Go Au Naturel

Two shopkeepers passionate about natural wines

Josh Kimball selling wine in his shop in downtown Jacksonville. ##Photo provided
Street view of Kimball’s Wine Shop in Southern Oregon’s historic town of Jacksonville.##Photo provided
Pairings Portland shoppers can people watch while enjoying glasses of wine outside. ##Photo by Jeffrey Weissler of Pairings Portland
Handwritten descriptions and pairing suggestions make shopping for wine a breeze at Pairings Portland. ##Photo provided
Owner Jeffrey Weissler preparing a local customer delivery. ##Photo by Jeffrey Weissler of Pairings Portland

By Paula Bandy

Wine: all the labels, terms and concepts frequently feel confusing. When searching for that perfect bottle to quaff, to charm, to give– it’s hard to know where to begin.

Artisanal wines generally employ more natural, traditional methods by independent winemakers who grow their grapes or purchase from a variety of vineyards. These wines are handcrafted and usually in limited supply.

Made from organic grapes, natural wines are hand-harvested with no other interventions during the winemaking process. These grapes are, by practice, grown without applying chemicals to the soil or vines.

However, organic wine isn’t necessarily also natural wine, because additives are allowed during the vinification process. This manipulation and intervention alter the natural fermentation process of the grapes.

Biodynamic wines are created following the principles developed in the 1920s by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. Based on anthroposophy, including a methodology founded on a specific calendar that dictates all aspects of both vineyard farming and winemaking. Also important to note— Biodynamic is inherently organic.

In Oregon, the praxis of a more natural-style wine with minimal intervention is gaining ground. Let’s examine two natural wine-focused bottle shops at the forefront of this movement– one in the north, another in the south.

Pairings Portland Wine
Shop & Delivery
Wizard of Wine Pairings podcast

Jeffrey Weissler opened his wonderfully funky shop almost 10 years ago in Northeast Portland. The name conveys pairings, often taking you places you’ve never been. Weissler can probably match wine with the color of your shoelaces. For him, it’s about the wine, and his shop is filled with unique ones.

Weissler’s journey was quite different from how most of us become interested in wine. In his New York high school, he and three other students, led by their Greek Mythology teacher, created the Roosevelt High School Wine & Food Society. Weissler relates, “We’d convince our moms to cook ethnic food and then we’d walk to Mr. S’s house, dining down in the basement, where he’d pair a wine with each course. One mom was a French chef, one Chinese, the other Armenian.”

At 17, after Weissler graduated high school, he spent six weeks in France, Italy and Spain. “After morning classes,” he says, “there would be outings to the boulangerie, patisserie, all the ‘eries’ to taste, taste and taste some more.” Weissler continues, “While abroad, I got to see the authentic, real community of wine. It was wine as food, wine as an ingredient, wine as something that creates a culture which we’re all a part of and joins us together.”

In the early 00s, Weissler founded Conscious Wine, a program designed to educate the consumer on making “vital choices for palate and planet.” He continues, “But, we were ahead of our time and the market was not yet ready for us.”

When he and partner Megan Wilkerson opened the first natural wine shop in Portland, the concept was not yet a trend. “Natural wine, in essence, has to include what’s done in the ground, in the environment and on the entire property in such a way that it amplifies the vibration of the place. I look for ways to create a sense of harmony, balance, and community. I’m more interested in the energy and life force in the wine. Pairings became a bridge to make these wines fun and approachable. I pair wines to things I can describe with adjectives because it’s a language we all understand, as opposed to getting lost in wine speak.”

Weissler suggests pairings for astrology signs, pets, TV series, movies, moods, weather, places and much more. He weaves a story through the adjectives of particular wines, creating connections between the who, what, and the wine. Ultimately, he considers himself more of a “classicist who prefers wine farmed and produced more holistically.” But he goes about pairing natural wines in non-traditional ways.

Kimball’s Artisan Wines

Josh Kimball, born in Coos Bay, first learned about the burgeoning Oregon wine industry when, on a whim (and kind of a joke), he took a wine appreciation class at Southern Oregon University. He says he knew nothing about wine but wanted to remain in the state and “looked for something to do to stay here.” The following summer Kimball decided to apply for a tasting room job. “I went to 10 places and was rejected by nine. I didn’t know anything about wine. I wouldn’t have hired me, either.”

But the Weisinger Family Winery did just that and Kimball stayed there a couple of years. While there, he learned a lot about winemaking, before accepting a position at King Estate, shifting gears to focus on the business side. A desire to return to Southern Oregon led him to Cowhorn Vineyard. Knowing nothing about biodynamic farming, but curious to learn, he shares, “I started pestering them, was hired to pour wine in their tasting room, and eventually became Cowhorn’s national sales manager.”

One of the aspects he appreciated while selling Cowhorn wines around the country, was the opportunity to discover new wines, especially natural ones, from around the world. “However,” Kimball notes, “they were only available in larger cities.”

While walking down the street one day in the small, historic town of Jacksonville, Kimball noticed a For Rent sign posted in a lovely, old building window. A few months later, in 2019, he and wife Kaylyn opened the doors to their “natural-centric” bottle shop, filling a niche for “selling wines nobody has seen before.” He sources indigenous varietals, unusual vintages, and a myriad of natural wines from around the world.

Kimball is clear about what constitutes a natural wine. “There’s no such thing as a natural wine farmed conventionally. It all starts in the vineyard with organic or biodynamic practices. To me, it doesn’t make sense to farm organically or biodynamically and then produce a conventional wine. You’re either in or you’re not.”

Kimball is passionate about getting people the wine they want, whether it’s a newer vintage or a 16th-generation French wine. I feel his words convey the overarching philosophy of natural wines. “This is infinite. Nobody knows everything about wine. What’s fascinating about these wines, compared to those that are mass-produced for the grocery store, are the flavor profiles, the aromas, the textures and the colors. It never ends. Every week new arrivals create a whole new world of pairing opportunities. I’ve been in the business since 2004, yet more excited about wine than I’ve ever been.”

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