A short-seeming fifty minute drive, over the San Mateo-Hayward bridge and up the 580, can take you to wine country in Livermore, a world away from both the concrete, crowding, and noise of San Bruno and the mid-peninsula and the traffic and high prices of Napa and Sonoma.
Livermore, better known today for the national laboratory, was California's leading wine region before Prohibition, and has slowly but steadily come back into its own. In addition to major producers Wente and Concannon, the 25-mile valley is now dotted with a large handful of boutique wineries, some far out along farm roads and some right next to suburban development. Yields have been lowered, quality has increased, and leaving Livermore off the wine label is no longer a common practice.
Visiting the area nearly a decade ago, I was impressed by the quality of the wine given its (low) prices, the relaxed pace of tasting, and the craftsmen's pride shown by winemakers working their own tasting rooms. The prices have gone up since then, but the quality has improved to match, and the tasting experience is just as enjoyable.
Thomas Coyne Winery exemplifies much of what's to love about the area's wineries. In 1994 as a kind of retirement project Thomas and Emilie Coyne re-opened the 19th-Century Chateau Bellevue winery, which today doubles as the tasting room. They don't follow wine fads and hold onto wines before release for a a few years longer than is typical. Using grapes from the Bellevue property, small vineyards around Livermore, and a few odd areas of the state--El Dorado County, the Mokelumne River, 95-year-old Mourvedre from suburban Oakley--as well as a few from Lodi, they primarily make Rhone-style blends. Varietal wines are made when there's something to show off, and a few blends made with Bordeaux varietals round out their list.
Up until a few years ago they used to regularly fill customers' bottles with a field blend: an inky "Chateuaneuf du Pape" style Rhone blend they call "Vino Tinto Barato" which may be the best "cheap red wine" anywhere. Now the Livermore wine country has taken off enough that bottle fills are a special event advertised on the website. But ask and pre-filled bottles might still be had for about $8. Inky, intense, and powerfully tannic, with a mix of fruity and earthy flavors, it's not for the timid but isn't so alcoholic or tongue-coating to be difficult to pair with food. It's the best introduction to what's done at Thomas Coyne, too. The varietals and the trademark "Quest" Rhone blend all have that intensity; the difference is in emphasis and refinement.
Visitors who don't like dry red wines won't be left without anything to taste. A fruity dry Rhone-style rosé, highly perfumed Viognier, and a few dessert wines, including popular and often sold-out "Sweet Emilie" fortified Chardonnay round out the list.
Tasting is free. Expect to pay about $20 per bottle, slightly less for the Quest blends. These aren't everyday wines, but are bargains compared to what $20 will buy in Napa or at the supermarket, let alone from the Rhône in France.
An update on Livermore Valley Cellars:
I asked in the right place at the right time about my favorite winery in the area, Livermore Valley Cellars. LVC made some of the best Zinfandels that could be had anywhere, full of flavor and with alcohol levels under control, but abruptly ceased production in 2010. Emilie Coyne, when I asked whether anyone had taken over LVC or started making Zins from the same fruit, referred me to one of the pourers, who is the mother of one of the principals at LVC. Livermore Valley Cellars closed following the passing of its founder Chris Lagiss at the age of 92 and is for the indefinite future tied up in the sad and trying complications that can sometimes arise when a family business is passed from one generation to the next. LVC is not for sale, and it will re-open in due time.
For more information:
Thomas Coyne Winery is located at 51 Vallecitos Road in Livermore, CA, and is open for tasting on the weekends. A move to a larger space on Research Drive in Livermore is in the works. Visit the winery's website for updates, wine availability and current tasting hours, or phone (925) 443-2603 during business hours for more information.