The word’s out across the region’s wine industry and within hospitality circles: Vega Vineyard & Farm pairs its Italian wines with delicious lunch entrees cooked on site.
Vega winemaker Steve Clifton says it best: “Jimmy and I are not sure if we are a restaurant with wine, or a winery with food. We definitely have the best lunch in the Santa Ynez Valley.”
Clifton’s reference to Jimmy is Demetrios “Jimmy” Loizides, proprietor with his wife, Karen, of the popular Maverick Saloon in Santa Ynez. The couple, valley residents, are the prior owners of two Solvang businesses — the now-closed K’Syrah Catering & Events and Sear Steakhouse.
“We three are culinary ‘geeks,'” said Clifton, referencing himself, Loizides and Vega’s executive chef, Erik Thurman. “Erik is very talented.”
Clifton, a native of Pomona, worked in Italian restaurants in greater Los Angeles as a young man. Loizides and Clifton met in the valley, as both have children in the Ballard School District, the latter said.
The Loizideses closed on the Mosby family’s Santa Rosa Road property in the spring of 2022. Formerly known as Mosby Winery & Vineyards, the historic property dates back to 1853.
The current owners, who moved to the valley in 2011, were lured to this region because it felt like “home” — both Jimmy’s ancestral and grape-growing village of Kathikas, Cyprus, and his childhood town, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Vega Vineyard & Farm encompasses 208 acres and includes Mosby’s two estate vineyards — 21 acres currently planted to Italian varietals — as well as the site’s small winery and tasting room, both of which have been redesigned and made much larger. A former office now houses a standalone commercial kitchen.
Vega offers a full lunch menu every day from opening until 3 p.m. and charcuterie plates until closing at 6 p.m., said Aaron Warren, tasting room manager. Loizides said he hopes to add dinner service at a later date.
The bulk of ingredients in the appetizers, salads and small plates are estate grown, from the eggs (80 chickens call Vega home) to a multitude of produce. “We’re pulling things from the ground daily,” Loizides said.
He, Clifton and I shared five plates and sampled wines suggested by Clifton: fire roasted carrots with hummus; seared tuna with apple fennel slaw; deviled farm eggs and blue crab; grilled shrimp kabobs on grilled cabbage; and wine braised veal cheeks with rainbow chard and cheese polenta. All of the food was fantastic.
And if the carrot cake is available? Order it. You can thank me — and Chef Thurman, who soaks white raisins in Vega pinot grigio for 24 hours to make this treasure.
We paired the vermentino and albariño with the tuna and deviled eggs, and the dolcetto with the roasted carrots.
In addition to the chickens are rabbits, multiple breeds of goats, llamas, one (“lonely”) bull, sheep and pigs, Loizides told me.
The new tasting room, open since last fall, is contained within a barn that was once the land’s circa-1880s carriage house. It joins other historical buildings on the property, including the original abode home, dating back to 1853. Outdoor and patio seating surrounds the tasting room, which sports an ample bar.
On the far side of the adobe home is ample patio space that the Loizideses hope to turn into a venue for live music.
Vega’s wines are currently made by Clifton at the former Bridlewood Winery, which Gallo purchased in 2004 and later sold. While another proprietor farms the vineyard, Clifton has leased the winery space since relocating Palmina there from Lompoc’s Wine Ghetto.
He hopes to move production from the Bridlewood site to Vega with the 2024 vintage, and in the interim build a winery up the hill from the tasting room and utilize gravity to pipe juice down into the storage/aging vessels in an adjacent facility.
Clifton started Palmina Wines in Lompoc in 1995, one year before he and fellow winemaker Greg Brewer teamed to form Brewer-Clifton, which focused exclusively on pinot noir and chardonnay sourced from the Sta. Rita Hills. Clifton later sold his share to Brewer, who continues to produce Brewer-Clifton for Jackson Family Wines, which purchased the brand in 2017.
The Italian grape varietals growing in Vega’s estate vineyards have met their match in Clifton, who focused exclusively on Italian red and white grapes for his Palmina label.
Currently available for tasting at Vega are 2021 reds, whites and a rosé that Clifton sourced from three vineyards he utilized for Palmina’s Italian wines: Rancho San Ysidro in Ballard Canyon, and the Walker and 27 Vines vineyards, both in the Los Olivos District AVA. Vega absorbed Palmina’s wines when Clifton shuttered that label in 2021.
Among the inventory are nebbiolo, sangiovese, dolcetto, syrah, barbera, Bianco (a white blend), albariño, pinot grigio, vermentino, viognier and a rosato (rosé).
From vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, Clifton also crafted a chardonnay and pinot noir; the latter is gorgeous, and showcases two famed vineyards, Radian and Kessler-Haak. Pinot noir and nebbiolo are two of his favorites to produce given both have expansive ranges for tasting and pairing with food, Clifton noted. “They both have giant spectrums, from tar to rose petals.”
Growing in the two Vega estate vineyards are some of the oldest vines in the county, and they are planted in rows 12 feet apart. This traditional spacing harkens back to the days of older viticulture, when tractors were more common.
Clifton hopes to update the vineyards with “some interplanting” by removing one row and adding two to create a higher-density vineyard. Among the various vines in the ground are dolcetto, nebbiolo, sangiovese and montepulciano, and he and Loizides plan to keep all the current varietals.
Clifton brought along to Vega his longtime vineyard manager, Francisco Ramirez, from his days farming for Brewer-Clifton and Palmina, he said. “This year is all about bringing the vineyards back to health.”
Current (2021) case production at Vega is about 3,700, but when the estate fruit comes into play with the 2023 vintage, cases will increase to an estimated 5,000, Clifton said.
Clifton first segued into the world of wine in 1991 after years as a touring musician, post college. His first wine gig was in the tasting room at Rancho Sisquoc Winery, where he eventually worked his way up to assistant winemaker.
Clifton later held winemaking positions at the Beckmen, Brander and Domaine Santa Barbara wineries, according to Palmina’s former website.
Chef Thurman started washing dishes as a teen, but soon worked his way through restaurant kitchens along the California coast. Thurman cooked alongside chef Michael Mina in Los Angeles, chef/owner Peter McNee of Santa Barbara’s Convivo Restaurant and Bar, and chef Bradley Ogden, who helped open Solvang’s now-closed Root 246. Other chef stints took Thurman back to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and across the nation. Most recently, he was executive sous chef at Solvang’s Alisal Ranch.
Vega’s general manager is Kara Teel, also a veteran of Santa Barbara County’s wine industry. She managed K’Syrah Catering and Events and then Sear Steakhouse, for the Loizides family, and now manages the hospitality team at Vega.