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The Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery


December 2014

The black granite bar gleams against the stonewalls and burnished woodwork in a space that was once a run-down barn. Barrels and bottles of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and chardonnay are paired with cheeses, chocolates and small plates.

When sipping a glass of pinot gris expertly paired with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese while sitting on a pastoral patio with deluxe fire pits, it’s easy to imagine that one is sitting next to a glen in the middle of Napa Valley.

But instead, The Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery makes its home in Kohler. "We bring a little bit of Napa to Sheboygan County," says owner Bob Moeller.

The Blind Horse is located on the Dreps family farmstead, with the restaurant in the original home of the family and the winery in the footprint of the old barn. It takes its name from the family’s favorite horse in the 1890s, Birdie. Birdie was the lead drafthorse for the family and did her job while not having the gift of sight.

The intention of bringing Napa to Wisconsin is easily achieved. Just opened in April, The Blind Horse has already sold out of several wines, including their Italian-style Super Tuscan. The restaurant first opened in 2012, while the winery was being built and the wines were being aged. "Our three top selling wines are dry reds. Who would have ever expected that?" says winemaker and general manager Thomas Nye.

Nye, who is originally from Michigan, moved from New Jersey to Kohler to open the winery. (His wife’s family is from Kiel, Wis., and the couple wanted to move back to the Midwest.) He previously owned the Grape Escape Winery in Dayton, N.J.

Prior to becoming a winemaker, Nye worked in the information technology business, but a trip to West Palm Beach, Fla., changed his career path. He and his wife went out to dinner at Seasons 52 with friends who knew the chef. "He closed the menu and then just started cooking us courses," Nye recalls.

It was a seafood risotto made with saffron and paired with an Italian pinot grigio that changed Nye’s life. "It opened my mind to food and wine together," Nye says. "I call that the ‘wow’ moment. But really, it was everything that night that made it beyond any experience I’d ever had before."

Not only did that lead Nye into winemaking, but one of his main goals as a winemaker is to show people how wine and food interact with each other when paired well.

Nye wants guests of The Blind Horse to share that eye-opening experience of perfect pairings. In addition to wine tastings, the restaurant offers wines paired with chocolates, Wisconsin cheeses and small plates. Nye worked with chef Marco Rossi, who hails from Rome, Italy, to come up with exact pairings.

The small plate pairings change seasonally, and five of the six came together easily, Nye says. The grilled watermelon with feta cheese went perfectly with the winery’s pinot gris. The Brussels sprouts bruschetta goes well with the zinfandel; the dry-aged beef with goat cheese, lemon and truffle oil with the syrah reserve; and the shrimp ceviche with the sauvignon blanc.

But trying to pair bacon with the winery’s cabernet sauvignon reserve took a lot more work. "It took us 15 tries to get the bacon plate right," he says. Bacon, because of its fatty nature, can be a challenge to pair. Finally, Rossi created candied bacon with a blueberry relish that not only tasted fantastic but paired like a dream.

Together, Nye and Rossi will be hosting several wine dinners during the year in the cellar room. They also have created perfect pairings on the regular menu. Suggestions include: a grilled kale salad with white beans and five-peppercorn yogurt dressing that goes well with pinot gris; pancetta-wrapped scallops with a bourbon-laced maple syrup that also pairs exquisitely with a pinot gris; a grilled rack of lamb with cabernet sauvignon reduction and goat cheese risotto that naturally pairs with the cabernet sauvignon; and a nightly crème brulee selection that changes seasonally but still pairs quite well with the moscato.

In 2015, Nye plans to barrel more dry reds, including a red blend that, at the moment, is to be called Jailbait. The red is inspired by the Prisoner wine red blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, petite sirah, charbono and grenache. Jailbait will likely have a new — and completely different — name when it is released next year. Nye also plans to distribute The Blind Horse’s wines more widely, especially in the Milwaukee area. Just this year alone, the winery entered six wines into six different wine competitions, winning five of them. "We have ambitious plans to get out in Wisconsin," Nye says.

Milwaukee-based beer distributor Beer Capitol just picked up a new line of beverages, but unlike its other brands, which include MillerCoors and Lakefront Brewery, the new beverage line features wine, not beer. The line, officially dubbed Friends Fun Wine, is a collection of low-calorie, low-alcohol wine beverages, including sangria and moscato. The product caters to health-conscious women and millenials. Friends Fun Wine is now distributed at select liquor stores throughout Milwaukee.

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— Jen Hunholz



This story ran in the December 2014 issue of: