Taking a left turn off Foxen Canyon Road and driving up a ways brings you straight into the heart of Rhone wine country – or so it appears. It’s actually the Demetria Estate Vineyard, situated in a Santa Ynez Valley appellation that is so ideally suited for the best expression of Rhone-based varietals.

At 1,500 feet, Demetria Estate Vineyard has the highest elevation of any vineyard in the Valley. This high elevation creates meso- and microclimates surrounding the hillside and canyon plantings, which are unique to this vineyard and allow grapes to achieve great depth and expression.

James Murray purchased this hilly, 200-acre property in 1988 after several trips to the Rhone region of France convinced that Rhone varietals had extreme potential in this location. The vineyard was planned to follow the Rhone region model where the best vineyards are usually limited to extremely steep hillsides and individual hills can make up an entire appellation. In Rhone, a producer may make one wine from a compilation of blocks that he owns or manages on the hill. If the wine’s unique enough, he may give it a Place-Name or “Lieu-Dit.” When James and Fran Murray searched for their potential vineyard they sought hilly terrain, following suggestions from the Frenchmen who advised, “Do not plant grapes where a plow can go.”

They originally planted 34 acres with only Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier, Roussanne, Mourvèdre and Grenache) separated into 26 carefully sited blocks to create a vintner’s “spice rack” of lots to be kept separate throughout the vintification process. This technique allows the winemaker to follow the Rhone technique of blending separate blocks of the same grape variety to assure a complexity single varietal wines equal to those with varietal blends and to create varietal blends with sought-after characteristics.

When I first toured what is now Demetria Estate Vineyard, the year was 1994 and there was a 10-year plan in place. The Murrays experimented with varietal and clone selections while performing soil- and water-status tests to determine the best plantings for each part of the vineyard.

Jump ahead those 10 years and you find that the vineyard experimentation and careful tending had paid off. It was then that John Zahoudanis, who was born in a small village at the foot of Mount Olympus, came on the scene.

Demetria Estate Vineyard

Before purchasing Murray’s property and renaming it Demetria Estate, Zahoudanis had bought Fess Parker’s Ashley’s Vineyard, which he transformed into Gaia Vineyard. He kept both of the vineyards and he selected the two-headed ram as his estate logo to symbolize the marriage of his Rhone-based Demetria varietals and the Burgundy wines of Gaia.

Within a week of becoming owners Zahoudanis and his South Carolina-born wife, Sandra, moved from Santa Monica to their new family residence. Sandra created a true home by blending her Southern heritage with John’s Greek heritage. John’s side is clearly evident in the landscaping, the fountains and the olive grove that flank their home (estate-harvested and -bottled olive oil is on the way).

During a recent visit, Sandra welcomed us with chilled glasses of Demetria Estate Pinot Rosé from the 2005 harvest. John explained that the Pinot Noir grapes for this Rosé were separated before fermentation, instead of waiting 18 months in barrel. The shimmering, salmon color and refreshing fruit and minerality of this wine made it a perfect match for the garden greens and chicken salad Sandra made for lunch.

For Demetria Estate Vineyard’s Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, winemakers use biodynamics. This farming approach is meant to heal the earth with the premise that the more self-sufficient a vineyard, the healthier and more self-sustaining it will be. The goal is to achieve great natural diversity of plant and animal life within the vineyard using natural preparations in minute quantities to enhance the life of soil, the vines and the overall life of the vineyard.

“We are stewards of the land, from ground to workers, and biodynamics is our chance to be healthy and cognitive of our impact on our planet,” says Casey O’Rear, assistant winemaker.

In Demetria’s custom-designed winemaking building carved into a mountain, winemaker Mike Roth takes a gentle approach to grapes, using minimal handling and gravity flow. Roth has previously made wine in the Napa Valley, Sonoma County and John says he’s building a home for Roth and his family on Demetria Estate. John explained that their plan is to “start with the best estate-grown grapes, treat them gently and with respect in the cellar. Grapes will be harvested at night and tended in the rebuilt state-of-the-art facility with new shaker table, de-stemmer and crusher, with the juice and wine always moved through gravity flow.” They are also importing a bottling line system from Italy that is designed to bottle wines as gently as possible. They plan to let the wines age an average of 18 months in barrel, followed by enough time in the bottles prior to release to “give them time to settle into themselves.”

In the barrel room we tasted through a number of barrel samples, like the aromatic, flavorful Constantine Rhone blend (named after John’s father and son) with Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Viognier that was harvested in 2005 for a 2007 release. We also sampled the Demetria blend of 94% Pinot Blanc and 6% Pinot Gris from Gaia Vineyard. “We are trying to keep alcohol down to get a ‘two-bottle wine,’ meaning you can enjoy several glasses with dinner and still be able to walk,” John says. “Mike wants to go in the opposite direction from the current trend that has some winemakers trying to create fruit bomb, heavily oaked wines. We want ours to be more delicate and age-worthy.”

For more info on Demetria Estate, e-mail John and Sandra say their website will soon be up and running. Appointments are required to visit Demetria estate.