Dave Matthews Talks Music, Sustainability and Dreaming Tree Wines

Dave Matthews is no stranger to the wine world. In 2000, the Grammy-winning bandleader, singer and songwriter established Blenheim Vineyards in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Dave Matthews Band got its start.

In 2011, he launched a California wine project called the Dreaming Tree. The brand produces six bottlings: Crush (a red blend), Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a rosé. The wines are affordably priced—all are $17 a bottle—and made to be drunk on release.

Through a new partnership with the Wine Group and winemaker Grayson Stewart, the brand is investing in sustainability, employing new vineyard practices, using lighter bottles and more. Dreaming Tree also has a charity partnership with the Nature Conservancy. For every bottle of Cabernet or Crush sold through the end of this year, $1.50 will be donated to the Plant a Billion Trees Program.

Matthews and Stewart chatted with assistant editor Kenny Martin about their new wines, sustainability, creativity and more.

Wine Spectator: What excites you about this new phase of the Dreaming Tree?

Matthews: I’m excited about our latest effort because it’s more in line with my dream of making a delicious but also affordable wine that is trying to be a leader in a more sustainable model of producing wine with minimal environmental impact.

When I first started the label, the idea was that we’d have an affordable wine, and some of the proceeds would cover the shame of moving bottles around the world, and the impact that has—as well as the impact of making the wine itself.

The difference now with Grayson on board is that we’re focused not just on post-production, but also the growing of the grapes, the bottle and the label. There’s much more involved.

The most important thing is that the wine is delicious. At least in my opinion, we’ve made some exceptional wine. I’m very excited to be associated with it.

How did you get involved in wine?

It’s not like one day I woke up and said, I like wine, and because I can afford it I’m going to partner up with someone and get involved. Years ago, I bought a farmhouse where I wanted my mom to live in the country. My mom, in response to the suggestion that the family live out in the country, said, ‘I don’t want to be landed gentry!’

The family already loved wine, and there happened to be a vineyard that had gone to weeds. We said, what if we started growing grapes? And then a friend of mine said, what if we started making wine? There was an unexpected, natural evolution of my winemaking curiosity.

Then there was a sort of avalanche of people becoming more interested, and I feel like I’ve become more and more proactive in my relationship with the wine.

Thinking about this most recent evolution of the project with Grayson, I’m very comfortable with how it’s come to be and my part in that. I couldn’t be happier with how Grayson has risen to the occasion. It’s more than I could’ve imagined.

Why should wine lovers care about the environment and climate health?

I think every industry should be obsessed with how we can produce whatever we produce in the most sustainable way. Look at how agriculture has gone off the deep end to doing the opposite, in most instances, of what nature wants growing plants to look like. There’s great consequence to how we produce food, and the way we grow most of the plants we use.

Every industry beyond agriculture—clothing, travel, anything—every industry should be turning, as much as possible, toward a more sustainable model. There is no greater consequence than the end of times—I hate to make it sound Biblical, because it’s not Biblical. But we should be thinking about the planet in everything that we do. The industry should change because it’s the only way to keep the industry.

How did you decide to make sustainability a priority for the Dreaming Tree?

We were always asking, what more can we do? But you have to be in partnership with someone who’s like-minded. Part of the good fortune of getting linked up with the Wine Group is that it seems to be one of their focuses. They came into the partnership with a list of ideas.

When I’m looking for ways to spend money to offset the environmental consequences of making wine, it’s good to have a partner who says, OK. But it’s even nicer to have a partner who says, we’re going to use lighter bottles, recycled materials, different corking methods. That way, everybody’s meeting in the middle, and hopefully we just get better and better at it.

That’s the way it feels for me now. If your preoccupation is to do this in a way that’s healthy for the planet, and if you focus on how you grow the grapes, then it’s going to be innovation after innovation after innovation. That’s why I’m excited for this partnership especially. And, perhaps even more so, because Grayson makes really good wine.

 Musician Dave Matthews and winemaker Grayson Stewart enjoying Dreaming Tree wine

Winemaker Grayson Stewart is implementing a range of new vineyard practices to make Dreaming Tree more sustainable. (Courtesy of Dreaming Tree Wines)

Grayson, could you speak to the sustainable practices you’re adopting in the vineyard?

Stewart: We’re doing a lot of things: Efficient water use, soil management, energy efficiency, habitats for pollinators—the list goes on. The cool thing about sustainability is that the job’s never finished. You’re always evolving, always coming up with better ways to become sustainable.

As sustainable as we are now, we’re looking for ways to become more sustainable in the future. It’s a never-ending journey.

Beyond the vineyard, the bottles are a third lighter than previous bottles. We use a naked cork, so we don’t have foil on top because that just gets tossed anyway. And all the labels are made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. The whole bottle itself is way more sustainable than before.

Anything to add to that, Dave?

Matthews: To emphasize what Grayson said about sustainability—if we could make it so that growing grapes and making wine left the planet in a better way than we found it, that would be the goal. And I think that should be the goal of every industry.

Are you involved in the winemaking, or is that all on Grayson?

I would say it’s all on Grayson because I’m not qualified to make any serious decision! But I’m involved in so far as I can say, this is delicious.

I feel included in the process, but I also don’t want to pretend that I’m in any way steering with the expertise that Grayson is. I’ve been very excited—overwhelmed, but in a good way—by what a great winemaker he is. I almost feel a little bit silly claiming equal partnership because he really is exceptional. It’s not easy to have such consistency across so many varieties of wine, to have such a delicate touch with all these different varietals. I can take credit for my partnership, but I don’t want to take credit where I don’t think it’s due.

Dreaming Tree wines are made to be enjoyed now, not put in the cellar to age. Do you collect wines?

I have a few wines that people have given me as gifts and told me to keep in a cool place. I’m lucky to have some cool places where I can keep my wine depending on where I am. I tend to be not very delicate with the fact that I like to drink wine now. Times change, and there’s a culture of elite wine that’s very exciting—where you can look into the history of an art form, so to speak, that is exceptional.

But I’m also excited about contemporary winemaking, and much of what’s exciting about what’s happening nowadays is how we’re producing delicious wines that are meant to be drunk now. It’s a faster world, and it’s changing. I think there’s an interesting evolution in wine—things move differently, in many ways. And that applies to winemaking.

You mentioned that wine is a kind of art form. How do you see wine, music and creativity going together?

Early on, Dreaming Tree evolved from an idea about music and food and wine pairing. I imagine that wine has been consumed where music has been performed for thousands of years—that just goes without saying. I like the idea that the birth of Western democracy, if you think it was born in ancient Greece, went along with wine.

Not only were music and poetry born, the better philosophies of Western civilization were born from drinking wine. All those things turned into a lot of what we recognize today as hallmarks of society, whether it’s music or art or science or philosophy. In a lot of ways, I think wine was at least partly responsible for the very best characteristics of modern civilization. And hopefully not responsible for the very worst!

Probably if there had been more wine, certain bad decisions might not have been made—because we would’ve been too busy enjoying each other’s company, dancing to good music and reading poetry! When I think of my favorite poetry and my favorite music, they tend to go with a Guinness. My theory is that alcohol is an excellent social lubricant.

I know a lot of people are skeptical of the health benefits of alcohol. But when I think of the greatest times in our civilization, very often wine was involved. And if it wasn’t involved in the process, there was certainly a toast afterward. In science, probably more often there was a toast after the workday. But with music and art, it was more often alongside.

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