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The Wine World's No. 1 Rock Star: Dave Matthews

Rocker and gentleman farmer-vintner Dave Matthews is on a mission to promote sustainability, starting with the vegetables, grapes, cattle and chickens on his property in Virginia wine country.

"I like food," says Dave Matthews, "but I like good food. I just think the quality of the food we eat is in a desperate state." As members of the Dave Matthews Band straggle into this state-of-the-art recording studio deep in the Virginia hills, 15 minutes outside Charlottesville, the boss sips extraordinarily good Kona coffee while unspooling the tale of his conversion from junk food road warrior to gentleman organic farmer-vintner.

Before anyone arrived at the studio—the musicians are racing to complete Stand Up, an album that will reach No. 1 immediately after its May 2005 release—the wonderful aroma of vegetable soup filled the corridors, courtesy of a beatific young woman who cooks for the band. "We eat like kings," Matthews says. "And we drink some really good wine." A bottle of Merlot from Matthews's Blenheim Vineyards sits on a counter, prompting a studio wit to declare, in plummy Orson Welles tones, "We shall release no album before its time."

Matthews gestures out the window toward a pond where his friend Brad McCarthy, Blenheim's managing partner and winemaker, is tossing sticks for his hound. Matthews recalls when he was in his early twenties, tending bar in Charlottesville, "Brad and I used to stuff bad pizza and bad beer down our throats and fix ourselves a Pepto-Bismol chaser." Once the Dave Matthews Band hit the road in the early 1990s, he continues, dinner meant "microwavable hamburgers at the Quik Stop."

Since then, Matthews has put a chunk of money—his earnings have been estimated to be more than $20 million a year—into buying 1,260 acres of farmland near his Charlottesville home and slowly restoring it to meet organic growing standards. He purchased the land simply to keep it from developers. He says the notion of a more active stewardship grew from three things: his upbringing, some enlightenment by Willie Nelson and friends, and the naturopathic studies of his wife, Ashley.

Recalling his childhood in South Africa, where he was born in 1967, Matthews says his mother, Val, raised him on good basic food, "nothing packaged. There were four of us kids, and we'd each go shopping with my dad once a week—he was the grocery buyer. I was 10 when he died. And then my mom had to go back to work and do everything. My mom had a hard time. My eldest sister used to cook for us."

Matthews was 19 when the family moved to Charlottesville, where he knocked around with the musicians who would form the core of the Dave Matthews Band. Their first public gig, in 1991, was on Earth Day. As the group became established—and the improved per diem found them enjoying better meals—they experienced a deeper awakening to the importance of food thanks to Farm Aid, the fund-raiser begun by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. The Dave Matthews Band joined the effort in the mid-'90s. "What I learned from Farm Aid was this very unhealthy way that big farms work, this mass farming, this poisoning of the land. So I started looking for good foods, whole foods," says Matthews.

He had a willing partner in his longtime girlfriend, Ashley. They met in college at a Halloween party and were married in 2000. "She's an integral part of why I'm involved in this," he says. The two of them and their four-year-old twin daughters, Grace and Stella, have been living for the last few years in Seattle, where Ashley is finishing naturopathic medical training. "Learning about health and the food we eat affected all of us," Matthews says.

Back in Charlottesville, he persuaded his friends, seasoned farm manager Kevin Fletcher and his wife, April, to rehabilitate and run the farm. To be certified as organic, the acreage has had to undergo a three-year soil restoration program to purge it of agrichemicals that lingered from its earlier use as part of a commercial beef feedlot. The 30-acre market garden has already been certified. A stand near the property sells the produce, as well as certified organic eggs, under the Best of What's Around (BOWA) label. Chefs are buying BOWA ingredients too. At Hamiltons' at First & Main in Charlottesville, Jeanette Peabody uses the eggs in a delicate coffee-flavored crème brûlée; at Magnolia in Scottsville, Howie Velie adds the peppers and carrots to his piquant chicken jambalaya.

As she conducts a farm tour in her pickup, April explains that there is nothing simple about organic regulations. It involves "a lot of xeroxing of fertilizer labels," she says. But the proof of this righteous, if rigorous, form of farming is in a shed that houses about 150 stunning black Australorp laying hens. It smells...good. The chickens' summer quarters are coops on wheels that are rolled to a different field every morning so the birds can feed on insects harmful to crops and fertilize along the way. A dairy is being built where Gail Hobbs-Page, the farm's cook, will turn milk from Nubian, Alpine and LaMancha goats into farmstead cheeses. We drive past grass-fed Angus and Tarentaise cattle, horses, and a construction area where sheds and a cook- and bathhouse will house interns who want to learn sustainable farming.

Not far away is Blenheim Vineyards, four tidy acres of grapes and a handsome copper-roofed winery. When the Dave Matthews Band first hit the road, McCarthy began a passionate apprenticeship in winemaking, first locally, then at Acacia Winery in California. Now, with 17 years' winemaking experience, McCarthy produces Chardonnay, Merlot, a Meritage and other wines known for their subtlety and simplicity. He jettisoned new oak barrels that gave the Chardonnay too aggressive a taste for used barrels that impart a more delicate, slightly European character. And he designed a custom-built system that uses gravity rather than hydraulic pumping to send fruit, then juice, to vats deep beneath the hillside. "I'm a believer in minimal impact on the fruit," McCarthy explains. "I think it's a purer product."

Matthews's brother, Peter, tends the vines. He has been the vineyard manager since Blenheim's inception in 1999. His education, he'll tell you, is "an ongoing odyssey," begun with viticulture study at the University of California Extension. Given the vineyard's small size, McCarthy augments his harvest with carefully chosen grapes from local growers. "Our mission isn't that different from the farm's," McCarthy says, "in that we're dedicated to refining and celebrating a distinctive Virginia character of wine."

Matthews says his winemaking venture started as "a little fantasy. As in, 'Let's not do this to make money, let's just make the best wine we can.' We had the luxury of my being overpaid." Now, says Matthews, "I think the wine is something that can very quickly pay for itself, especially with the quality. Brad makes a good bottle of wine."

Blenheim wines are often around when Matthews cooks at home. His group's reputation as a jam band seems to define his culinary style as well: improvisational and unmindful of time restrictions. "Dave generally has no idea what he's making until he gets home from the store," April Fletcher says. "He may not get dinner on the table till 11. But it's worth the wait."

Matthews's daughters are happy to tuck into the dishes he calls mushes. "They like spicy food. They like Stilton cheese, they love olives. They eat well—I'm so surprised by that. It makes me cook more." That's true despite the occasional kitchen disaster. "Not long ago I made a beautiful batch of moussaka. I was checking it, putting it back in the oven, and it tipped over. Yep, moussaka upside down in a hot oven."

Cooking will always be a casual affair to Matthews, but when he talks about his farm's mission, he's utterly serious: "I love discovering how bright an egg yolk can be if it comes from a healthy animal." His is a rich man's experiment, but it might be "a crack in the door," he says. "There seems to be an acknowledgement that as a society, we're unhealthy. People are talking about the quality of the food we eat. Not enough, but it's coming."

Drummer Carter Beauford comes in to haul the boss back to work in the recording studio. But he stops, distracted by the lovely aroma of soup. "Hey, man. When's lunch?"

Gerri Hirshey savored the best of rock—and road food—over two decades of writing for Rolling Stone magazine.

Published October 2005
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