If you grew up in the 1980s, as I did, you must know the song “Whip It” by Devo. Just hearing the name of the song, I start to sing: “When something’s going wrong you must whip it. Now whip it into shape. Shape it up. Get straight. Go forward. Move ahead. Try to detect it. It’s not too late to whip it. Whip it good.”
When I was invited to have lunch with Gerald Casale, one of the founding members of Devo, I could not get the song out of my head. While he is still a musician, Casale is now a winemaker as well with a small label called The 50 by 50.
Gerald Casale was a student in Ohio studying art and 20th century comparative literature when he and his brother, along with three others, started Devo. With the success of their band, they moved to Los Angeles in 1978, about the same time as the birth of California cuisine.
Coming from a blue-collar background, Casale was familiar with “bad wine and processed cheese.” But with some money and an innate curiosity, Casale soon became friends with chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Michael McCarty and Bruce Marder, with whom he would drink Burgundy wines from their cellars.
Casale’s passion for wine continued to grow as he fell in love with Italian wine while traveling around the world on tour with the band. Then by the mid-1990s, Casale starting trying domestic pinot noirs, developing an interest in Sonoma, the Russian River Valley and Oregon.
Like studying the guitar, Casale started to learn not just consume wine. He talks with passion about the development of grapes. In sharing this passion with some architect friends, a new opportunity was born.
In 2012, Casale produced his first vintage of wine, 180 cases of pinot noir and 50 cases of rosé. In 2013, the pinot noir production rose to 400 cases and in 2015, the rosé production increased to 100 cases. Casale sourced his fruit from Rodgers Creek in the Sonoma Coast, above Petaluma, where the 15-year-old vines are planted on a nine percent slope and are exposed to the ocean air, the fog and the breeze.
The wine is bottled under the label The 50 by 50, an homage to a never-built architectural masterpiece, called 50 by 50, designed by 20th century Modernist architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe more than 60 years ago.
On the label is the first sketch of the perfectly square glass house, designed by Van Der Rhone but never built, that is 20 feet long by 10 feet high, with each glass wall bisected by one vertical load-bearing steel post.
Casale’s backers are in the process of realizing this architectural masterpiece, and its construction on the vineyard should be completed this spring. It will provide a 365-degree panorama of the estate.
Located on the hill of Monticello Road in Wooden Valley in Napa, next to Kenzo, 23 acres sit at an elevation of 800 feet. Eight acres of rich volcanic soil are planted to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
Once the house is finished and the grapes are ready to make wine, Casale will focus on making a Bordeaux-style table wine. In the meantime, he continues to have fun getting his hands dirty making pinot noir.
The pinot noir is hand-picked, destemmed, whole cluster and the clones are fermented separately. The 50 by 50 Pinot Noir 2014 is a bright garnet color with fruity tones of cassis and cherry, matched by notes of earthiness, cloves and a cool mustiness. The young wine has soft tannins and bright acid and is delicate and elegant on the palate. Paired with grilled lamb, as I enjoyed it, the wine shined.
Casale is serious about wine, not about celebrity. His name is on the label, but as he says, on the back and inconsequential. He is focused on the wine. In the long term, he says, he is “trying to make the best-quality wine I can afford to drink.” With his pinot noir available for $30-$32, it is an amazing value.
Like music, wine is driven by passion and intuition. As a creative person, Casale enjoys the constant process of discovering and experimenting and sees the natural connection between wine and music.
“It is temporal,” Casale explained. “You can play a song 50 times and each time is different. Every time you play, the scene in different. Wine is the same. It changes vintage to vintage. You deal with nature and other variables that you cannot control. Both are about passion because you do it because you love it. It is a part of life and if you are lucky someone pays you for it. But if they do not, you still do it.”