On the Trail

The End of a Golden State Era

David Driscoll

When Thomas Coyne passed away in June of 2015 it was a serious and heartbreaking loss for those of us in the California wine industry. While Coyne's winery wasn't a household name, his generosity, commitment, and attention to detail were legendary among those of us in the trade. Thomas Coyne was a rare breed of man—the likes of which have become increasingly rare in this age of specialization. He was a self-starter, a self-motivator, a guy who could teach himself how to do anything and seemed to take even more pleasure in sharing that knowledge with others. Born in Pennsylvania back in 1940, he worked for many years as a chemical engineer while tinkering with home winemaking in his upstate New York basement. But it was in 1977 after moving his family to California that he met up with fellow enthusiast Kent Rosenblum at the Berkeley Ski Club. While sitting down with Coyne's daughter Anne Marie recently to talk about her father, she discussed the importance of that meeting: "They ended up striking up a friendship based on their mutual hobby and would taste each others home brews at the time." Coyne was now making wine in his Livermore garage rather than his New York basement and was happy to have a tasting partner. Ten years later he would leave the corporate world permanently. In 1988, he accepted his friend Kent's offer to join Rosenblum as the cellar master. One year later, he would launch his own wine label using Rosenblum's crush facilities in Alameda.

In 1994, Thomas moved his operation to the Chateau Bellevue estate in Livermore. By that point he had built up a strong customer base in the area and had developed relationships with local growers via his time at Rosenblum. "The local customers enjoyed visiting Château Bellevue, bringing a picnic, buying their wine, and enjoying the view," Anne Marie told me, "He welcomed anyone. Anyone who was interested in trying wine he was interested in talking to." Coyne's passion involved tracking down obscure varietals beyond those of which his local climate was able to support. "I don’t think he felt that he could grow all the grapes he wanted to use in Livermore," Anne Marie continued. "The conditions weren’t right for a number varietals growing in different parts of California. So he’d drive around to these little vineyards and search out new prospects. He never wanted to limit himself. If there was something else out there to be found he wanted to find it. Limiting himself to Livermore wasn’t as interesting—and, remember, this is long before you could find mourvèdre on your typical restaurant menu."

Having left the business world to pursue his passion, the standard commercial routine never resonated with Thomas. "There was a 'craftsman's pride' to what he did," Anne Marie said. "He kept production steady, never going above 5,000 cases. He had no interest in growing too big because that might mean he would miss out on the little details." Coyne had spent years watching other California wineries market mediocre wines in fancy bottles with ornate, almost-gaudy labels. This was the antithesis of what he believed in. Coyne's mindset was to keep his operation hands-on and honest, never growing beyond the point where he couldn't ensure its quality. In 2006, he joined the board of the Rhone Rangers, a group of California winemakers who extolled the virtues of growing varietals like grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre here in the states. Rhone varietals would become a speciality of Coyne Vineyards.

After the unfortunate passing of Mr. Coyne last year his family found themselves with a surplus of back vintages that needed a good home, so his daughter Anne Marie reached out to K&L and put together a nice little tribute to her dad. Thomas Coyne, as you've probably deciphered from this article, was a guy who loved California, loved its wines, and more importantly loved making wine in California. In his wines you can taste the essence of an era—a golden time for winemaking in this Golden State. These are real, no frills, delicious California wines with character and sense of place, and the low prices we're offering are merely a fraction of what they originally sold for. It's only because of Anne Marie's respect for K&L that she offered these wines to us. It's completely out of our respect for her and her father's legacy that we promised to do these last few vintages justice—telling the story, spreading the word, and relating the spirit of Thomas Coyne's passion to the lucky customers who will bring these final bottles home. 

Thomas Coyne's wines, however, are a dying breed in terms of their pure, unadulterated style and humble quality. The legacy he leaves behind is irreplaceable. "He was an incredible force of nature," Anne Marie told me. "After he passed my mother and I said to each other: you would need six guys to do the winemaking he did and you’d need another six guys to run the business. Guys like my father were from a different era. They took pride in doing everything themselves."

To view our current selection of Thomas Coyne wines from this great deal click here.

-David Driscoll