By: Nan McCreary
When John and Sandra Zahoudanis founded Demetria Estate near Los Olivos, California, in 2006, their goal was to honor John’s Greek heritage and family tradition of farming and careful stewardship of the land. To achieve that objective, they committed to farm sustainably and biodynamically, using phases of the planets and the moon to govern farming practices. These practices, and a natural approach to winemaking, have led to highly-rated wines and a reference to Demetria Estate as “one of the hidden jewels in California.”
While biodynamic farming principles are not new—the Old Farmer’s Almanac has been recommending “planting by the moon” since 1792—Demetria Estate was one of the first in Santa Barbara County to embrace the concept. “Biodynamic winemaking is our passion,” the Zahoudanis’ son, Alexis, who now runs the winery, told The Grapevine Magazine. “We are trying to put back in the earth what we’ve taken out, and we’re doing it in the most natural way possible while incorporating the lunar calendar.”
Demetria, named for John and Sandra Zahoudanis’ daughter, sits on 213 picturesque acres above Foxen Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley. The altitude of the property ranges from 1,100 to 1,450 feet, making it one of the highest in the appellation. When the Zahoudanises purchased the hillside vineyard from the well-respected Andrew Murray Family, it was planted exclusively with Rhône varieties. Today, the family farms 43 hillside acres of Rhône grapes, including Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, plus small plantings of Tempranillo and the Greek Assyrtiko. Demetria also produces Burgundy-style wines, sourcing organic Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes from select cooler-climate vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley.
From the beginning, the Zahoudanis family has farmed sustainably and biodynamically. Their first winemaker, Michael Roth, now of Lo-Fi Wines in nearby Los Alamos, was a big proponent of natural wines, as is current winemaker Ryan Roark. Philippe Armenier, the renowned biodynamic expert from the Rhône Valley, guides Demetria’s farming practices. They treat the vineyard as a living organism, with soil, plants and animals working together to promote health and vitality. Farming is entirely organic, meaning no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. For example, sheep on the property eat weeds and fertilize the soil during late winter and early spring when the vines are dormant. Demetria also plants cover crops, including nitrogen-rich legumes and daikon radishes, to protect the topsoil and nourish the vines. The major pest, according to Zahoudanis, is leafhoppers, which are controlled using natural predators such as ladybugs and organic, biologically-approved pesticides, including sprays containing fermented and herbal teas.
From pruning to planting to harvest, vineyard tasks are determined by a biodynamic calendar, which categorizes days into four groups—flower, fruit, leaf and root—based on lunar cycles and astrological signs. Each day also coincides with one of the four elements of nature—earth, water, fire and air. Root days, for example, are when the moon travels through any of the Earth signs (Capricorn, Taurus, Virgo) and are best for planting, replanting and pruning. Fruit days are associated with the Fire constellations (Aries, Sagittarius, Leo) and are ideal for harvesting crops. For some, planting according to lunar cycles is somewhat of a mystery, but proponents consider this an attempt to harmonize with nature to maximize yields and keep the vineyard sustainable.
“Our consultant, [Armenier], works with our vineyard manager and vineyard foreman to care for the vines,” Zahoudanis said, “and I let the wines speak for themselves. The fruit is really gorgeous and expresses itself beautifully as a more natural product.”
Demetria applies the principles of biodynamics and sustainability in the cellar as well as in the vineyard. “We know our vineyard well, and we know when to pick so we don’t have to manipulate the fruit,” Zahoudanis said. “We use minimal sulfur, and we don’t add acid or tannins. We don’t want a chemical experiment going on in our winery.”
Demetria relies on native yeasts to start fermentation and does not inoculate for malolactic fermentation. Zahoudanis said they filter their wine simply by racking and will only apply fining if the tannins are too harsh, and then they will use bentonite, a natural product. Ultimately, he explained, the goal is to “produce wines that are complex, while being food-friendly and approachable, not just for the connoisseur, but for the everyday wine lover that lives in all of us.”
Demetria has achieved that goal. Its wines—and its beautiful Mediterranean-style winery with panoramic views of the vine-covered hills—have received enthusiastic reviews from critics and everyday consumers alike. Recent awards include 2016 Rosé – “Year’s Best Rosé! Wine & Spirits Magazine; 2014 “Cuvee Sandra” Pinot Noir – 94 points, Wine Enthusiast and 93 points, Wine Spectator; 2014 “North Slope” Syrah, 91 points, Wine Enthusiast; 2013 Estate Chardonnay (Santa Barbara County) – 93 points, Vinous; and 2013 “Cuvee Matia” Grenache – 91 points, Wine Advocate.
Even with a barrel full of awards, Demetria is not resting on its laurels. Since establishing the Demetria Estate, the family has been changing the composition of the vineyard, uprooting much of the once-predominant Syrah, and planting grapes such as Mourvèdre to produce more interesting blends. A favorite is Cuvee Constantine, a red blend styled after the famous Chateauneuf du Pape reds made from Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Syrah. Another favorite is Cuvee Papou, which includes Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne. The name “Papou” is Greek for grandpa and honors Demetria’s founder John Zahoudanis, a grandfather who passed away in 2020. Demetria also releases a sparkling version of the Cuvee, produced at Rack & Riddle in Healdsburg, California. “We really like the sparkling wine,” Zahoudanis said, “but it’s not our forte. It’s too time-consuming. We might as well give our grapes to folks who know how to make it.”
Demetria has recently begun producing a wine from the Rhône grape Picpoul, which is gaining traction among wine aficionados all over the world. Beton Blanc (beton means “concrete white” in French) is 95% Picpoul Blanc and 5% Assyrtiko and is aged and fermented in concrete eggs. “Concrete is a neutral vessel, so you don’t get flavors like you do from oak barrels,” Zahoudanis said. “But because it’s semi-porous, you do get oxygenation, which enhances the minerality that already exists in a lot of varietals.”
According to Zahoudanis, wine can be made quickly in concrete eggs: the Beton Blanc is ready five months after harvest and can be bottled by February.
Currently, Demetria makes 6,000 to 9,000 cases of wine annually. “We can’t plant more because we’re limited by geographical constraints,” Zahoudanis said. “We sell some of our fruit, so we could scale that back and produce 10,000 cases, but generally, we’re good where we’re at(sic).”
Zahoudanis does envision planting more.
Tempranillo, a grape that’s doing exceptionally well on his property. Whatever he endeavors to do, if the past is prologue, the future looks very bright for Demetria Estate. “We’re just glorified farmers,” he said. “We’re beholden to Mother Nature, and yes, winemaking requires knowledge and art, but it’s not rocket science. If you don’t over-manipulate it, you can make very good wine.”
To learn more about Demetria Estate, visit…www.demetriaestate.com