On September 11, 2001, Peter Work was supposed to be at a meeting beneath the World Trade Center when the first plane struck at 8:45 a.m. He and his wife, Rebecca, both had successful careers in the corporate world, with their names atop such companies as Walt Disney and WorldCom, together even helping to start what became a $3-billion company. Although Peter’s meeting got canceled that tragic day, his near run-in with the 9/11 disaster and the couple’s long, tiresome journey back to Los Angeles afterward made them rethink their lives. Once in California, Peter and Rebecca decided to relax for a few days at the Santa Rita Hills property they’d bought a few years earlier with the dream of one day growing a vineyard—and they never really left. Explained Peter, “We finally decided: Game over. Let’s start this; let’s find something more meaningful to do in our lives.”
Peter explains their decision to sell the big house on the beach, the sailboat, and the Mercedes with a poise that’s notably absent of doubt. And that makes sense, considering the success and happiness Peter and Rebecca have found as winemakers of Ampelos Cellars. He repeatedly uses the word “privileged” to describe his life and work, which now bleed holistically into one exciting journey.
That sense of wholeness is important at Ampelos, which has gone completely organic, sustainable, and biodynamic. “I wouldn’t put herbicides in my coffee,” reasoned Peter. “Why should I spray it on the soil that my plants go in that I’m going to take grapes from to make wine out of?” A level up from organic is sustainable—a term whose nebulous past has now been standardized by the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program—which means that Ampelos operates completely on solar power, provides ESL and retirement programs for employees, and keeps an open dialogue with neighbors to build strong community bonds. Even stricter than sustainable is biodynamic farming, a technique developed in 1924 that literally goes as far as the moon and stars, respects all natural materials as living things, and dictates that the Works plant, harvest, and even bottle the wine according to the 12 constellations (they only harvest with the moon in Sagittarius, for instance) and four elements (earth, water, air, and fire, which correspond to root, leaf, flower, and fruit, respectively).
Peter knows it sounds kooky, and admits that, as science-minded people, he and Rebecca find some of it weird, explaining, “We’re so used to believing in whatever you can measure, whatever you can check under a microscope, whatever you can explain with an equation.” But the clear improvement they’ve observed in the fruit—both in taste and nutritional profile—makes it impossible to deny that there really is something to making wine alongside the cosmos. “Plants don’t have muscles, they don’t have eyes, and they don’t have a brain,” rationalizes Peter. “So how do you explain that a sunflower is able to face the sun during the day when it doesn’t have any of those things?”
Emblazoned across the Ampelos Web site is an old Amish proverb that goes, “We did not inherit this land from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children.” The sentiment isn’t just some feel-good marketing ploy—it’s deeply embedded in the couple’s work, all the way down to their informational pamphlets, which are made from recycled cardboard. “How could we say that this is what we stand for and hand somebody a really glossy, 50-page packet of really nice pieces of paper that don’t conserve any of our resources whatsoever?” asked marketing/social media maven Cobie Smith, who spearheaded the pamphlets, which get assembled when the whole crew gathers on the cardboard-covered floor of the office.
In many ways, the pamphlets represent how Ampelos creates their wines—not only because they value sustainability but because they are a hands-on and tight-knit team that puts an astounding amount of energy and care into their wines. Whether it was the brush with a tragic disaster that made them seek a new purpose in life or not, Peter asserts that they have certainly found theirs in “creating something that will exist for many years. And one day when we’re dead and gone, we know that there will still be people who have got our wines in their cellars.”
Tastings are by appointment or on Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at their winery, 1633 West Central Avenue in Lompoc. Call 736-9957 or visit ampeloscellars.com for more info.