How a Midwest Winery Carved Out a California Niche

The Blind Horse Restaurant & Winery in Kohler, Wisconsin is miles away from the west coast, but its wines and winemaking philosophy deviate from what may be considered the traditional Midwest winery experience.

The winery works to bring Napa Valley-style wines to folks living in and visiting the American Heartland, maintaining relationships with growers in California and Washington State to produce varietals consistent with those produced in those regions.

General Manager and Winemaker Tom Nye embraces a minimalist style of winemaking, enabling the natural qualities of the fruit to shine in the finished wine, and said running a Midwest winery allowed him to take risks that might not go over in California. 

“Being a small winery in Wisconsin allows us to take risks that many production facilities out west cannot do,” Nye said. “Many of our red wines are barrel-aged for three years. In many cases I don’t have to release the wine if I don’t like it, I can blend it away into a sweet wine if it doesn’t meet the standards of a dry red that I’m looking for.

“There is a high bar of quality for wine coming out of California, so we are constantly pushing the edges to try to meet that quality. My respect for the industry drives me to produce remarkable California wine right here in Wisconsin. In the end, the biggest difference makers are knowing your vineyard owners, embracing cold-soaking technology and long-term barrel aging.”  

A winemaker for 15 years, Nye’s philosophy is “making wine in the field,” which he said involves searching out the right vineyards and working with viticulturists.

“It’s always been a bit challenging to reconcile making California style wines in the Midwest, not only to our customer base but in terms of winemaking style and vision,” Nye said. “The vision is to create the absolute best wine we can no matter where the winery is located, no matter where the grapes are from.”

Nye said advancements in shipping technology had facilitated Blind Horse’s efforts to produce its wines, as had making visits and establishing relationships with vineyard owners.

“When I first started making California wines 14 years ago, it was extremely difficult due to acquiring quality grapes and then shipping them properly across the country. It is startling the level of improvement in shipping technology,” Nye said. “The real change came however by visiting vineyards in California and finding the right partners and quality grapes from great regions. For 80% of the wines I make, I know the vineyard owner personally. That makes a huge difference in the final product.”

Nye said the Blind Horse’s business plan calls for having a large wine club and tasting room visitors as their base, as well as serving them at their on-site restaurant. However, plans to expand distribution and debut new products are in the works.

“We are currently refining our distribution plans and hope to launch that initiative later this year. Ultimately, we hope that our wines can be distributed to states close to us – Illinois, Minnesota, etc. I also believe that we need a successful wine made from Wisconsin grapes,” Nye said “We are releasing a sparkling wine this year made from Wisconsin grapes that I am extremely proud of and believe will hold up nationally. 

“If there is ever a chance that we can ship wine outside of our state successfully, I believe sparkling wine made from Wisconsin grapes will be the driver.”

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