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The last guy you’d expect to believe in magical winemaking

Recipe for biodynamic viticulture, Step One [abridged version]:

Stuff a cow horn with cow manure. Bury over winter so that it can absorb energy from the cosmos. Dig up, mix with water, and spray over soil in the late afternoon. 

This agricultural system has found a surprising advocate. Peter Work of Ampelos Cellars is a former Silicon Valley executive with multiple degrees in electrical engineering and econometrics.

It’s all too easy to see biodynamics as organic farming with a dose of hogwash. The nine required preparations are vineyard-treating concoctions with ingredients that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harry Potter how-to: cow horns, stag’s bladders, and stinging nettles.

“I’m not exactly a long-haired hippie walking around in flip-flops,” Peter chuckles. Indeed, before Denmark-born Peter and his wife Rebecca planted their first vines in 2001, they’d already successfully IPOed their 14-month-old HR outsourcing startup on NASDAQ. And it wasn’t priced on fluff: the company had revenues of over $3 billion guaranteed by large multinational contracts with the likes of BP (yes, the oil company). Between the pair, they’ve worked at some heavyweights: PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Walt Disney, and WorldCom.

When the couple bought land in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills appellation, they “did not sit down and dream about doing something romantic. We’re pretty decent businesspeople.” At first, it was a weekend hobby; they were living a jetsetter lifestyle between California and New York, still “doing corporate America stuff.”

The cancellation of a business meeting that would have put Peter down on Wall Street at 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001 was the “mental kick in the rear end” that moved them to realize life for them wasn’t about “accumulating more wealth to buy bigger sailboats and bigger houses.”

They quit their corporate jobs and began making wine full-time. Not long after their first harvest in 2004, Peter, Rebecca, and their son and winemaking consultant Don – already outgrowing Mom and Dad at the neighboring, acclaimed Sea Smoke Cellars – got together to do a corporate-style postmortem debrief to think about what they could do better.

This was “not to cut costs…but we looked into a bunch of books and [decided] if this [biodynamic viticulture] is something that has a chance of improving the quality of our grapes, we’re going to do it,” he says.

Peter considers it his duty. “When you have a piece of land [with] dogs, horses, cats, you start realizing that you have some sort of social and environmental responsibility. This is land I’m going to turn over to my son.”

The Demeter Association, the internationally recognized certifying body for biodynamics, defines the practice as treating a farm like a living organism sustained without external inputs. Sure, it makes sense this may result in healthier grapes, and we’ve all heard the arguments against using pesticides and herbicides. But I couldn’t get behind the cosmic energy and spirituality aspects.

“There’s not much mystical or magical about it. The more I get into it, the more things make sense,” says Peter.

But really, how could Peter reconcile this stuff with his training in the hard sciences?

“There’s a lot that we don’t understand about Mother Nature. Quantum physics, for example. There is stuff that we don’t understand today that we will understand in 20, 50, 100 years,” he says. “Why does a sunflower turn its head with the sun?”

“The Green Revolution made it so that everything has to be explained by conventional science; otherwise, we cannot accept it.” He refers to the newfound applications of science and technology to agriculture in the latter half of the 20th century. “That’s where I think we’ve got to acknowledge that instead of trying to control and manipulate nature, it’s far better if we learn to work together with it.”

For sure, Peter has his own critical take on it all. Scientist-philosopher Rudolf Steiner came up with the biodynamic method back in the 1920s as advice for woebegone farmers who couldn’t coax more out of their soil, plants, and animals. Peter considers the cow dung the essence of Step One: “To me, the cow horn is just the vessel…maybe if Steiner had come up with the method today, he would have chosen Ziploc bags.”

Peter is now sitting on his porch with a glass of wine and looking out. “Not to brag or anything, but my land is a homogenous green color – not black, blue, yellow, or white.” I can almost hear him beaming through the phone when he recounts when a viticulture professor from a nearby college remarked, “I can’t believe how healthy it’s looking!”

The property has dogs, pigs, horses, and organic vegetables planted; stay tuned for an olive orchard. Their 32 chickens are scooted around in a portable coop so that they can scratch and poop where is the soil is weaker. All grape stems from the winemaking process, plant waste and byproducts from the animals comprise the compost, which returns nutrients like potassium and nitrogen to the soil.

There are costs to biodynamic production and certification, but Peter and Rebecca feel they can take liberties. “We’re not trying to accumulate money; we only need to pay our bills because this is where we want to spend the rest of our lives. Right here.”

We get to the most important question of all: does a biodynamic wine taste better? To be sure, there are myriad other factors at play such as skill in winemaking. Certainly not all biodynamic wines will taste better, and not all conventional wines will taste worse. But true to form, seeking a scientific control, Peter says: “Everything else held equal, it will.”