Devo co-founder Gerald Casale equates the new wave rock scene of the late 1970s with the new wave food and wine scene occurring simultaneously in California. Devo was changing the world with “Mongoloid,” “Jocko Homo” and “Whip It”; Chez Panisse was growing its own vegetables in Berkeley, Calif., and Wolfgang Puck was about to put smoked salmon and caviar on a pizza.
Casale, who had relocated to L.A. from Akron, Ohio, was befriending young restaurateurs such as Puck, Michael McCarty, Piero Selvaggio and Jeremiah Tower, all of whom were guiding him into wine.
After nearly four decades later of taking their advice on food and wine pairings and touring wine-producing regions of the world, he has his own winery, 50 By 50. His first vintages of Pinot Noir and Rose of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast will be released on April 30.
The winery’s name refers to never-built architectural plan that Mies Van Der Rohe designed more than 60 years ago. A design firm, MDMA, will build the 50 By 50 house on the 23-acre property in Napa’s Wooden Valley where Casale is planting eight acres of the Bordeaux grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. His intention – make that hope – is to start producing a table wine five years from now.
“I never knew how I would be able to do it,” Casale says of his passion for wine, noting that he was set to purchase a Napa Valley property in 1985, but had to bail once Warner Bros. Records dropped Devo. “I never reached the point of independent wealth where I could weather the capitol it takes before you see any reward. That’s why I’m thankful these guys doing the restoration (of the property) are going beyond and have the rights to do the 50 by 50 house.”
With tastes that lean more toward Burgundy and Italy than Bordeaux, he says circumstances dictated the direction he is taking with 50 By 50. Napa is where the winemaker Ken Vigoda is based, its where MDMA could build and it has the right soil and microclimate to make a decent wine that he can price reasonably
Casale will celebrate the release of his first wines under the 50 By 50 label, a 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and a 2013 Sonoma Coast Rosé of Pinot Noir, on April 30 in Hollywood. Wally’s Wine & Spirits, the famed West L.A. wine retailer, will host the event is the first store signed up to carry the 50 By 50 wines.
For his first go-round, Casale produced 260 cases of the Pinot Noir and 70 cases of the Rose. He intends to ramp up the production of the Rose in 2014 while maintaining the same level of production of the Pinot Noir.
In conversation over his wine at Michael’s in Santa Monica, he mentioned numerous wines that have impressed and inspired him in his endeavor: the Oregon Pinots of Domaine Serene and Brick House, D’Esclans’ Whispering Angel rose from Provence, Castello di Ama Rosato from Chianti and Merry Edwards’ single vineyards Pinots from Sonoma.
“What’s great about wine,” he says, “while much of the world is devolving – and I don’t think that’s a rap or a joke anymore – wine is not devolving. More and more people are making good wine.
“Luckily, there’s a certain amount of middle class egalitarian ethic left in the wine world. The rest of the world has gone back toward medieval times when 10 people owned everything and everyone else was serfs.”
To make Pinot Noir, he sourced the grapes from 12-year-old vines in Rodger’s Creek in the Sonoma Coast, one vineyard of Dijon 667 clones and another from Burgundy’s Pommard appellation. They barreled the juice separately and tried different blends, ultimately settling on a straight 50-50 mixture.
“I know its cornball, but there’s the name of the estate and the house, so we left that 50-50 blend as a basis for the 2013 rose,” he says.
The rose, in bottle for only three weeks, revealed a nose of strawberry, peach and lychee nut and an appealing weightiness; the masculine and balanced Pinot Noir was redolent of leather, tobacco and dark berries. The accents in both wines are decidedly European.
“I like Rose of Pinot Noir because it adds heft and a nice finish that isn’t too acidic,” he says. “Because of the grape, it becomes a little more serious and when a rose is more complex it goes with so much more food.”
The eureka moment about Pint Noir for Casale occurred while he was on tour with Devo in the 1980s and a French promoter turned him on to wines from Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti area. From that moment forward, he was sold on Pinot Noir.
His Rose epiphany occurred about a decade ago in New York City with McCarty of Michael’s. He had arranged for a “gluttony tour” in which they visit eight restaurants and ate one dish at each. They stopped into Otto on Eighth Street and McCarty ordered a rose to go with Fontina cheese and white truffle oil pizza; Casale is not sure but he thinks the wine was Sicilian.
As opinionated on wine as he is politics and culture, Casale rails against overly manipulated wines and applauds winemakers who adhere to biodynamic principles. Food plays a significant role as well as he feels it is more important to make wines that pair well with food rather than offer solitary experiences.
“Wine is part of a ritual and to me, rituals keep anything of value in human society alive,” Casale says. “Rituals glue us together. Music is a big part of that obviously. In the 20th century, going to the theater was a big ritual, which has been kind of destroyed. Wine – eating and drinking together and matching food and wine — is a huge ritual. The more you know about it, the more you care about it , the more pleasure there is.”
After getting the wines launched, Casale and Devo will embark on a 10-city tour in which the band will perform the music they created in Akron between 1974 and 1977 prior to their Warner Bros. deal. A portion of proceeds from the tour will go to the family of Casale’s late brother Bob. The tour starts in Baltimore on June 18 and includes shows at New York’s Best Buy Theater on June 19 and L.A.’s Wiltern on June 29.