As published in Ventana Monthly October 2013
An industrial park zoned for manufacturing off Telephone Road in midtown Ventura isn’t where you’d expect to find award-winning boutique wines and craft beer, but then again, it’s exactly as it should be.
“We're considered a manufacturer because we use raw materials to create a finished product,” says winemaker Marlow Barger, who together with his wife Janis opened Plan B Cellars (more on the name later) just last year.
With four wineries and a craft brewery scattered among irrigation and tile wholesalers, the DMV, window tinting installers and plumbing suppliers, the newly-dubbed Off Market Tasting Trail may seem out of place, but it’s certainly blazing a trail into the hearts of more adventurous would-be connoisseurs.
Plan B resides in an interesting neighborhood for a winery; on one side, there’s a granite fabricator, on the other, the railroad tracks. Not only is the rent cheaper in industrial parks, there’s a quirky and appealing charm factor.
“We have a toast whenever the train rolls by,” Marlow says, looking out past the roll-up doors to the railroad tracks where ocean breezes flow through. It’s those curious traditions and the view past the tracks to an agricultural field, the harbor and beyond to the Channel Islands that bring wine lovers in. It sure beats a two-hour drive up the coast through the Santa Barbara wine country. And the wine’s pretty darn good, too.
Specializing in typical Rhone varietals – Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – using grapes sourced from Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, Marlow makes only reds. One of their more popular wines, a dry rosé, comes with a fun gimmick – a refillable full-liter Italian glass bottle with a swing top. It’s sort of like what their neighbor down the street, Surf Brewery, does with glass refillable growlers, which keeps patrons coming back for more.
The growlers over at Surf, though, get filled with craft beer made with ingredients sourced from around the world. If a 64-ounce growler’s too big, pints and five-ounce samplers are also available. The taproom and brewery offer a relaxed vibe in a large converted warehouse with surfboards, surf memorabilia and surf art adorning the walls, and vintage surf punk piped in through the speakers.
Since opening in 2011, Surf’s business quickly took off. With the distinction of being the largest commercial brewer and the only packaging microbrew in the county, it’s no wonder the place is usually packed.
“We haven't aggressively promoted any of this,” says co-founder Doug Mason, a homebrewer since the late 1980s.
He credits social media for much of their success, and the beer. “Craft brewing over the last decade is exploding,” he says. They’ve also got a gold medal under their belt from the Los Angeles County Fair for their County Line Rye Pale Ale.
A homebrew shop at the front of the taproom and class offerings have helped them tap into a new niche, turning customers into hobbyists. Escabeche food truck, routinely parked right outside, offers hungry beer drinkers tacos, chile rellenos and sopes.
Just across the parking lot, Panaro Brothers Winery has an intimate space to taste their affordable wine (half bottles start at just $8.00) inspired by their Italian grandfather’s traditional winemaking style. Reds and whites sourced from Santa Barbara and Monterey counties are handmade using a small press just like they were taught when they were kids. David Panaro’s quick wit comes alive between sips, doling out wine trivia and bad jokes.
“You know what you're supposed to do if a bottle of wine won't breathe?” he asks. “Give it mouth-to-mouth.”
He and his brother Vito started making wine here nearly five years ago, but the tasting room opened just a year and a half ago when things started to get interesting with the newly-formed urban tasting trail.
David, a geologist for the County by day, felt that going into the family wine business was fool proof. “You can't go wrong with wine no matter the economy,” because, he says, people drink when times are tough, and they drink when times are good.
Farther down the street in a fancy modern tasting room, Four Brix Winery, which opened in 2011 a few months after Surf, is on their third harvest. Owned by Gary and Karen Stewart, “Brix” is the term for measuring sugar in grapes, and “Four” references the couples’ favorite sweet spots for wine: Italy, Spain, France and California.
Gary, a roofing contractor, started making wine in their garage in 2001. When he decided to pursue winemaking more seriously, he took classes in viticulture at U.C. Davis.
“After several thousand dollars worth of classes, I learned you just need good fruit to make good wine,” he says.
Their grape choices are paying off and getting noticed. Their “Scosso” Cab-Merlot-Sangiovese blend received 89 points from Wine Spectator and a gold medal from Sunset magazine, which will feature Four Brix in their October issue.
In 2001, the first place to open on the trail was Ventura Wine Company. Owner Nick Fisher wanted a place for food and wine tasting, so in 2008 he opened The Cave, where enomatic tasting machines offer one-to-five-ounce tastes of 32 different wines with the swipe of a pre-paid card and the push of a button, making this is the candy store for oenophiles. Small plates of wine-friendly gourmet bites allow patrons to have a full gastronomic experience in an ambient space molded with gunite to look and feel like a wine cave.
While The Cave is the trail’s veteran, Plan B is the new kid on the block. But the Bargers are in their early 60s, and they’re banking on this new venture as their retirement. In fact, the name of the winery is a nod to their newly-adopted and not- so-traditional retirement plan.
Marlow, who’s been in construction for 40 years, says he likes to be challenged, and after apprenticing with Mike Brown of Camarillo’s Cantara Cellars, he decided, with Janis’ urging, to forge ahead, investing a big chunk of their IRA, even though it seemed risky.
“We ran some financial scenarios, which we ignored,” he says with a smile.
They’ve kept their plan simple and lean, yet they’ve managed to make their warehouse space comfortable and pleasant. Picking bins tilted on their sides cleverly border the outdoor patio adjacent to the tracks, and bench seating at tables topped with burlap tablecloths allow patrons a relaxing space for a BYO-picnic.
Having the support of the other four establishments on the trail, he says, has been helpful, because they all encourage and help each other, which leads to everyone’s success.
“A rising tide,” Marlow says, “floats all boats.”
For more information and a map of the Off Market Tasting Trail, visit www.offmarketstreet.com.