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Kimball's Artisan Wines joins Jville wine scene

It started out as an easy way to get elective credits needed for graduation from SOU. But then college senior Josh Kimball was struck by the course instructor’s upbeat demeanor.

That instructor was Lorn Razzano, founder and long-time owner of the Ashland Wine Cellar, and his course was on wine appreciation.

“He’d wheel up on his bicycle and he’d just look so happy,” Kimball recalls. Aspiring to a livelihood that would put a similar bounce in his own step, Kimball decided to pursue a career in the wine industry.

A native Oregonian, Kimball had never considered an interest in wine as the basis of a viable livelihood.

“Growing up in Coos Bay, all we talked about was depression. The timber industry was dying. Fishing was dying. It was an economically stressed-out area. But Razzano started by saying Oregon wine is a multibillion-dollar industry, internationally known as a quality producer. I had no idea. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s something in my own backyard that’s world class! How do I not know about this?’”

His eyes open to the possibilities, Kimball broke into the industry at Weisinger’s of Ashland, where he slogged his way from cellar rat to tasting-room host. That led to a stint at King Estates in Eugene, where he eventually managed direct sales (15,000 cases yearly sold through the tasting room), processed all shipments and handled the wine club.

“Some really experienced wine executives took me under their wing,” Kimball explains, “so I developed a network and learned about the wine business.”

Returning to Southern Oregon, Kimball took on distribution for Cowhorn Vineyard. “For eight years, every bottle of wine you saw with a Cowhorn label in the state of Oregon came out of the trunk of my car.” Promoted to national sales manager, Kimball took the brand from distribution in two other states to 15 and added a couple of different countries. “I was selling Southern Oregon Applegate Valley wine in New York City, gaining traction and getting awesome placements.”

You can hear the excitement in Kimball’s voice as he describes the 15-year ride that culminated in his opening his own wine retail venue, Kimball’s Artisan Wines in Jacksonville. At the time I interviewed him, the opening of this unique wine shop across the street from South Stage Cellars tasting room, was still a few days away. He gave me a sneak preview of his wine selection and the rationale behind his decision not to stock local wines.

Wait, what? This is a column about Rogue Valley wines, right? And I’m featuring a wine shop from which Rogue Valley wines are conspicuously absent? Well, yeah. Here’s the thing — Kimball’s venue is complimentary to Jacksonville’s local winery tasting rooms, not in competition with them. So, you can taste at Rellik, DANCIN, Quady North and South Stage Cellars and find not bottle one of the same product at Kimball’s Artisan Wines.

That said, Kimball’s wine selection is consistent with the sustainable/biodynamic farming practices implemented by an ever-growing number of Rogue Valley vineyards and will appeal to wine aficionados who prize this ethos.

“Selling Cowhorn wines was about selling certified biodynamic wine, so I felt like I needed to put myself in that world, basically natural wine, native yeast fermented, sustainably farmed organically or biodynamically, and made with no additives except for sulfite. Sulfite is naturally occurring in the process, so every bottle says ‘contains sulfite’ even though some wineries don’t add any sulfite at all.”

Kimball says 70% to 80% of his shelf selections have never been sold in Southern Oregon before. Many are from producers who don’t conform to the corporate winemaking profile.

“A lot of these people don’t have formal wine training. They would fail every class at UC Davis. They’re people who are very passionate about wine, who have done internships and apprenticeships globally at highly reputable wineries.”

He also seeks to support multigenerational family wineries, pointing to one European Syrah priced at $300 made by a 16th generation winemaker. Don’t worry, most of the inventory is priced at $20 to $40 a bottle.

Kimball talks about the consumer experience he wants to create. “Wine is fun. I love drinking wine. I love sharing wine with people. So I like to create an environment that’s open and bright. It’s not crammed full. I could fit more wine on these shelves, but I’ve decided not to. It’s not for budget reasons, it’s for individuality. I don’t want to be like the ketchup aisle at the grocery store. I’m trying to make it easier for people to see the wines and not be intimidated by the selection. I want to create dialogue with people. I want the people who’ve been scared to ask the question to ask the question. And if I don’t have the answer, we’ll work together and we’ll find it. None of us knows everything about wine. I learn something new every day.”

For information on hours, location and winemaker-led tastings, see kimballwine.com.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mdaspit@jeffnet.org. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.