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PROFILE | Jeff Barnett left TV and film to make wine dreams come true in NWA

Demanding hours on Hollywood movie and TV sets had Jeff and Meghan dreaming of making a living on their true passion for natural wine. In Northwest Arkansas, they found the perfect spot for a wine bar by April Wallace | January 22, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
“Natural wine tastes more alive than conventional wines. It has an energy to it, a liveliness to it.” (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)


On the set of ABC's popular series "Scandal," character Olivia Pope had a thing for red wine and popcorn.

It was such a standard scene that in the few years since the show's conclusion, this is what the YouTube montages focus on -- Olivia's penchant for the buttery snack that served as her dinner and the many, many scenes in which she holds and drinks from a large goblet of wine.

As a manager of props, Jeffrey Barnett was often the one handing actress Kerry Washington the glass after filling it with other things to look like wine. Usually it was just grape juice, he says, but in one of the show's seven seasons, Washington was pregnant and couldn't have sugar, so Barnett had to get more creative.

"We tried everything ... and finally settled on unfiltered cranberry juice, running it through coffee filters" to make it appear more wine-like, Barnett says.

When Olivia and Jake escaped to an island, they took a case of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the character's favorite wine. Its name translates to "new castle of the pope," a play on her last name. Pulling a bottle out of a wooden crate just unloaded from the boat, Pope says "We got the '94 ... this will change your life."

Now that Barnett is a level 3 sommelier and co-owner of Mavis Wine Co., a wine bar and bottle shop in downtown Rogers that he opened with wife Meghan McDonald, he advises many locals on their next drink of choice. And he shakes his head and chuckles at the character's choice to drink such a "huge, heavy, spicy" wine -- it's not what he would recommend for a tropical setting.

Barnett and McDonald moved to Northwest Arkansas amid the pandemic to open Mavis Wine Co., which since its opening has become Arkansas' first natural wine bar and bottle shop.

Chelsea Miller met the pair as a customer and was drawn to their nature. She's since become a regular, and then a close personal friend.

"They have an air of true passion about what they do, and they're down to earth," Miller says. "Particularly in Arkansas, we have stereotypes of people who move from the Coast, but Jeff and Meghan were intentional about picking Northwest Arkansas and what they created here, and they're so committed to it. It's been really inspiring."

By the time Miller met the Mavis couple, she had been a wine hobbyist for a few years. She'd taken wine-tasting classes, but she hadn't developed the skill set she wanted, including the ability to describe her palate or to ask for particular varietals at restaurants. Those are things she picked up from Jeff and Meghan.

"They've made wine feel approachable," she says. Not only that, their genuine interest in the community is clear. They stay caught up on local elections, formed all kinds of partnerships with other local businesses and friendships with their owners, and the pride flag above the bar is indicative of the warm welcome they extend to everyone who steps foot in their bar. "They're a convener of community ... this is our Cheers bar."

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'

The dream of opening a natural wine bar started as just that for Barnett and McDonald. In their long days on Hollywood sets, that was the fantasy they turned to for a little escape when they needed something to think about that wasn't work. After roughly five years of planning, they moved across the country to make it happen.

Heather Edwards met Meghan McDonald when she hired her to work in costume design on the set of a Hallmark movie. Edwards could identify with those alternate job daydreams.

"Working on TV and movies can be incredibly exhausting, with long hours, so we often fantasized about changing careers and coming up with a plan B," Edwards says. "When she first told me, I don't think I understood how serious they were about doing it, because it sounded like such a big change. It involved selling a house and moving halfway across the country."

McDonald introduced Edwards to Carl, who would later become her husband, and the four of them took several wine tasting trips together through popular destinations in California wine country, such as Paso Robles and Los Olivos.

"Their love for wine was always apparent," Edwards says. "They would carefully read the tasting notes, contemplate their sips and ask questions. I was just there for good company with wine as a bonus, but it definitely seemed like they were there for much more."

If there was anyone who could keep up with their workload and begin to take on a new one at the same time, it was Jeff Barnett, Carl Edwards says.

"He would work an entire TV season of 'Scandal' and then on the first week he had off, he'd be re-landscaping their yard or cleaning out their garage ... it's exhausting to watch," Carl Edwards says. At first, when hearing their plans to open a wine store in Arkansas, he worried that maybe they'd gotten carried away with a really nice trip to the area.

"The career change wasn't surprising, but to combine it with completely uprooting their life and starting over in a state neither of them had ever lived in seemed a bit over the top. But they did exactly that."

Making such a huge turnabout in the direction of their careers and lives impressed more than a few people.

"When I think about it too long, it blows my mind," says Matt Sams, Barnett's childhood friend. "They weren't just drinking wine and having fun, it was 'How did you learn to do this?'"

Somehow, amid their 14- to 16-hour work days, Barnett had managed to sit in on wine classes and learn the financial ins and outs of running a business. It wasn't the first time Sams saw Jeff do something so involved and full of chance. It was completely reminiscent of Barnett preparing to move to Los Angeles to work in film and TV in the first place.

"I thought (his plan) was great, but that's something I would have been afraid to do," Sams says. "He (knew) you have to say 'yes' to everything and really sell yourself, get out there and be involved, or it's not going to happen."

Barnett and McDonald have been successful, Sams says, because they're very personable, and when they recommend something, people trust them because they can tell you every last thing about it.

"I'm not sure that people who casually drink wine are aware of that (natural wine) movement," says Sams. "I wasn't. But I heard them talk about it leading up to their move and saw them go in depth with people on that. They're very knowledgable."

THE SOMEWHERENESS OF WINE

It was a Bichi, the first bottle of natural wine that Jeff Barnett and Meghan McDonald tasted, that really changed their minds about what wine could be. Bichi is made in the Baja region of Mexico, its northern peninsula, the Valle de Guadelupe, and at the time hardly anyone in the U.S. had heard of it.

"You don't think of Mexico and wine ... but it was (a) great (area) for grape growing," Barnett says. "Close enough to the Pacific Ocean that there's enough heat and sunlight to ripen the grapes but then the proximity to the water was a cooling influence to keep them from becoming overly jammy and juicy and maintain a good amount of acidity."

He and McDonald were charmed by this wine of unexpected origins and the fact that the growers hadn't even DNA tested it to determine its type. The brothers responsible for Bichi were growing the grapes and developing the wine for the fun of it, McDonald says. What was most important to them was how it tasted.

"Natural wine tastes more alive than conventional wines," Barnett says. "It has an energy to it, a liveliness to it."

After that first bottle, Jeff and Meghan began to notice that more wine shops in L.A. were conducting natural wine tastings, and they started to show up for them.

"It started as a hobby, finding producers there doing natural wines," Meghan McDonald says. "We thought, 'What an interesting concept.' It had never occurred to us, and then all of a sudden there was this new-old way of doing things."

They began to educate themselves about natural wine, learning that conventional wines use certain cultured yeasts to get a desired flavor, artificially bringing certain strains out or sometimes killing the natural yeast to create a blank slate to build flavor on.

Barnett became fascinated with the terroir-driven wine, in which flavor has to do with a lot more than the type of grape, but also where it was grown and the other conditions surrounding it -- the soil, the plants along the perimeter of the grape-growing area, the animals on the particular farm. He also began to favor those tones.

"In native yeast winemaking, there's naturally occurring yeast on the grape skin; there's ambient yeast (in the air)," Barnett says. "Good aged wine should taste like the cellar it aged in. We wanted to focus on wines that are made this way."

Around the same time, in early 2018, one of Barnett's co-workers was becoming a master of champagne. It inspired him to take his hobby to the next level. He enrolled in wine classes and passed level one with the Court of Masters, the sommelier certifying body that is more often needed for service work in fine dining establishments.

As Jeff began to delve into his tastes and solidify his business plans with Meghan, he switched over to training for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) certification, which has a knowledge set better for operating in the wider industry of wine. It has more emphasis on farming practices and wine-making styles than on memorizing vintages and wine-making regions. Barnett completed his level three test on March 14, 2020, sealing his certification just in time for the pandemic shutdown.

A NATURAL SELECTION

Walking into Mavis Wine Co., you might notice that the bottle selection is fairly small. It doesn't take up an entire wall, and it doesn't lend itself to asking what else is in the back. That was a purposeful move, says Jeff Barnett. He and Meghan went to great lengths to make these wine selections, researching the practices behind the growing and making processes first, and often meeting the winemakers in person to learn more and do tastings on site.

While similarly sized wine shops might make use of a dozen distributors, Mavis has something like four or five. Part of that comes from the number available to the state of Arkansas.

"We don't have a lot because (Arkansas is still seen as) 'not a wine market,'" McDonald says. "But we've seen a rise of people asking for more obscure varietals ... people are (wine) savvy around here."

They tend to partner with mostly small operations that don't produce more than 250,000 cases a year.

Many of these natural wines have no additives, save for a small amount of sulfur that acts as preservative. As much as possible, they sell wines made simply with grapes, yeast and time.

Each bottle in Mavis Wine has a handwritten label explaining where the wine is from, the particular sourcing details such as the farming practices used, as well as notes about flavor. It's not for everybody though, Barnett admits, since natural wine has more variation among bottles, less of that consistency we've come to expect from grocery store wines or the more conventionally made, even if it's from the same vintage.

"They are so intentional about what they source," Chelsea Miller says. "They have all sorts of stories about how they met and why they like partnering with certain brands. As a consumer, those are the ways I like to spend my money. I like having that extra touch."

As a result, they arranged partnerships with people whose focus is on grapes that have been organically farmed and winemakers who adhere to the philosophy of minimal intervention, meaning they add as little as possible and take out as little as possible, Barnett says.

But still they prefer to keep it fun and approachable. Whenever they encounter someone with a similarly non-stuffy attitude as theirs, they take notice.

Among their partnerships is Libertine Wines, based in Oregon. They contacted the only man responsible for that business' entire process, save for a little help that he uses during harvest. At the time, he said he didn't have a tasting room and suggested they meet under a bridge in Portland. They didn't mind it, and found themselves with a unique character who recommended pairing certain varietals with dry Lucky Charms, another with mango ceviche and scallops and a final one with hot dog fried rice.

Lately, Barnett and McDonald have been busy building up their wine club, as well as their Wednesday tastings -- three sets of three ounce pours that come with a little description of each wine in front of you. Sometimes the choices have a theme, while other times it's simply what Jeff and Meghan are into that week.

Morgan Schroeder, Barnett's sister-in-law, says the couple has poured their hearts into Mavis, and it's paid off. They've built something special, she says.

"We are so incredibly proud of Meghan and Jeff," Schroeder says. "The thought and attention to detail that they have put into every aspect of Mavis is amazing. What I love is how welcoming it is. You feel at home. They're not pretentious, so you don't feel out of place if you don't know anything about wine. They make it their mission to share their knowledge and love of (it)."

  photo  “They have an air of true passion about what they do and they’re down to earth … Jeff and Meghan were intentional about picking Northwest Arkansas and what they created here, and they’re so committed to it. They’ve made wine feel approachable … They’re a convener of community. This is our Cheers bar,” Chelsea Miller says about Mavis Wine Co. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)
 
 

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Jeffrey LaMar Barnett

Date and place of birth: Jan. 18, 1978, Indianapolis

A typical Saturday night for me includes: Closing the bar and maybe stopping by Club Frisco or Black Crown Social for an end-of-the-week drink.

The last show I binged on television was: “The Crown”

The best advice I’ve ever received: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

I know I’ve done a good job at Mavis when: Someone loves a new wine they’ve just tried.

Most memorable bottle of wine (or wine experience) I’ve had: Visiting Mexico’s wine country, the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.

Three words to describe me: knowledgable, dependable, compassionate.

My favorite place in Northwest Arkansas: On Beaver Lake with Meghan’s family.

The question people ask me the most: Do y’all have any sweet wine?

The thing that makes me laugh the most: My wife and partner, Meghan.

If I made a mixtape now, the first track would be: Probably something by the Grateful Dead.

Something I think everyone should try at least once: A skin-contact white wine.

When I have an hour of free time, I spend it: Scrolling Twitter, unfortunately.

Fantasy dinner guests: Anthony Bourdain, David Byrne, Jonathan Gold, former LA Times Food Writer, and Alice Feiring, a natural wine writer.

What college did you attend: Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. They had a unique design-your-own-major program.

What are your go-to wine preferences: I really like wines from grapes grown in cooler climates as well as wines that are fermented whole-cluster (stems and all). The cooler climates can give a zippy mouthwatering acidity, and whole-cluster gives intense aromatics.

 


Print Headline: Jeff Barnett

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