On the terrace of a historic Richard Neutra house in the hills overlooking West Hollywood, a bearded bartender in a black felt fedora uncorks another bottle of rosé and pours a glass for a guest. "You'll get ripe peach and lychee on the nose," he says. "Pairs well with pizza, light Italian food, seafood." Then he adds, somewhat unconvincingly, "I'm a beer guy, so rosé's my favorite."
Nearby, the wine's creator, Gerald V. "Jerry" Casale, is holding court, looking resplendent in a gray suit with matching creepers, a zebra-striped shirt and sunglasses with copper-colored lenses. As a member of the New Wave band DEVO, Casale has performed for millions, but he's clearly nervous in his new role as winery owner. When someone compliments the rosé, he laughs a little too loudly and declares, "Go try it with some goat cheese, it's even better!"
The rosé and its sister wine, a Pinot Noir, are the first releases from The 50 By 50, a 23-acre estate Casale purchased in Napa Valley several years back. The estate's own plantings, mostly cabernet sauvignon and merlot, won't be producing for another five years. But Casale was eager to get his 50 By 50 label started, so he sourced some pinot grapes from nearby Sonoma to produce his first bottlings.
"It's a beautiful match with so much of the food we eat in California," he says of the notoriously fickle grape, which he's loved since tasting an expensive pinot from Burgundy in 1990 he still describes as "orgasmic."
In conversation, it quickly becomes clear that The 50 By 50 is not some vanity project. Casale knows his stuff, holding forth on regional differences in climate and soil, discussing the effects of French oak barrels versus American, railing against the excesses of mainstream California chardonnay. "They're drinking a bunch of oak and malolactic fermentation," he says, wrinkling his nose. "It doesn't even taste like a grape anymore."
Despite the high-fallutin' setting of Neutra's sleek, mid-century Kun House, perched on a hillside over the top of Fairfax Avenue, the crowd at Casale's tasting is eclectic and unpretentious. These are wine fans, not DEVO fans, at least not overtly so; no one's wearing one of those red plastic "Energy Dome" hats (though one is perched upside-down at the bar, serving as a dump bucket). Many are just regulars at Wally's Wines and Spirits, the West L.A. shop that's sponsoring the event. A Meetup.com group called Gay Winos has taken over one of the balconies. Even the smattering of wine bloggers in attendance, all hovering around Casale hoping to get a word in, are casually dressed and disarmed of any snootiness by the amazing views.
The transition from rock music to winemaking may not seem like an obvious one, but Casale is not the first musician to fall for the grape. Tool's Maynard James Keenan owns a vineyard and winery in Arizona; Les Claypool of Primus run Claypool Cellars in Sonoma; Sting and his wife own a wine estate in Tuscany that makes a sangiovese called "When We Dance." It seems nothing, not even some nice goat cheese, pairs better with wine than aging rock stars.
It's tempting to attribute this trend to some sort of simpatico alchemy between music and wine: Both are art forms requiring a solid foundation in craft and technique, and both can be equally satisfying in expressions both crude (punk rock, say, or the satisfyingly dense fruit bomb of a California zinfandel) and sublime (a John Coltrane solo, or one of those orgasmic Burgundian pinots).
But Casale's own DEVO bandmate, Mark Mothersbaugh, has a simpler explanation: Musicians travel a lot, and in their travels, they develop a taste for something more sophisticated than dressing-room whiskey.
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"He was the band gourmand," Mothersbaugh says, swirling some of Casale's rosé in his glass. "We always ate really well, because he would research where to go. He'd order the wine and we'd go, 'That's awesome!'"
Casale is clearly pleased with the results of his first vintage, and he should be. The rosé is dry but still fruity and refreshing, especially on this hot day, and the pinot has a racy acidity to it, like a bowl of tart cherries, that opens up your palette and will make it a great pairing with the barbecued meats of summer.
Still, he's already looking forward to the day he can bottle the grapes from his own vineyard. "What I hope for, when those vines are ready to produce viable fruit - which could take five, six years - what I hope is to make a wine that people go, 'Wow.'"