Ashland Wine Cellar moves up a level and down the street
By MJ Daspit
Now, where was I …
The last time my wine column appeared was in April 2020 in the Mail Tribune. Let’s just call it two years ago, give or take. Amid the recent viral contagion, my husband and I decided the better part of valor was to self-quarantine at home and we did — to the point that when I decided to take up writing about our local wines again it was with the sense that I had no idea where to begin. I decided to start by taking a walk.
Downtown Ashland — roughly from the Plaza to Third Street, taking in both Main Street and Lithia Way — has gone through some changes while I was isolating.
Starting at the north end of my sojourn, I noted two conspicuous absences in the wine category. Liquid Assets has been shuttered for a while. The site now houses Ashland Lovejoy’s Tea Room. In the same block is The Spice and Tea Exchange and just across the way at the corner of Granite Street is Dobrá Tea. On the plaza, I find Ostras! has gone, replaced by … let me guess — a tea room? Only kidding. It’s now an eatery called Bar Juillet.
So, out of our three downtown wine bar/bottle shops, two have closed their doors, and the third, the Ashland Wine Cellar (AWC), located for 40 years below street level in a tiny strip mall at Oak Street and Lithia Way, has gone as well. Fortunately, AWC is still in business — just in a new location. Having acquired the wine shop in 2018, owner Jim Whitaker moved lock, stock and barrel in April to 357 East Main Street, the former home of the Platt Anderson Cellars tasting room in the building that used to house the Ashland Art Center.
Some may feel nostalgia for AWC’s old subterranean digs. Established by Lorn Razzano in 1980, it has the distinction of being the first wine shop in Oregon. Literally a cellar, you followed the steps down to Razzano’s domain where the proprietor, usually leaning back in an aged desk chair, often wreathed in cigar smoke, always had an interesting bottle open on the counter. Cases of wine from all over the world were stacked in every available nook and cranny, pyramided about the floor and secreted in the back room.
You had to wonder if the guy behind the counter had any idea where anything was. But he did. All you had to do was tell him what you wanted — in terms of region, price, or just what you were serving for dinner — and he’d ferret out exactly the right bottle for you. Razzano was and still is an educator, offering wine appreciation and Italian classes. You’d never leave his shop without an understanding of the bottle you were taking home — its region of origin, grape variety and how it would come across on the palate.
Razzano retired from retail in 2012. New owners remodeled and made a commercial home for Liza Jussiaume as wine buyer, resident sommelier and the public face of the franchise. When asked about the move to Main Street, current owner Jim Whitaker said, half-joking, that Liza would have quit if she had to spend another season underground.
The new Ashland Wine Cellar is light and bright, with a slimmed-down inventory stacked against one wall and seating at tables near the window where you can linger with a local wine flight and watch the foot traffic on Main Street. Or, with a glass of wine in hand, you can peruse an exhibit of pollinator-themed art now displayed in the large adjoining space occupied by Catalyst Ashland, a community and technology facility offering studios for livestreaming and podcasting — not to be confused with Catalyst Wine Collective in Phoenix.
Starting this month, Andy Phillips will be your AWC host on Sunday afternoons. Phillips is a well-loved fixture of the local wine scene whom I first met in the 1990s when he presided over the wine bar at the Winchester Hotel. As knowledgeable as he is friendly, Phillips has the knack of making you feel comfortable learning your way around a wine-tasting even if you think you can’t tell an orange wine from Tang. A local kid who played Grizzly football as a running back, he’s that rare bird who can talk X’s and O’s or Pouilly-Fuissé.
I’ll be picking his brain for column material. Speaking of which, I’d love to get ideas from readers. Send your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and remember to wine local.
July 17 update: Spelling of Bar Juillet corrected.