Going With the Flow

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by Emily Dodi  |  Photos by Luis Chavez

hen most people think about retirement they think of taking things a little easier. They look forward to honing the old golf swing or taking a dream vacation. Not Marlow and Janis Barger, the owners and winemakers of Plan B Wine Cellars in Ventura.

Self-professed “wine geeks,” the Bargers “came to be winery owners and winemakers by going a little overboard in [the] quest for enjoyable wine tasting experiences.” But how do you go from being wine lovers to becoming actual wine makers who run a successful winery with a steadily expanding and loyal clientele? The world is not short on people who fantasize about owning a winery someday. What gave Marlow and Janis the gumption to actually do it?

The world may have what Marlow calls “a persistent knock on the door of opportunity” to thank for persuading the Bargers to take that leap of faith, and it wasn’t all blue-skying.

“After our initial and somewhat euphoric decision to start our own winery, we realized we needed some reality,” Marlow recalls. “We worked on a business plan, researched start-up costs and, in spite of the obvious pitfalls, decided to go ahead.” Plus, there was a definite upside. “Rather than a typical retirement, ours would keep us challenged, socially engaged and physically active.”

Initially, the thought of being on the serving side of the wine bar was a bit daunting. “The thing I dreaded most was having to talk to people. I never would have thought of myself as a social person,” admits Marlow. This comes as a surprise, considering how easy he is to talk to. Marlow was relieved to discover that, “if everybody loves wine, it’s pretty easy to talk about it.”

Any reservations the Bargers may have had were no match for their desire to turn their passion into something bigger. “Being a home winemaker never appealed to me,” Barger says. “It was more about the journey of discovery, where the more you learn about wine the more interesting it got.”

When it was time to make their dream a reality, the Bargers started looking for the perfect space. They searched for months. They were about to sign a lease on a spot in Camarillo when Marlow found a listing for a space on an industrial cul de sac in Ventura, next to a place that sells granite and stone slabs. It didn’t exactly scream “winery,” but they went to check it out.

Janis remembers the day they first went to see it. “He pulls in here and I go, ‘OK, where are we?’ Marlow says, ‘Let’s just go look at it.’” As Janis recalls, the space was filled with old cars and slabs of granite. But then the owner opened the large doors and that’s when things really clicked for the Bargers. “You could see the ocean shimmering and the Channel Islands in the distance,” Janis remembers. “When we left, we were afraid to ask each other what we thought. But then Marlow asked me, ‘What do you think?’ ‘I love it,’ I said. ‘Me too!,’ he said. So we turned around and went back and had the place in 15 minutes. We signed the lease, just like that.”

The process of finding the right name took a while, too. Marlow recalls the morning when Janis finally stood up in frustration. “She said, ‘We need a Plan B of some kind,’ and I said ‘that’s a really good name for the winery’ and here we are.”

“And you know, Barger is our last name,” explains Janis. “He’s a builder. I’m a behaviorist.”

“We’re a blended family,” adds Marlow. “And this is definitely an alternative to retirement, so it worked on a lot of levels.”

“Everything is a Plan B,” Janis says.

Plan B has been open on Saturdays and Sundays for more than seven years now. Once a month, from March through November or December (depending on the weather) the Bargers host Second Sunday Suppers. The popular event features live music and local food trucks. The doors are opened wide, the breeze rolls in and people kick back — or kick up their heels and dance. The band Shaky Feelin’ launches the 2020 lineup on March 8.

The star of the show any day of the week, however, is the wine.

“We do exclusively reds. Some people come in and say, ‘You don’t have any white wine?’” Janis says that her gentle response is usually something like, “ ‘No, but try this grenache,’” and the customer will invariably say something like, “Oh, this is good.” Janis smiles, “We get that all the time.”

There is no hard sell at Plan B. No traditional wine club or the pressure that comes along with it. All you have to do is know what you like. If you don’t, Janis and Marlow are happy to help you discover what that is.

“We don’t operate a traditional wine club like most wineries,” says Marlow. “We have a loyalty plan where you get tiered discounts as you reach different plateaus.”

“It’s called the B List,” says Janis.

Unlike a wine club, the B List doesn’t start over every year. It’s cumulative. After the purchase of 100 bottles, Plan B customers can become part of the B100 Club. Members get free wine tastings and a 20 percent discount on purchases. There are other perks, too, including being able to reserve tables. B100 members also get the occasional impromptu treat. “Sometimes Marlow will get a wine out that we haven’t tasted in a while and we’ll ask their opinion.”

“We have some fiercely loyal people,” says Marlow, who adds that locals are their lifeblood. While other wineries produce many thousands of cases a year, Plan B has topped at 1,500 cases in a single year. Their goal is not quantity, but quality.

“Our goal is to be the best wine in Ventura,” says Janis. (Marlow adds, in a whisper,“to be the best wine in the world.”)

Plan B wines already hold a rare distinction: They are sold ready to drink.

“Our wines take so much time getting from harvest to bottle,” Marlow explains. “They’re usually four or five years old before we get them in the tasting room. A lot of them are three years in the barrel and then a year or two in the bottle. A frequent compliment we get is that our wines are ready to drink. They’re smooth and aged well. Customers have come in and said, ‘Wow, this is the oldest wine we’ve had all week.’”

The years-long process of harvest to bottle begins with sourcing the grapes. The Bargers use grapes exclusively from the Central Coast, primarily from Santa Barbara. Perhaps even more important than where they get the fruit is when.

“The single most important decision you make every year as a winemaker is the pick date because that drives so many other things.” Once the date is selected, the grapes are picked and sent to be de-stemmed. Then the fruit is immediately brought to Plan B, where all the fermentation, pressing, barreling and bottling is done right on the premises. 

“Every winemaker has their own style and their own ways of finessing the grapes and the flavors. Marlow has his ways to bring them out,” says Janis. “He knows when to do this and when not to do that. He’s a great winemaker.”

Modest to a fault, Marlow recalls a time when someone at the Ojai Wine Festival asked him, “What’s the best wine you make?” His response? “I haven’t made it yet.”

That pursuit of excellence keeps the Bargers curious and inspired by the art of winemaking. It has resulted in such popular wines as their 2013 Valley View syrah, the 2014 grenache and the 2014 The Stoneyard “Classic GSM,” among others. Marlow has also created the well-received blends “Dark Secret” (73 percent cab and 27 percent Valley View syrah) and “Dark Attraction” (67 percent zinfandel and 33 percent petite sirah), and this year Plan B has introduced its first port.

“It’s easy to get into a rut and to be safe, but I read about a famous wine guy who said that you’ll never make great wine by being cautious. You have to experiment and try new things.”

Sitting at the bar, listening to the Bargers tell their story and talk about wine, it’s easy to see that their leap of faith has paid off.

“This is what we wanted,” Janis says. Looking toward the future, she adds with a smile, ‘We just go with the flow.”

Just what you would expect winemakers to do.