Interview: Ampelos Cellars winemaker Peter Work

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Winemaker Santa Barbara

Ampelos Cellars and Vineyard founders Peter Work and wife Rebecca are former corporate execs from Denmark and Alaska, respectively. They purchased 82 pie-shaped acres in 1999, planted 15,000 vines in 2001 and moved to Santa Barbara County in 2002. The couple harvested 1100 cases in 2004 and they’ve grown production to 3500 cases. They primarily produce Pinot, Syrah and Grenache varietals in the Sta. Rita Hills and pour their wines at a tasting room in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.

I met Peter Work on Bryan Hope’s Sustainable Vine Wine Tour. During our visit to the vineyard, he better explained his connection to organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming practices, saying, “Not only does it mean how you farm your grapes, but also your resources as well as how you treat your employees.” To become triple-certified they had to “take all the best practices.” He also discussed other aspects of grape growing and distinctive facets of Ampelos Vineyards.

How did the name Ampelos Vineyards come about?

My older sister, who’s from Denmark, just like I am, she moved down to Greece many years ago, married a wonderful Greek guy that she’s been living with down there ever since. He inherited a little piece of land with a small house on a Greek island called Folegandros. It’s close to the islands of Eos and Santorini. It’s a little island with only about 700 people. When Rebecca and I were going to get married in ’95, we decided to do something very different, so we ended up going over to Folegandros and getting married on this island. We were the second non Greek couple to get married there, and it’s a crazy story, but we finally got married there. Then later on, my sister said, “There’s a great piece of property here. You’ve got to buy this property.” So we ended up buying a small piece of land on this island. We thought we were going to build a house there, but my sister changed our mind. So we ended up building a hotel. It’s a little hotel with 10 rooms, and it’s got this gorgeous view and you can see the city and the ocean.

My brother in law, he was the general contractor who built it for us. He named it for us. He said, “Peter and Rebecca are from California, and the Greek word for wine is ampelos. Let’s call this place Ampelos.” We liked that name so much that we used that name for our winery.

Why did you end up in this location, as opposed to another wine producing region?

Close to where I lived. It’s about two-and-a-half hours from L.A., and it just worked out great for us. We lived down there and could drive up here, spend the weekend here and drive back.

Was it important for you to be organic and biodynamic for you right from the beginning?

No, it was not. It was not. We didn’t even think about it at the beginning, but it was after we harvested our grapes the second time, we said, “What can we do to improve our farming techniques? What can we do to improve the quality of the grapes?” And that was when he suggested to us, “You should look into organic and biodynamic farming.” So we did some read-up on [biodynamics founder Rudolf] Steiner over the winter and then in the spring of ’06, we said, “Okay, that’s it, we’re going to do it.” And now, today, I cannot imagine doing it any different. It all makes perfect sense.

Do you have a first wine memory?

Not one, but when I was a kid, on Sunday nights, my parents would pop open a bottle of wine, and it’s not like with a lot of people, they tasted that one wine that changed their life. I don’t have one of those, but I remember the first time our own wine came off the bottling line. That one, and I remember the morning when I picked the first grapes from our vineyard. Those were really, really cool memories.

What was the first wine that you made and how did it turn out?

Do we have to talk about this? [laughter] In 2002, I made a little bit of a Viognier and a Rose, but our son [Don Schroeder, now winemaker at Sea Smoke] made a Pinot Noir in 2002 that was good, and then in ’03 it was the first time I really started making some wine. That actually turned out fine. ’02 is the one I’m most proud of.

Wine Santa Barbara
How much value, if any, do you put in a 100-point rating system?

It’s a good question about the 100-point rating system. At the end of the day, a 100-point rating system is used by individuals, and each individual has their own flavor profile for what they like and don’t like. Therefore, it’s a subjective way of judging a wine. You can build a wine to cater to that flavor profile, that person likes, if you want to do that. Our choice is not to do that. We do send wine in for reviews. We’re not getting 99 point reviews, but we’re not getting 80 points either. Our wines are typically scoring in the low nineties. It’s a shame that the world is relying so much on a few people’s palates. Therefore, we’ve got to live with the point system, but I don’t like it.

What do you think is the key to a great food and wine pairing?

Acid and Ph. Good chefs, they know how to work with acid and Ph. Of course you’ve got to have good wine to begin with. Once you have that wine, get good food that lends itself to a chef who knows how to work with acid and Ph. Of course fitting flavors of the meat or fish or sauce that works with the wine.

If you were forced to only drink one more of your wines, what would it be?

It’s sitting over there. The 2006 Rho Pinot Noir.

Why that one?

Because it’s the best one I made.

What food would you pair with it, if any?

Really good salmon, like a Copper River salmon. On the barbecue, with julienne vegetables, grilled on the barbecue. You can drink it with red meat too. If you drink it with tri-tip, it goes great.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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