Thursday, April 20, 2017 12:11 am
Wine meets fun on Walnut Street
Former insurance man Loren Shanle went from selling policies to pinot
Loren Shanle is living the dream. Sell the business, move to the sunny coast, start a winery…except, he hasn’t moved to the sunny coast. He’s still in Rochester, accepting all four seasons like the rest of us. But the other parts are true; he sold his business and started a winery in his former office.
In 2006 Shanle sold his insurance business of over 20 years but ended up retaining the blue house (formerly Phil’s Feed Store) that was once his office. Around the same time, Shanle started to get interested in making wine as a garagiste – a French term symbolic of creating wine in one’s own home. He picked up an understanding of what it takes to produce a great bottle from his experience tinkering in his basement. It occurred to him that he could turn his former insurance office into a winery and sell his wine to a wider audience. As he renovated the building he also worked out the best way to source materials and make wine in larger quantities. Within three years, policies became pinot noir as the agency building was transformed into Walnut Street Winery in 2009.
Now the space features custom woodwork throughout the tasting room, including a bar inlaid with a Latin quotation about the enjoyment of wine and decorative wine storage racks and cabinets. The tank room is visible through a small window in the tasting room, and just down the hall are the bottling and labeling areas. Part of the basement has been converted into a cellar, where collectable and limited-purchase wines are aged. Memories of years of happy guests and customers line a long hallway where Shanle has collected photographs. During my visit, he pointed out one of himself, working the bottling machine several years ago.
Shanle doesn’t grow grapes, but instead sources fresh wine grape juice from around the world, but after the juice arrives at his door he takes over. Walnut Street Winery produces, bottles and labels all of the 21 varieties of wine they sell. Small batch winemaking enables Shanle to offer a wide variety, from dry reds such as cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, to bright sauvignon blanc and riesling, to sweet fruit wines such as Blackjack, which is a popular pairing with cheese and chocolate. Juice is sourced from California, Argentina, Italy and South Africa, enabling Shanle to choose the area of origin that grows the characteristics he’s looking for in a particular wine.
While Shanle is the founder of Walnut Street Winery and the wines are all labeled Shanle Wines, he attributes the success of the business to his staff. Steve Deiro, winemaker, and Jolene Gibson, general manager, have both been an integral part of the organization for years. Josh Martin, Shanle’s son-in-law, designs all of the labels, from the simple to the cheeky.
They’ve had some fun with the labels, recently crafting a White House-themed label (rejected for approval by the federal government) and political party labels (one each, representing both sides of the aisle). In fact, Shanle and his team seem to have a lot of fun with every aspect of the business, an atmosphere they convey at the winery. Guests can enjoy a tasting ($3 for three) at the custom wood-carved tasting bar and are welcome to take a glass or bottle to one of the bistro tables inside or the large patio out back.
Filled with umbrella-covered picnic tables, the patio features a stage for live music and a bocce court, home to leagues several times per week. Walnut Street also has a gaming room, cocktail menu, beer list and a food selection featuring locally made pizza and Ropp Jersey Cheese from Normal. Shanle books live music acts every Friday and Saturday with performances held inside the tasting room or outside on the patio. Every Sunday afternoon is open mic time.
The staff at Walnut Street welcomes visitors from all over the country, many of them here to meet Abraham Lincoln, but some come in for a tasting after seeing the sign on I-55. Guests will now be greeted by a small grape planting, not a vineyard exactly, but Shanle established a few vines recently to remind himself of the hard work of his grape-growing partners around the world. Closer to home, Shanle Wines can be found at Friar Tuck, Hy-Vee, Shop ’n Save, Schnucks, Famous Wine & Spirits and Engrained Brewery, as well as direct from the tasting room.
The winery is at 309 South Walnut St. in Rochester. Live music schedule, wine list, menus and business hours can be found at www.walnutstreetwinery.com.
Jill Barth’s blog, L’occasion, was awarded the Best Wine Blog and Best Writing on Wine Blog. She writes about wine (travel and food too) and her work has appeared in Forbes, USA TODAY, Vivino, Palate Press, Luxe Provence, Courrier International, American Winery Guide, Provence WineZine, California Winery Advisor and more.