By Pamela Dozois
Jim and Debbie Sobell’s love affair with the Victorian house on Sagunto Street in Santa Ynez is coming to an end after 20 years.
Their popular Vineyard House Restaurant in the historic house will close March 10 because the building’s owner, Sima Corporation, didn’t renew their lease.
“My plan was to stay open for several more years, but I guess I will be going into early retirement,” Jim Sobell said. “I can now enjoy other pursuits, other interests and spend more time with my wife traveling and doing more volunteer work in the community.
“I thought of maybe opening a food truck incorporating some of my customers’ favorite dishes, but Debbie is not fond of that idea. We will have to see how life plays out,” he added.
The Sobells have loved the old house (built circa 1907) since they first laid eyes on it in 1998.
Sobell had been the managing partner at Cold Spring Tavern for 13 years and after their lease expired, he was looking for another location to open a restaurant, preferably in the Santa Ynez Valley. He had seen the little Victorian on several occasions and had his heart set on it.
“I always thought she would make a great place for a restaurant,” he said, “and I was right. She is a quaint valley treasure with her homey Victorian interior and great patio, surrounded by trees, a lovely garden and a view of the mountains.”
The property had sat empty for several years after housing The Painted Lady Tea Parlor. The property was for sale but it was a little more than the Sobells could afford.
Doug and Christine Ziegler eventually purchased it, erecting the Santa Ynez Inn in 2001 on the adjacent property. Ziegler had heard that Sobell was interested in making the little house into a restaurant, and after one meeting a long-term lease was signed. That was the beginning of the Vineyard House Restaurant, which has been the restaurant of choice for locals and visitors alike for the past 20 years.
“Initially, my main fear was staffing,” Sobell said. “I had hired a well-known chef but he only lasted for two months and I worked the kitchen for the next five months myself while Debbie took on the responsibility of running the reservations desk, seating, interacting with the customers, doing the bookkeeping, which she has done ever since, along with raising our two sons, Sam and Brian.
“I was fortunate to find Chef Gabe Guzman, who had worked at the Los Olivos Café and came highly recommended. Gabe has been with me ever since.
“Consistency in the restaurant business is key. People love his food and he made it easy for me to succeed.
“Mostly all my staff has been with me for years, which also contributes to happy customers. I was very fortunate to have a great staff who were long-term employees,” he continued. “I will miss them all.”
In an effort to keep his staff employed and the Vineyard House alive, Sobell said, he offered to sell Sima Corporation all the restaurant’s furnishings and his recipes, but they were not interested.
“I guess they have other plans for the little Victorian,” he said. “After our last day open, I will be selling all the furnishing and lighting fixtures and paintings and whatever is left to anyone who wants them.”
Through the years the Sobells and the Vineyard House have been known for philanthropy and community involvement. It seemed they never said no to anyone who asked for a donation.
The restaurant has held many promotional events, hosting a four-course wine dinner with silent auction each spring and organizing a gourmet Metric Century bike ride each the fall with 100 percent of the proceeds going to Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation and later to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Their efforts have raised more than a quarter-million dollars for these two organizations.
Every December the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s yearly “jail and bail” event was held at the restaurant with Sobell supplying lunch to all the “jailbirds” who were raising money. This event raised the most money in the county for “Jerry’s Kids.”
Sobell was also chosen Volunteer of the Year for Health and Human Services at the Santa Ynez Valley Foundation’s Man and Woman of the Year Banquet in March of 2013.
And the Sobells will not go gently into retirement. He is very active, riding his bicycle nearly every day, playing tennis and golf, and working on his RV. They plan on taking a two-week vacation to Costa Rica to lie on the beach and visit the nearby jungle, then they plan to hit the road for two months in their RV to visit all the Western national parks.
“I am very proud of what we did in the Santa Ynez Valley. We filled a niche, offering a reasonably priced gourmet experience. We had a large menu with a lot of variety, something for everyone. I have customers who eat here five days a week,” he said. “I’d say 85 percent of my customers are local.”
Valley resident Jennifer Deming is one of them.
“I am so disappointed to hear the Vineyard House is closing. Not only do they serve delicious food, the restaurant holds special memories for me and my family. We have celebrated many occasions there over the years. The venue was remarkable and the service was always top notch. I’m sad to see it go,” she said.
Added Diane Bastanchury, another valley resident, “The Vineyard House is closing? That just can’t be! I have fond memories of my mother’s surprise 70th birthday party that we had there. It was such a lovely, comfortable venue and the staff was so wonderful to work with. They will be missed.”
“I feel sorrier for our local customers and what changes may occur to the little Victorian house itself. As a piece of history, did you know that the house was originally built for the William Andersen family, one of the early blacksmiths in the valley? I hope the owners will maintain its historical integrity as it is the valley’s legacy, a part of its history, and that the new restaurant will remain similar to the Vineyard House,” Sobell said.
“Every day people come in and tell me how much we will be missed. In the restaurant business, seeing customers with smiles on their faces is what makes this business so rewarding. I cannot thank everyone enough for their continued support over the years. The actual closing of the Vineyard House hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I don’t know how I will feel on that last day, but I suspect there will be more than one tear shed,” he added.
The restaurant’s last day will be Saturday, March 10, which is also Solvang Century Day. The following day there will be a farewell party and fundraiser at the restaurant from 2 to 6 p.m., with food, drinks and music. All the funds raised will be donated to the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and the Parks-Janeway Carriage House.
The Vineyard House is at 3631 Sagunto St. in Santa Ynez. For more information, call 805-688-2886.