Richard Foss

Food for thought

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Leah, Athena and Dimitri Bizoumis enjoy the fruits of their labors. Photo by Mary Jane Schoenheider

The Bizoumis family works together in their garden and in the community to benefit the children of the Center for Learning Unlimited

The fruit was fully ripe, green Chardonnay grapes plump on the vines. As the sun sank toward the horizon, pickers walked the fields, some with practiced motions, others slow and hesitant. An observer might have noticed that some of the obviously inexperienced pickers were wearing shirts and ties or office dresses, and were doing about as much talking and sipping from wineglasses as picking.

Welcome to harvest time at Villa Oniero, the estate in Rolling Hills where Dimitri and Leah Bizoumis have invited friends to participate in bringing in the grape crop. Their friends won’t compare in efficiency to skilled farmhands, but it’s a chance for wine aficionados to experience part of the process that creates the beverage they revere.

Dimitri, a pediatric dentist who is a professor at USC’s dental school, explained that he hadn’t originally planned to devote so much of his property to the grape.

“We bought the house in 2000, and there was nothing here but ivy, eucalyptus, and weeds, lots of weeds. At the time I didn’t have the vision of putting in a vineyard, but I sat outside with my wife in the evenings and we decided what we wanted here and what we wanted there. We could have hired a landscape designer, but I wanted to make it personal. Leah wanted a kitchen garden, and I said okay, so we planted an area with herbs, lemons, oregano, garlic, and flowering thyme. The rest was devoted to grapes and olives. Now we make two wine varieties and 40 to 50 liters of olive oil each year.”

Dimitri and his wife Leah were both born in Greece, where winemaking and olive oil production are deeply embedded in the culture, and they both have happy memories of time spent in the country. In a way this country estate is a recreation of days Dimitri remembers from his childhood.

“I grew up in Athens, but my family had relatives in the south and we used to visit all the time. It was a treat to go back to my dad’s village – we would arrive unannounced and they would dig things up from the vegetable garden, run to the market for a lamb, and dinner would be done with everything fresh. I would never forget those flavors. I was a kid and too young to drink, but they would always sneak me a glass of wine or some watered-down ouzo to try. Things were different at that time – kids were exposed to everything, and it wasn’t like one glass would make you an alcoholic. We would sit around the table eating and drinking, and then my dad would start singing. These are the memories that still hold, and it must be a healthy lifestyle – my dad just turned 100 this year.”

Dimitri may have loved those countryside experiences, but making a living came first, so he enrolled in dental school in Athens and finished first in his class. Adventure beckoned, so he emigrated to California at the age of 21 to enroll in USC. He was sure of his skill at working on teeth, less so of his ability to communicate with his teachers.

“I enrolled in USC in pediatric dentistry, and my English was not very good, so my wife Leah, who was expecting our son Alexander at the time, helped me type all the essays. I started teaching at USC and still teach there… I also worked at the Rancho Los Amigos medical center where I worked with severely disabled children and adults who needed chronic care. I opened up my own practice in 1992, and I’m still there, along with volunteering my time teaching at USC.”

While Dimitri was building his practice, Leah was continuing an old family tradition in a new country.

“My grandfather was a shoemaker, so was my father, and when he moved here in the 1970s there were a lot of California shoe manufacturers. He worked for other people before starting his own company, J and A Shoes. I studied marketing from USC, not design, but when I graduated I went to work for my dad. I fell in love with it, and when he passed away I decided to keep up the family tradition. Now we’re the last one making shoes in California, competing with all the importers, but we’re doing okay. My son Alexander graduated from USC with a degree in economics, and he’s working with me, and I love having him there. One of the shoe brands is Athena Alexander, named after our children.”

Dimitri and Leah both have careers that would keep most people busy, but they also have a mission in life – supporting the school that has helped their daughter Athena, who suffered a series of strokes when she was very young. Athena, who is now 21, leads a productive life thanks to therapy from the Center For Learning Unlimited in Torrance. As Leah put it, “Dealing with her education wasn’t easy for us despite our resources. Your demographics don’t matter, your educational level doesn’t matter – sickness and disability don’t see what you are from the outside. We had to fight for services, and we didn’t know exactly where to begin. The first time you hear that your child needs occupational therapy or speech therapy, you don’t know what to do. The people at CLU have been able to reach her and teach her in ways that other schools couldn’t. They provide one-on-one education and tailor it to the child’s needs.”

Athena is vocal about the benefits of the school; she has gone from being a student there to being a counselor in training.

“This school manages to give children a sense of purpose – people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college become functioning members of society. We’re a big part of it. I don’t understand why people don’t respect the hard work that teachers do – at times they must feel that it’s a thankless job.”

It’s not entirely thankless, because Dimitri and Leah are avid fundraisers, including selling the produce from their property at farmers markets to benefit the school. As Dimitri explained, “I have 150 tomato plants here… it’s an extended family garden, and the community is part of that family. We have taken produce to the farmers market and Athena and her brother Alexander are there selling it. Everybody knows her, and they see someone with a disability out in the community, interacting with people. She may be the only person they meet who has been in a school like this, who has been helped by it. Some of the benefit of the produce goes to the school, and I’m doing the same with the wine. Our family is setting up a program along with Terranea Resort so the money from serving our wine will go for scholarships for children with disabilities. They have the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and the late harvest wine we named Alexandros after our son.”

As the mix of enthusiastic amateurs and professionals went to harvest grapes on that fall day, Dimitri was in the middle of everything, hefting boxes of grapes on a small tractor and loading it on the truck that would take it to be crushed. He looked so happy in the midst of his work that I asked if he shouldn’t have pursued a career as a farmer than a dentist or teacher.

“I would have been absolutely happy as a farmer – I have a passion for these plants. The most amazing time of the year for me is the end of February, when I can sit among my grapes and watch the buds break. I sit there for an hour and literally watch the plants grow. It’s amazing, such a big change in so little time. I watch the leaves come out, wait for the clusters of fruit to develop – there’s nothing more beautiful. Tending my plants in this community, to benefit my daughter’s school, it’s perfect for me. My wine is called Villa Oneiro after this house. Villa Oneiro means House of Dreams, and it really is our dream house, the place my kids and I dreamed of having.”

It’s a California version of the Greek village town that Dimitri remembers from his youth; as night falls, sausages are on the grill, spanakopita and Greek dishes made with vegetables picked that afternoon are heading for the table, and glasses of wine are circulating among happy guests. Dimitri stopped for a meditative moment before cleaning the dirt of his vineyard from his hands and joining his companions.

“I love practicing dentistry and teaching at USC, but my passion is this place, my winemaking, and my collection of some of the best Greek antiquities in the US. We loan some of our pieces to the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum. The label of my Villa Oneiro wine has a picture of the torso of an expecting female idol from the Cyclades Islands… it’s an abstract looking sculpture dating back to 2800 BC and we decided to use it as our first label because it signifies the beginning of a new creation. It’s a connection to my culture, and I’m carrying it on here.” PEN

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