas Valley serving creative Californian cuisine. I’ve stopped there with my family frequently over the years when traveling to the Bay Area or Santa Cruz, and it never disappoints.
I found Grahm and Gallo’s marketing guru Lon Gallagher, who’s become a friend over the past few years, sitting toward the back, with a rosé already popped. A very light (some may just call it “white”) rosé of the pale red Provencal grape tibouren, with 25 percent of the Rhône grape cinsault, this was the first wine to be released under The Language of Yes banner. It sold out in just over an hour when the Grahm-Gallo partnership was announced.
We quickly got into the heart of the matter: How’d one of the world’s most idiosyncratic winemakers team up with one of the world’s most powerful wine companies?
Around two years ago, soon after Grahm sold off the majority of his ownership in Bonny Doon, the brand he created nearly four decades ago, he got a call from Joe C. Gallo. He was curious if the two should start a joint venture that combined Grahm’s creative pursuits of obscure techniques and Rhône and/or rare grapes with the Gallo family’s sales and logistical force. “If we wanted to be active in the Rhône space,” explained Gallagher of what motivated Gallo, which makes a lot of wines but not many Rhônes like syrah and grenache, “who else do we talk to?”
For Grahm, who was told that he could do his wacky things and let Gallo handle the rest, “This was quite interesting on a number of levels.”
(The Bambi versus Godzilla joke came up again a couple times — Graham showed us this hilarious short film — but Gallagher asked, “Who is Bambi and who is Godzilla?”)
So with Gallo’s backing, Grahm grafted the tibouren onto Creston Ridge Vineyard in Paso Robles and sourced syrah and grenache for red wines from Rancho Real. The tibouren is fantastic, tons of texture and restrained fruit flavors, while the syrah and grenache — which will be released in October — are also unique expressions, in part because Grahm dried the grapes outside for a couple days before pressing them. In addition to the three wines, they plan to add perhaps another wine each vintage, including a possible Amarone-style cinsault co-fermented with syrah, if the timing works out this harvest.
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As our conversation veered into a gaggle of Old World grapes that I’d never heard of, Grahm grew a bit more introspective about this new project. “The Bonny Doon wines were very stylized,” he explained of how he actively made those in the cellar to be a certain way. “These wines are more soulful and thoughtful, more vineyard-derived than conceptually derived.”
As to the name, Grahm explained his deep dive into finding words from a Provençal dialect that extends from the Pyrenees to Piedmont before settling on The Language of Yes. “The name seems very welcoming for these times in which we live,” he explained.
As the week went on, I met with nearly 20 other producers over the course of five days, running from about 7 a.m. until late, sometimes past midnight, each day. I helped sort a moonlit chardonnay pick for Bill Brosseau’s 25th harvest of his brand at his family’s vineyard in Chalone, checked out Russell Joyce’s new digs in the old Ventana Vineyards facility in Arroyo Seco, and explored the canyons of Pisoni Vineyard way up in the Santa Lucia Highlands. And I’m finishing the trip today with a visit to Ernst Storm’s facility on the grounds of Presqu’ile Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, where a number of winemakers are gathering to share wines and eat lunch as our own county’s harvest begins.
These trips are always tests of endurance, moderation, and paying attention to lots of geeky information about clones, rootstock, barrel size, fermentation procedures, and trellising systems. But I always come back refreshed with cutting-edge intel, knowing far more about the people and places behind some of the most exciting wines on the planet.
From Our Table
- This week, I write about meeting Santa Barbara native Paula Munoz, who’s launched her own lines of salsas called Sabor de Paulita that emerged from her pandemic experience. They’re addictive — I found myself eating one with, of all things, homemade biscotti over the weekend when my chips ran out.
- Last week, the Michelin Guide added three Santa Barbara restaurants to its “New” list. See which ones and what that means here.
From Their Table
- Esther Mobley does a bang-up job of covering California’s wine industry in her full-time role at the San Francisco Chronicle. Last week, she took a San Luis Obispo company called Tastry to task for their right-wine-for-you app. I know the company and have written about the founder, Katerina Axelsson, before. She’s ambitious and quite brilliant, but, like Esther, I fear that she might be making wine a less romantic thing with her technology.
- Mobley also put on her hard news-reporter hat to report how Cakebread Winery in Napa took on an investigation of the cause of the Glass Fire, in order, at least in part, to absolve itself of any wrongdoing. For a state and industry that’s increasingly dealing with wildfire all the time, it’s an enlightening, if a tad scary, read.
- I’ve been working on a longer feature about Frinj Coffee in Goleta that will come out in a month or so. So my attention was snagged by this article in the New York Times Magazine by Wyatt Williams. Called “How Your Cup of Coffee Is Clearing the Jungle,” it’s a good argument for buying local even when it comes to coffee. Frinj is hoping to make that more possible down the road.