Before he settled in Wisconsin, winemaker Thomas Nye, who grew up in California and spent 25 years in New Jersey, would get a bit of a culture shock when he would visit his wife’s Sheboygan area family.
At Christmas celebrations, if he asked for a glass of wine, he was met with puzzlement. Red or white wasn’t the question; it was sweet or sour. At the time, Nye had never heard of an old fashioned.
When Nye moved to the area to become the winemaker and help launch Kohler’s Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery, he did so with the bold vision of changing people’s tastes and notions about the beverage. In opening a winery centered on dry wines rather than sweet, he was challenging a longstanding statewide tradition.
“When we had this idea and this is what we were going to do, I think people thought we were crazy. There were 109 wineries in the state, and 108 of them focused their efforts on making sweet wines,” he says.
The tendency toward sweeter wines in the Midwest stems from the characteristics found in grapes grown outside of California and the West Coast. Grapes grown here tend to have fewer tannins, lower sugar and higher acid. Those attributes lend themselves to making sweeter wines to offset those characteristics, Nye says.
Nye took his inspiration from Wisconsin’s many successful microbreweries and set out to create a micro-winery. He would procure premier product from northern California and Washington State and make the best wine possible for the style he wanted to create.
Built on the site of the Dreps family farm, Bob, Connie, Matt and Heidi Moeller purchased the property in 2011. The restaurant, operating out of the Dreps farmhouse, came first. The winery opened April 2014 with 17 wines, featuring the Tuscan Blend as its house blend.
Five years in, Nye says all the elements have fallen into place to make the Blind Horse a top destination, one that aims to offer guests a Napa Valley-like experience. Its wines have gone on to win many awards, including a Double Gold Medal for its 2015 Vintner’s Blend at the 2019 Finger Lakes International Competition.
On the culinary side, Blind Horse Restaurant executive chef Brent Davis has created signature and sought-after offerings. Its cuisine draws influences from international cuisine, ranging from Cajun to Asian to Mexican, but it’s built around local produce.
The restaurant’s menu is seasonal, but certain dishes, including the customer favorite Pancetta Wrapped Scallops, remain as staples. The restaurant and its Lamb Dumplings were featured on a recent episode of Wisconsin Public Television series “Wisconsin Foodie.”
Nye says the 2018 opening of The Granary helped complete the vision for the property. The eatery is more casual, both in menu and setting, and offers a variety of craft cocktails. Its Fish Fry Friday, which features Canadian perch in an herb-crusted panko, often sells out. In a move that would be sure to please Nye’s in-laws, The Granary also offers $4 old fashioneds on Fridays.
Between the main restaurant, The Granary and the winery’s tasting room and patio, the property offers three restaurants on one site. “You can come in here on a Saturday night and come to the restaurant and have dinner, cocktails over at The Granary and then finish at the winery,” Davis says.
The next big wine coming from Blind Horse could have its roots in Wisconsin. Nye has seen success crafting a sparkling wine from state-grown grapes. The fruit provides a natural chemistry match with sparkling wine, he says.
“The very characteristics that lead Midwestern wineries to make sweet wines actually are the perfect characteristics we look for in sparkling wine. I believe the chemistry of Wisconsin-grown grapes is perfectly suited to make a wonderful sparkling wine,” he says.
What’s in a name?
The Blind Horse’s unusual moniker comes from the name of one of the Dreps family’s favorite horses, Birdy, who was blind. When the Moeller family discovered the story, they knew they had their name for the property. A sculpture in Birdy’s honor, procured in Door County, sits at the front of the property.