The bromance that’s brewing between experienced Southern California restaurateur Demetrios “Jimmy” Loizides and veteran Santa Barbara County vintner Steve Clifton may be the most valuable asset in the ongoing quest to bring Vega Vineyard & Farm back to its legendary 19th-century prominence. But it’s far from the only gas fueling the drive to revive this old property alongside Highway 101 just south of Buellton, which was owned and operated by Mosby Winery for nearly five decades.
There’s the rich history of Rancho de la Vega, which involves the Cuesta and Cota families, features the 13-room adobe that they built in 1853, and was home to one of the Santa Ynez Valley’s first doctors, known for treating good guys as well as banditos. That lore conveys serious Zorro vibes, at least according to Clifton, referring to Don Diego de la Vega, which is the true identity of the fictional masked man from the romanticized Californio era. “This is the place where that whole thing started,” claimed Clifton, with a smirk.
There are 21 acres of existing grapevines, including what’s believed to be the oldest existent vineyard roots in the county, first planted back in 1966. (Those 1964 vines at Nielson Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley were recently ripped out.) There’s a bustling kitchen, helmed by Chef Erik Thurman, who’s highlighting produce grown both on-site and at the Loizides home farm nearby. And there’s nothing but room for growth, as the property’s various structures and settings open up countless hospitality possibilities — and the pre-winery ordinance deed came with some of the grandfathered-in permits that may be required to do so.
But the brotherly love between Loizides and Clifton is the glue for this endeavor. They relish in the Old World customs — Jimmy in Greece, specifically, and Steve in Italy — that see wine and food as the same. They raise their kids at the same school in Ballard, which is how they met. They love live music, from Jimmy’s heavy metal (he recently flew to North Carolina to see Iron Maiden) to Steve’s ska and punk rock (his first career was as a singer). And they share the lockstep vision and infectious passion for Vega Vineyard that will be needed to earn attention and customers in a wine country with so many established competitors.
“This has been here much longer than any of us,” explained Clifton one sunny afternoon in October, just a couple weeks after the property opened to the public. “It’s being brought back into its glory.”
Their shared skillset is ideal for such an endeavor. Loizides, who purchased the property in April with his wife, Karen, brings hospitality operations to the table. Though Cypriot Greek by heritage, he was raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe when it was still Rhodesia, and he came to Southern California at 16 years old, fleeing that country’s revolution.
He went from busboy to district manager of the then-prominent Mexican restaurant chain Red Onion, and, with his extended family, opened a Long Beach Greek restaurant called George’s Greek Café in 1999. After expanding George’s to two more locations, the Loizides moved to the Santa Ynez Valley almost 12 years ago to raise their family. They decided to buy the Maverick Saloon in 2017 and opened an event space in Solvang called K’Syrah, which turned into Sear Steakhouse during the pandemic. Upon selling the restaurant, the Loizides used the funds to buy the old Mosby Winery, which had been on the market even before pioneer Bill Mosby died at 89 in June 2020.
Sign up for Indy Today to receive fresh news from Independent.com, in your inbox, every morning.
Clifton, meanwhile, was ready for the next step in his already exemplary winemaking career. He co-founded pinot noir powerhouse brand Brewer-Clifton with Greg Brewer in the 1990s and simultaneously became the darling of the Cal-Ital movement with his brand Palmina, renowned for showcasing Italian grapes like nebbiolo, arneis, and barbera. He launched other personal projects over the years, like La Voix, consulted for numerous wineries, and was equally respected for his culinary skills, sending out recipes with Palmina wine club shipments and cooking at his pickup parties.
When Loizides came to Clifton with the idea to buy Mosby and bring back Vega — which is actually what Mosby called it for the first few years as well — Clifton was happy to put Palmina and all else to rest. “Everything is all about Vega,” said Clifton, explaining that 2020 was the final Palmina vintage.
Clifton’s reinvigorated energy is readily apparent as he shows off his first Vega bottlings, quite possibly the best he’s made in years. There’s tongue-tingling albariño and vermentino, dark-hued rosé and a comforting white blend, regionally classic chardonnay and pinot, and then the array of Italians, including sangiovese, barbera, and nebbiolo. That’s just a few of the 14 wines under the Vega brand, much of which comes from the 16 acres that Clifton has historically leased around Santa Barbara County. As he brings estate grapes like montepulciano back into form, there will be even more to share, amounting to about 3,500 cases annually at full speed.
“I want to show everything that Santa Barbara County can do,” said Clifton, admitting that the region’s ability to grow many different grapes well isn’t always the easiest argument to make. “In one way, it’s confusing,” he said of all the varieties. “In another way, it’s the most exciting thing.”
I found the dolcetto most ideal for the setting, which included plates of Stepladder cheeses, roasted heirloom carrots, tomatoes with bleu cheese and balsamic, and wood-fired flatbreads, all presented by general manager Kara Teel, who keeps this complex operation in line. “This fills every single hole that pinot noir should fill, but we don’t have to talk about it,” said Clifton of the dolcetto’s fresh, fruity, and fun but ultimately unpretentious character. Said Loizides, “My favorite is the dolcetto, and I’m not a big drinker.”
We then meandered around the 212-acre property, through the massive adobe that’s being remodeled into a vacation rental; onto plazas and through barns perfect for events; past the likely locations of farm stands, glamping sites, hayrides routes, and hiking trails; and up into the vines that overlook 101 and surround a tiny chapel full of stunning stained glass. There’s a petting zoo of sorts, with llamas, pigs, goats, rabbits, crested Polish chickens, and a miniature, though still imposing, Scottish Highland steer. And of course we stopped to check out the farm plot, which was still overflowing with carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, and herbs deep into the fall.
For Loizides, that space between the vines on the hillside and the crops on the flatlands is what he wants Vega to represent, as evidenced on a menu far more extensive than most anywhere else in wine country, with braised short rib, smoked quail, and shrimp kabobs amid smaller plates and salads.
“We don’t want to be a winery that does food or a restaurant that does wine,” said Loizides, who views Vega through a cohesive lens much like it was for his parents’ village in Cyprus, where “everything was together.” That, apparently, can go for people too. Admitted Loizides, “I would have never done this if it weren’t for working with Steve.”
9496 Santa Rosa Rd., Buellton; (805) 688-2415; vegavineyardandfarm.com