Kristine M. Kierzek
Thomas Nye is not a classroom kind of guy. An entirely self-taught winemaker, his path may not traditional but it is very intentional.
After years working with computers, the serial entrepreneur was looking for a new challenge. One phenomenal dinner pairing wine and food was all it took. He knew he wanted to become a winemaker.
He spent a year working for free learning from an Italian winemaker in New Jersey, then opened a custom crush winery where he made upwards of 30 wine varieties in a year. It was a great lesson, and the perfect steppingstone for his current role.
Nye has been winemaker and general manager at The Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery, 6018 Superior Ave., Kohler, since 2013.
Ask him what he’s excited about and the new releases of rosé and peach Chardonnay are highlights for summer. Yet the anticipation of the winery’s first sparkling wine, made with Wisconsin grown grapes, has him counting down to bottling in August.
New this year, winery tours will be at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Sundays, Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Tours are $15 per person. Reservations suggested.
Additionally, the Nyes created a run/walk to honor their daughter, Addison, who was 4 when she died in an accident. The fifth annual Run with Angels will be held June 12. A companion charity wine dinner will be held June 9 at The Blind Horse Winery. Dinner tickets are $125 per person, go to www.runwithangels.org.
Nye and his wife, Nancy, also have two sons, Andrew, 4, and Austin, who turns 2 four days after the run.
Question: How does one go from computers to winemaking?
Answer: My career has been defined by following my passions. Getting into the computer field, I was obsessed with the internet. When I was starting, you couldn’t even buy computers in stores. I started a business building computers for people. … The landscape changed. I no longer have that passion. We wrote out a list of the things I have a passion for, and eating and drink was at the top of the list. We originally thought that meant a vineyard. Turns out I can’t grow a thing.
My wife had the idea of starting a winery. I kept working my corporate job in New Jersey. Eventually I left my job and did a winery (Grape Escape) there.
Q: How did you go about learning to make wine?
A: I taught myself to make wine, and to program computers. I am a very self taught kind of guy. … After starting all these businesses, the one in New Jersey, Grape Escape, was the least risky. We sold it to come here and launch The Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery.
Q: Why Kohler?
A: My wife grew up in the Kiel area. I fell in love with Lake Michigan and her family. After we had Grape Escape, I started thinking this area needed a winery. I actually wrote a business plan to start a winery here. I put two years into this plan. One of our visits, I heard someone was starting a winery. Three more visits, we tracked them down. … My wife offered me up for a job somehow. I said, “I do have a business plan for a winery” …Within two weeks I sold my business.
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Q: You use primarily imported grapes, and some Wisconsin grapes. Are you growing your own grapes?
A: We’ve partnered with two growers in Wisconsin. The (Blind Horse) owners, Bob and Connie (Moeller) shared my vision of making drier California style wines. We wanted to find grapes we could grow here in Wisconsin and make Wisconsin wines.
We targeted two different wines. Ice wine being one, specifically because we have the cold. That has absolutely changed. Now what we are really high on is sparkling wine. Our first release will be coming in the fall. We’ve gone all in on this. We’ve been running test batches for years. Wisconsin grown grapes can compete. … What you’re looking for to make sparkling wines is high acidity and low sugar. That’s what happens naturally in the grapes in Wisconsin. That has to be a good start.
Q: Sweet wines are the backbone of a lot of Wisconsin wineries. What’s your approach?
A; We have embraced drier style wines from the beginning. We do have sweet wines as well. Our hottest product right now is our Peach Chardonnay. I can’t make enough of it because it sells so fast. We have a Blueberry Moscato in the works. … Every year seven of the top 10 wines we sold were dry wines. Other wineries told us you can start out making dry, you’ll be making sweet in five years. It has been the exact opposite. People’s taste and palates are changing.
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Q: What have you learned since then?
A: In New Jersey, I was able to make 30 different types of wines per year. It allowed me to make a lot of mistakes, but what a learning experience! I learned how to taste wine, evaluate, how wine can go bad, how to flavor, the nuance of different varietals. … When I landed in Wisconsin, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Q: Do you have a favorite wine that you’ve produced so far?
A: The Tuscan Reserve on the menu right now is one of my favorite wines ever. The Tuscan Blend is our top seller.
Q: What are you drinking this summer?
A: I particularly have a passion for rosés. It is actually a very difficult wine to make. … I finally found the right blend of grapes. We finally got that right this year, and I’m super proud of this rosé. I’ll be drinking a lot of that.
Q: Most memorable sip?
A: Traveling in Florida, a friend got me into this restaurant. He was friends with the chef who sat all 10 of us around the table. “I’m going to create courses and match wine to what I bring out.” Around the ninth course, I was maybe a little drunk. I turned to my wife and said, “I’m making wine for a living.”
It changed me, that amazing food and wine pairing experience. I started keeping a spreadsheet of all wines I tasted, my score. If a wine was written up in Wine Spectator I’d compare my score.
Q: Tell us about Run With Angels, a run/walk started after the death of your 4-year-old daughter.
A: My whole journey here, it has been so beautiful except for that event that obviously changed our lives, losing our 4-year-old daughter. We didn’t know what to do with that pain. We spent a lot of time walking that first year.
This run/walk, you’re doing in honor of someone you lost. You get a bottle of wine with that person’s picture at the end. The process of putting together the wine labels with people’s photos is emotional. The pain never goes away, but we did learn making the effort to honor someone you lost is a huge part of healing.
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