That Gerald “Jerry” Casale is sitting in his meticulously restored Neutra in the Hollywood Hills talking about a boutique wine he’s just produced is credit to a walk he took one early evening, circa 1979. Casale, co-founder of the art movement and rock band Devo and son of Akron, Ohio, “where wine meant Mogen David and the cheese is Velveeta,” was exploring the neighborhood around his new $280-a-month Santa Monica apartment when he spotted an odd-looking place where a couple of long-haired guys were hanging out.
“I thought it was a house, but then I looked in and it had tables. It was the original Michael’s,” says Casale of stumbling on one of the epicenters of a California cuisine movement that was about to change the way Americans eat. “There was nobody in there but Michael McCarty and Bruce Marder. Michael came to the door and said, ‘May I help you?’ I said, ‘What’s going on here? Is this a restaurant? He said, ‘Is it a restaurant? You bet!’ He brought me in and started bringing stuff to taste and saying things like, ‘Try this Chardonnay from Kistler.’”
Casale would spend the following decade touring the world as part of Devo, while simultaneously in hot pursuit of Kistler Chardonnay, William Selyem Pinot Noir, Antori Sassicaia and other wines that were reinventing the viniculture of that era—all the while ignoring scoffs from his bandmates. “They acted like what I was doing was completely inappropriate,” he says, his silvery-grey slim-cut suit the exact shade of the interior trim paint of his house. “I was trying to turn them on to something new, and they all thought I had a hoity-toity attitude. My feeling was: You have to eat every day. Life is too short for one bad meal.” (The 1,732-square-foot house, by the way, built by Richard Neutra in 1936 for the journalist Josef Kun and restored by Casale to exacting details, is listed at just under $2.3 million.)
Likewise, life is too interesting for boring, mass produced wine, which Casale likens to “music that sounds like Coldplay.” That’s why at 65, he’s started making his own, launching the boutique brand The 50 by 50. In five years, the label will produce Bordeaux-style wine from the 23-acre Napa estate it’s named after; for now, Casale is making 280 cases of 2012 Pinot Noir and 50 cases of 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($29.99 and $19.99 respectively, and available at Wally’s Wine.)
Why launch with a wine so far afield from the Carbernet Franc and Merlot he will be producing as estate wine? “I fell in love with Pinot Noir,” says Casale, who used Devo’s trade mark red hats as spit buckets at the tasting. “It’s kind of like a high-strung girlfriend: she’s neurotic, sure, but when she’s on, it’s the most exciting thing you could experience in your life. And if she turns, it can be a horror show.”
Fortunately for the Devo co-founder (Casale was joined at the April 30 launch by longtime partner-in-crime Mark Mothersbaugh) his first foray into wine-producing fell firmly into the former category: His Pinot came off as light but robust enough and full of fruit, at least to this amateur. “That’s what it was like for me all those years ago,” says Casale, who will tour with Mothersbaugh this summer. “You don’t have to know anything about wine. You just have to taste it. You know it when you taste it.”