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Walnut Creek Winery Builds Business and Community in Holt, Missouri

by Shannon Bond

“That’s it, that’s the building.” Raymond Jewell opened the car door and took his first steps in Holt, Missouri. It was a Thursday. On Tuesday, the building permit at his original building site had been denied. His wife, still in the car, wasn’t convinced as she stared out the window at this ramshackle warehouse. Was this the new site? It was big but hard to imagine as an upscale winery. Jewell explains, “I threw my wife the keys and said, ‘I don’t know the area, you’re from here, you drive.’ We found a building in Lawson, but I didn’t like it. On our way to Lathrop, my wife said, ‘Let’s go through Holt real fast.’ And that’s when I saw it.” Moments later, he was down the street speaking to Leon Clifford, the building’s owner and one of Holt’s Alderman.

It’s not for sale. But Raymond persisted. “Give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll tell you my story, and if you don’t want to sell it to me and we can’t agree on a price, I’ll just head up and put it in Lathrop. Fifteen minutes later, I basically owned the building, and that’s how we ended up in Holt.” As he describes it, they are in the middle of everything. Kearney, Lawson, Lathrop, and Smithville are all down the road. And for Kansas City residents and farther travelers, 35 Highway is minutes away.

In September 2022, Walnut Creek opened its doors and brought 30 new jobs to Holt, Missouri. Jewell and his partners aren’t just building a business, though, they’ve partnered with the town to help bring a spark to the community. It’s a town full of activity and hope wrapped in good food, local wine, local beer, festivals, and events. Holt, Missouri was founded in 1867 and named for Jeremiah Abel Holt. It’s been a quiet pass-through location on Highway 33 for years. It used to have a school, but that closed in 2009. It used to have a small rail station, but that’s long gone, along with the rail line it serviced. As a matter of fact, the new winery sits on the same ground. As told by residents, the same plot has been home to a mule barn, a millworks building, and a lumber yard. With a population of just over 400, Holt feels like a quaint neighborhood with a public park in the middle. But an energetic mayor and Walnut Creek have big plans.

About six years ago, Raymond moved to Kearny, Missouri, from Tennessee with his wife, Susan, to help care for her elderly mother. Raymond, who was partially retired then, had never considered starting a winery, a vineyard, a brewery, or a wedding venue, all things Walnut Creek is turning out to be. He wasn’t a wine aficionado. He didn’t even like wine until he tried the good stuff in Napa Valley on a business trip. No, Raymond worked in logistics for more than twenty years. He traveled nationwide for companies like Kroger and clients like Proctor and Gamble. He’s good at seeing systems, finding efficiencies, and, most importantly, putting the right people in the right places.

“For that 22 years in logistics, I didn’t live in any one place for more than about six months. A lot of times, I’d buy a rundown old house. My mind never shuts off, and I love working on old houses. Fix them up and move on to the next place.” Jewell enjoyed it so much that he earned his own real estate license, and in ten years of semi-retirement, as he describes it, he bought and sold his own properties.

In 2020, he decided to try growing grapes on his wife’s family farmland near Kearney. Sitting at one of the high barrel tables in the Walnut Creek restaurant and winery, he stares across the bar as he talks about the company’s origin story. It’s easy to see the wheels of efficiency turning in his mind. Distribution channels, plans, partnerships, and all the other parts connect like a network of veins and arteries. For him, it is a culmination of years of experience in logistics, business, and real estate.

“I just wanted to see if the grapes would grow,” he says. “If they do, let’s start a winery.” The plan was to build and open the winery at the new vineyard. The farmland had been in his wife’s family for generations, and he and his wife wanted to ensure it stayed that way. But, as housing developers started buying land to meet demand, the zoning rules changed. He was no longer allowed to build on his own land. In fact, the developers wanted their farmland, too. He appealed the decision to the county to no avail. But their grapes were growing, and they weren’t selling. He just had to find a new location. A place that felt right.

“The entire community of Holt has been incredible. They have been champions for Walnut Creek,” says Morgan Loggins, assistant general manager and partner.
Morgan and four or five other people joined the Walnut Creek adventure after responding to what Raymond describes as a generic ad on Indeed.com in February of 2022. Before that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Morgan took a step back from her broadcast journalism career. She had been living in Wyoming and reporting for a CBS affiliate but recently moved to the area with her husband. As she debated a return to broadcast news, which didn’t feel quite right, she started creating charcuterie boards for friends. They were a hit, and her friends encouraged her to sell them. Her company, Cheese the Day KC, was born. Not long after, she saw Raymond’s ad and responded. What was better than charcuterie boards paired with the right wine?

What Is Walnut Creek?

That old warehouse is now stunning with its renovated interior, vaulted ceiling, outdoor seating, and massive patio dining space. The restaurant serves stone-fired pizza in the evenings, gourmet charcuterie boards, and locally-produced wine. As if wine, pizza, and charcuterie weren’t enough, it’s also a local brewery. That’s right, located on-site is a brewery with its own brewer, Jesse York, from Holt, who works in a small building behind the winery affectionately referred to by Morgan as the “she-shed.”

“I was looking for a really good local beer and ready to give up when one of our staff members told me to try Jesse, just down the road in Holt,” Raymond explains. Skeptical at first, Raymond asked him to bring a sample. The first one was good. “Don’t change a thing and bring me another.” The next night, Jesse brought him another. Same result. After a few more “auditions,” it was decided. Jesse would join Walnut Creek with his Muddy Fork Brews. “I said, ‘Llet’s talk. Let’s see how we can get you in here to start building your name and your business.’” Now, Jesse works for Walnut Creek directly and earns a percentage of beer sales.

But Walnut Creek is more than the business in the building. They have a brand-new food truck parked next door for patrons lounging under the massive pavilion. And the weekends are busy with live music, brunch with mimosas and breakfast pizza, and four-legged friends for “Wine and Wags.” Northwest Missouri residents come from far and wide. And the expansion isn’t done yet, because they have purchased and are rehabbing two historic houses. One painted blush and the other violet. They are for, you guessed it, wedding parties. Another expansive covered pavilion will rest in a field next to the bridal house. Beside that runs the pleasantly meandering Muddy Fork Creek. Antique tractors will dot the landscape, and a deck will stretch out over the water: easy pickings for any wedding photographer and the ideal spot for a large wedding.

Every wedding activity will be walkable. No need to pack a bride with her ensemble and flowing dress into a car to reach that perfect photo spot or reception dinner. But suppose the large venue is too expansive or financially out of reach for some. In that case, the wine garden venue is a leisurely stroll down the recently repaved roads. It’s a smaller venue tucked into a secluded bend along the creek. Raymond and Morgan pick their way through the churned earth at the construction site, explaining the vision. The smaller venue has a gazebo, parking, plenty of tables, and even fully functioning bathrooms with city water and electricity. And those newly paved roads? The mayor made a deal with a road crew for reclaimed asphalt while repaving 33 Highway. And when weddings aren’t in town, the houses are available for bed and breakfast rentals.

How Does the Business Work?

Walnut Creek is a collection of Limited Liability Companies (LLC). Morgan owns Cheese the Day KC. Walnut Creek is owned by Raymond and his wife and includes the wine garden venue space. And the wedding pavilion and houses will be operated by Muddy Fork Events LLC, owned by Morgan and her husband, Raymond and his wife, and another local couple. Morgan’s husband, a former professional baseball player, often jokes about how he never could have imagined he would end up owning a wedding company. And on the backend, Walnut Creek is shipping wine to high-end restaurants, other wineries, weddings, and wine club members nationwide. Local wine club members will meet at the wine garden once a quarter for tastings and food pairings.

Walnut Creek uses top-shelf grapes from other vineyards until their own grapes mature. Dominic Bosch, the winemaker, runs the operation. He has worked in some of the best wine regions in the world for nearly 30 years. In addition to their local Missouri vineyard, Dominic and Raymond are cultivating another in Colorado on land owned by Raymond’s cousin. That vineyard is in a high-plane desert, perfect for growing grapes. It will keep at least six families employed if it takes off as they hope. For now, though, they are trucking in water and working with the local government to establish water rights. It takes about four to five years for a vineyard to mature, so buying grapes from other vineyards is necessary. Under Dominic’s expert guidance, though, it hasn’t slowed them down, and market demand is growing.

“We sell our wine to other wineries and wedding venues primarily on the east coast, but now businesses on the west coast are calling,” Raymond says. It’s incredible, he explains, to think that you’ll go to a wedding on either coast and look at the bottle in your hand, and it will say, ‘Made in Holt, Missouri.’ “From New York down to South Carolina, over to Pennsylvania, and Michigan, we’re shipping truck after truck, and next year we expect it to double.” But if the wine business expands much more now, he’ll have to knock out a wall in the winery and add more wine-making equipment. “We need to make sure it stays manageable for three to four years, and then we’ll expand. We have to control the growing pains.”

Local business is good, too. Strolling through Holt with Raymond and Morgan is like a social event. The mayor and other patrons gather around a table under the covered pavilion in front of the food truck, laughing as they dive into gourmet cheeseburgers and chicken salad sandwiches. Food truck staff working on new tex-mex menu items rush out to offer samples. We added this ingredient, and that, they explain, excited to offer new taste tests. Raymond and Morgan give the culinary wizards feedback and discuss next steps for the new offerings. Everyone is invested in the success of Walnut Creek, and Raymond has ensured that the best people are in the right places.

But where are the pitfalls, and what are the challenges? Every business has them, especially in the start-up window. For Walnut Creek, Raymond says, it’s gauging how much wine they need each month. The wholesale order volume has been volatile, fluctuating from 15,000 dollars to 350,000 per month. It will take time to normalize the distribution channels, and everyone is learning what the business rhythm will be. And the models will change as they connect with more local producers and businesses.

Morgan’s eyes light up as she says, “We love local. We partner with Angle Acres in Lathrop for all our honey needs, for charcuterie and pizza.” And Shatto Milk Company supplies some cheeses, while Barham Family Farm supplies the summer sausage. On one side of the winery, shelves are lined with local products like candles, books by local authors, fudge, cheeseboards (obviously), honey, and goat milk soap from Silent Spring Farm. Along the newly renovated walls hang large and small paintings for sale by local artists. Morgan’s enthusiasm for local is infectious as she describes the pleasure of working with the Shatto Milk owner and other local producers.

What’s Next?

Raymond, Morgan, and the rest of the Walnut Creek crew have their hands full with the new winery, brewery, restaurant, and food truck. Oh, and the construction work at both bed and breakfasts. And the wedding venue construction. But there is going to be more, Raymond says with a grin. “We want to be involved in the revitalization of Holt. Every Thursday, we actually have a town meeting right here, in our building.”

“It started as our staff meeting,” Morgan adds. “But people would pop in and say, hey, we want to do this or that with you guys.” So now, the Walnut Creek staff meets with all the business owners each week and runs through the upcoming schedule. Raymond explains that other businesses are moving into Holt, too, including a local coffee shop and a boutique. But space is limited for now, but like it says on Holt’s website, they are a small town with big plans.

“Once we get the wedding venue done, we’re going to concentrate on how to get space for these other businesses to come to town.”

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