Back in the 1980s, wine wasn’t for everyone, beer was made by large corporations and there were only a few kinds of whiskey that people routinely requested.
Changing that perspective was the reason that Jim Little and Peggy McKinlay opened Coaltrain Wine & Spirits back in 1981, wanting to be the first “serious wine store” in Colorado Springs.
That was then. Today, the store’s packed shelves won’t hold enough specialty liquors, hand-crafted beers and fine wines to meet demand. So the 32-year-old company is expanding — going from 4,400 square feet to 7,700 square feet.
“We’re never going to be one of the big warehouse stores. But we are getting a lot larger.”
– Peggy McKinlay, Coaltrain
“You can’t just have Smirnoff anymore,” McKinlay said. “There’s a whole mixology craze out there that demands specialty liquors.
“It used to be that carrying Jim Beam and Jack Daniels was enough — people just wanted ‘a bourbon.’ Now, they know exactly which kind of bourbon and where it was made. Even Colorado has distilleries — and that’s something new.”
Catering to people’s individual and evolving choices in wine and beer is right up McKinlay’s alley. A researcher before she opened the store with Little, she says there’s always something new to know.
“You can research forever — different vintages, different vineyards, different grapes,” she said. “And we always try to make sure we have what’s interesting and really good.”
But having what’s interesting doesn’t mean opening a copy of Wine Spectator and stocking the trendy top picks, she said. The wine at Coaltrain is chosen by the two owners personally.
“We do a lot of tastings,” she said. “And sometimes we agree with the mainstream about what’s good, and sometimes we don’t. We really want to make sure people are happy with the selection.”
Also, they want Coaltrain’s customers to be able to choose from an affordable $15 bottle of wine or spend much more for a very specific type or vineyard.
“We have affordable wines,” she said.“We want people to know that you don’t always have to spend $25, $50 or $80 every time you want to buy a wine.”
And customers are coming armed with more knowledge than in past years, she said, thanks to the “wine boom” throughout the country. Wine is simply a more accessible beverage now.
“It’s not pretentious,” she said. “Everyone can try a bottle of wine, learn about it, pick their favorites. We’re here to help.”
That means all of Coaltrain’s employees have to know their stuff: wine-and-food pairings, the latest batch of Guatemalan rum or the best hand-crafted beers in the state. Sometimes the employees even strike out on their own after learning the ropes at Coaltrain.
“We hired one woman, years ago, who wanted to learn about wine,” McKinlay recalls. “She even offered to work for free. But we paid her, and she learned a lot. Now, she owns a winery in France. We just visited her last year.”
More than just wine
And while McKinlay thought they’d focus on wine, her partner had other ideas.
“He said we’d have to have everything if we were going to pay the bills” she said. “He was absolutely right. And when the craft breweries started picking up, we moved right along with them.”
That was during the 1990s, and the store was prepared to meet the onslaught of craft brews that now line its shelves. In the ’80s, Coaltrain stocked 45 different beers; now, McKinlay says, they have more than 900.
“There are 162 different breweries in Colorado alone,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons for the expansion. We love the passion that goes into these small-batch, hand-crafted beers. We needed more room for them.”
Beer and wine have changed the market, but the store’s role in the community hasn’t changed. Located near the Uintah Street interchange of Interstate 25, convenient to the Old North End neighborhood, Coaltrain used to be one of three stores in the building. As the other stores moved out, Coaltrain expanded the business.
“We’re never going to be one of the big warehouse stores,” she said. “But we are getting a lot larger. We’ll be offering more tastings, more choices.”
Little and McKinlay own the building and are planning big things for the community, which is why they chose that particular corner all those years ago.
“We love being near the Old North End,” she says. “This had the right mix of traffic; it’s pretty busy. We’re accessible from all areas of the city. And we love being close to Colorado College — not so much for the students, they’re too young — but for the professors. CC has a lot of events that they need fine wine for. That’s where we come in.”
Over the years, Coaltrain has become a neighborhood staple, and neighbors frequently visit inside the store as they choose wine, beer or liquor.
“You’ll come in on Saturday and see people in little groups,” McKinlay said. “Everyone knows each other — it’s great to be a part of that.”
Coaltrain Wine & Spirits
Address: 330 W. Uintah St.
Number of employees: 10
Years in business: 32