Santa Ynez Winery Embraces Biodynamic Practices to Tune of Increased Yields and Quality
October 31, 2012 | Ron Russ
Demetria Estate is a stunning Mediterranean-style winery located in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Demetria, which is family owned and operated, has grown their grapes using organic and biodynamic farming practices since 2005. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alexis Zahoudanis, who oversees the day-to-day operations at Demetria. Alexis is the son of John and Sandra Zahoudanis, whose dreams of starting a winery were realized when they purchased the sizable land that they deemed perfect for winemaking in ‘05.
During my visit at Demetria, it quickly became apparent that before they could ever bottle their first wine, they needed to take a long and hard look at their soil. Alexis explained, “when we first bought the land, our consultant told us our vineyard was in some of the worst shape he had ever seen.” The Zahoudanis sat down with winemaker Michael Roth, who was instrumental in devising a plan to fully embrace organic farming practices and to even dive into the realm of biodynamic. Knowing they needed help, they brought in famed biodynamic consultant, Phillipe Armenier, originally from the French wine region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. When you fast-forward to today, you can see (and taste) that embracing biodynamic farming was a decision that re-routed the course of their winemaking, of which they’re now enjoying the spoils.
So what does biodynamic farming really mean? That question can lead to an answer as complex as the practice itself, but here’s a quick history:
The original concept of Biodynamic Agriculture can be traced back to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who in 1924 gave a series of lectures addressing problems that European farmers were facing at that time. With the use of chemicals in agriculture, farmers started to see negative effects in their seeds, a reduction in food quality and health-related issues for farmers and their animals. In basic terms, Rudolf Steiner believed that you needed to look not only at the tangible soil you’re working with, but also consider the forces and energy beyond what you see in the ground. Biodynamic agriculture means a strong emphasis on the relationship between soil, plants, animals and astrological elements. It means to look at your soil as a living organism and that in order to create the best crops (in this case the best grapes) you need to help nourish the best soil possible. Additionally, in biodynamic farming, no chemical fertilizers are added to the soil and neither pesticides nor herbicides are sprayed.
So what changed when Demetria embraced the often-misunderstood rituals of biodynamic farming? Alexis happily shares that “soon after we started with biodynamic farming, we immediately started to notice that the canopies were healthier, and the soil was starting to improve.”
This year, Alexis expects to produce, “on the low-end maybe a ton and a half, but maybe as high as three tons per acre.” It came as a surprise that right now their yields are roughly three and a half to four tons per acre on average. Alexis clarifies that “it’s really nice to have such abundance, only problem is we really didn’t plan on it and we’re scrambling a bit. It’s obviously a good problem to have though.”
When speaking of the costs associated with biodynamic practices, Alexis states that, “really the cost for a small vineyard is not too drastic…for our fertilizer it can be three times as expensive, but it’s worth it in the long run to not saturate your land with chemicals. There aren’t too many additional costs with changes we’ve made, and to me there is absolutely no negative.”
In terms of sustainability, Demetria composts on the property, plants legumes to increase nitrogen in the soil and has plans to power the entire operation with solar energy in the not-so-distant future.
Alexis adds, “we like to think we were on the forefront on biodynamic farming. I think more people are embracing it, and they definitely should. There’s no downside.”