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A Drink With: Gerald Casale

Christie’s raises a glass with a founding member of New Wave pioneers, Devo, about his long love affair with wine

Devo posing with their Liberation Moog synthesizers, circa 1980s. Photo by
Neil Zlozower, courtesy of Devo

I first met Gerald Casale in the late 1990s at The Wine House, in Los Angeles, where I was head of old and rare wine, and where we both taught classes as young wine men plying our trade. Only casually acquainted, I knew we shared a passion for demystifying wine, but his own past was a mystery to me: I eventually found out he was a founding member of Devo, one of the biggest and most important New Wave bands of the 1970s and 1980s.

Jerry discovered wine on moving to California in the late 70s, amid an explosion in food and wine that somewhat paralleled the musical upheavals of the time. Always a visionary, though not always celebrated for it (Jerry named a 2000 Devo compilation Pioneers Who Got Scalped), he found affinities with chefs like Alice Waters and winemakers like Sassicaia's Nicolò Incisa. We recently spent a rare, stormy Santa Monica afternoon in the Garden Room of Michael's Restaurant, a longtime mutual favorite. Jerry shared what he's learned over the years over a Domaines Ott Rosé (with Kumamoto oysters) and a 2003 Michel Gros, Vosne Romanée, Clos des Réas.

— Scott Torrence, Christie’s lead specialist for the Americas


JERRY SAYS:

The current wine I’m most into is always the wine I’m currently drinking.

People are daunted by wine, they’re turned off. They don’t understand it, and they freeze. When you’re learning about wine, you react to the arcane and affected rituals that wine people do without understanding it’s basically just a combination of farming and art. Finding which grapes you like, where they grow best, which producers can turn them into juice that will change your life. Once you combine the right wine with food, it can be transcendent. It’s a combination of cerebral and sensual. And all it takes is a little bit of willingness to know something.

Our first tour of Italy, the promoter said, “Hey, Devo, you want to come with me into the vineyards?” We were in Florence, he was taking us to some vineyard in Tuscany. And everybody went, “What? No, we’re goin’ shopping.” And I say, “I’ll go!” I go to this beautiful villa, and the owner starts cracking open some older bottles from the cellar. It was a hot summer, but we sat under an umbrella that he draped with a perforated hose, so at the edges of the umbrella was a rain curtain. So, we’re inside a rain curtain drinking these Sangiovese-based wines, and eating bruschetta and prosciutto and fresh pastas that his chef made, and I just fell in love. I thought, “God, I wish I was this guy, who wouldn’t want this lifestyle?”

Devo had the fortune of coming to California right when there was an explosion of what I could only call “New Wave” cuisine in the late 70s. I got to go to Chez Panisse, I met Piero Selvaggio of Valentino. They were young, they were open, and they loved the fact that I even cared. I would start asking questions: How did this stuff happen, how does this get made? And so, food and wine became a lifelong pursuit.

Gerald Casale today; image courtesy of Gerald Casale

You learn by drinking. Like every young guy, I started with the macho, killer bottles: Big Bordeaux, huge Cabernets — almost thick enough to put on ice cream for dessert. And because of my Italian love affair, I was an Italian wine junkie for a long time — the super Tuscans, and then Barolos and Barbarescos. After a tour I’d find any excuse to stay in Italy, rent a car and drive to Alba, eat truffles. Then, as I drank my way through all types of wines from every country, I increasingly gravitated towards Pinot Noir, and all I cared about was finding the next good Burgundy.

Burgundy is like, you can have a lot of sex, but then you can have the sex that exists on three or four dimensions, that grabs you and hooks you forever. The right Burgundy is the best sex you’ll ever have.

I’m overseeing our wine brand right now [50 x 50 Pinot Noir], my first time making a wine. It’s Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast, and it’s a blend of two clones: the 667 Dijon clone and the Pommard clone. The 2012 harvest turned out to be stellar — plenty ripe, but not too ripe. The grapes on the vine when we were harvesting, they tasted good just popped in your mouth. That’s my connection to wine — the enjoyment of the fact that this grape, this intrinsic part of the earth, can be transformed into this incredible elixir, matched with food, with friends, and you’re like, ten times better that night.

Buy the bottle. People today pound a lot more hard liquor, mixology drinks, and they think because they’re just getting a drink — and not a bottle of wine — they’re saving money. Then they get the bill and they’ve been reamed. And then when the girls want glasses of wine, the glasses have been pumped up to $12, to $20, but they think they’re saving money cause they bought the glass. So, they’re getting reamed too.

Not to throw water on that popular theory about blind tastings, where the humble wine often wins, but when I was teaching wine classes, inevitably, the most expensive wine would win.

I felt an affinity the first time I had Sassicaia. I think it was ’78, when [Incisa] was really experimenting. They were changing the rules, but nobody wants the rules changed — yet. You show them something and then years later they go, “Oh, you were right.” They were pioneers who got scalped.