Some entrepreneurs plan out their next business venture in their heads and on their laptops. James Harder spotted his from behind the wheel of his car.
It was 2012, and Harder was driving Foothill Boulevard, a meandering ribbon of asphalt that threads the tiny Napa Valley town of Calistoga, Calif. With a population of 5,311, Calistoga has little in the way of major industry, except of course for wine.
Chateau Montelena, the Kenefick Ranch Winery, Castello di Amorosa—these and scores of other vineyards nestle in the rolling countryside surrounding the town. Wine was the reason Harder was there, too. He and business partner Jim Regusci, scion of the highly respected Regusci Winery, had already collaborated on a number of successful ventures including the T-Vine Cellars and the James Cole Winery. But Harder was looking for a new project, a departure from what he’d already done.
That’s when he spotted the abandoned gas station.
It was a filling station from the 1930s, complete with streamlined trim, a big garage and an overhang to shelter the pumps. But it had been decades since the place had pumped any gas. The building was a mess, stuffed with old boxes, a truck parked in the garage, the pumps long ripped out, but Harder didn’t care. For the longest time, a thought had been knocking around in his head.
“Man,” he would say to himself, “I have to find a garage.” And now he had.
Harder wanted a garage as a home base for a new idea he was sure would be a hit. Actually, it was an old idea, at least in the wine world.
“I’d always liked the idea of garage winemaking,” he said, referring to the practice of blending different wines to create a new one. An age-old method that protected winemakers in the event of a bad harvest, blending was nevertheless looked down upon by some traditionalists. “It was a derogatory term in Bordeaux with the French,” Harder said. “You didn’t blend it. [But] there was a group of small growers, and they [blended wine]in their garages. It was a cool way of thinking [with]these underground renegades.”
Harder had resolved to be California’s next winemaking renegade. He’d spent his career in the regimented world of traditional winemaking where a cabernet was a cabernet and a merlot was a merlot.
“It was done to death,” he said. By contrast, blending was “an opportunity to remove the handcuffs of conformity.”
So, Harder bought the garage, turned it into a bohemian tasting room and made it the centerpiece of his new brand. Tank Garage Winery, which opened for business in May of 2014, is a small operation that sells one-off wines, some online but mostly inside the old filling station (more on that later). It is not a brand that’s likely to threaten the preeminence of a Colgin Cellars or the dominance of an E. & J. Gallo. But in its colorful nonconformity and manifest coolness, Tank Garage nevertheless represents a significant development in the highly stratified business of wine, one Americans support to the tune of $32 billion annually. It suggests that artfully blended wines can find a place between the established segments of premium labels and mass-market jugs. And perhaps more significantly, Tank Garage also exemplifies how millennial drinkers and their tastes are changing the hidebound world of wine.
The brand is only three years old, but it’s gotten plenty of attention both locally and nationally.
“Tank Garage speaks volumes to the new wave of the region’s wine tasting culture,” Sonoma alternative weekly the North Bay Bohemian reported.
“Napa Valley may have more than 400 wineries to choose from,” said a CNN segment that aired earlier this year, “but none of them are as cool as Tank Garage Winery.”
Mix and match with grapes
While the vineyards surrounding Tank Garage are busy making wine the traditional way—growing and harvesting the grapes and then fermenting and bottling them—Tank Garage, which devotes itself to the art of blending, takes a kind of hybrid approach, one that’s not yet fully embraced by its neighbors. Though it ferments and bottles its own brand, the grape part is essentially outsourced. Harder surveys the world’s grape-producing regions, locally in California but also as far away as Mexico and Spain, in search of what he calls “unique varietals” that growers are willing to sell. When Harder finds a variety that interests him, Tank Garage will buy a few tons of grapes, ship them back to Napa and then ferment them in several different ways.
With a broad variety of wines at the ready, Harder and his winemaker, Bertus van Zyl, sit down and start trying various blends. The process is an amalgam of art and instinct and admittedly trial and error. (Have they ever concocted something truly awful? “Yes, more than once,” Harder said. “We’ve made 180 case loads disappear.”) When they have a blend they like, it goes into production. The batches are small, sometimes 250 cases but often fewer, and no matter how good the stuff is, Tank Garage will make no more of it.
“Once we’re done, it’s gone,” Harder said. “It’s like writing a song or a poem.”
That limited-run quality of the wine has an obvious appeal. Brand marketers have long known few things drive demand better than scarcity.
Helping emphasize that limited-time-only feel is the design of the bottles, which change with every offering. Tank Garage partners with local artists to develop unusual motifs more commonly found on tattoos or classic-rock album covers than on wine bottles. California Stroke, for example, is a skin-fermented white (92 percent vermentino, 8 percent verdelho) with a label that features a 1970s customized surf van. A 2014 blend called The Heavy (73 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot, 7 percent cabernet franc) comes in a jet-black bottle with a red cap, imprinted with a 19th-century cabinet-card photo of an ample-bellied boxer, complete with tights and a handlebar mustache. The label motifs appear to have little to do with the wine, and the only requirement seems to be that it looks badass.
“We don’t overthink it,” Harder said. “If it’s cool, we run with it.”
Tank Garage reached the apogee of its bottle designs earlier this month with the release of Chrome Dreams, a Napa Valley red (87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 8 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent petite sirah) the company calls “our love letter to the classic American automobile.”
The bottle is chromed, a purported first in the glass industry, and adorned with a winged wheel just below the shoulders. Shining bright as a Harley’s exhaust pipe, the bottle “capture[s]the iconic curves and textures of classic Americana metalwork,” according to the company. Limited to 500 cases, Chrome Dreams goes for $75 a bottle. That’s pricey, though according to Travel + Leisure magazine, when you buy Tank Garage there’s a consolation prize: “You’ll want to keep the bottles long after the wine is gone.”
Gas pumps as wine marketing
Since Chrome Dreams isn’t for sale at the liquor store down the block, it’s already an insider proposition. But since Tank Garage does very little direct marketing, how has anyone heard of its wines at all?
Tank Garage’s primary marketing tool is word of mouth, which may seem inadequate for a brand of wine until you consider how quickly word of the restored gas station spread around wine circles.
“If you go to Calistoga, there’s a 65 percent chance you’ll drive by our station, slow down and say, ‘What the hell is that?’” said Ed Feuchuk, marketing vp for Harder’s company, Farm Collective, of which Tank Garage is a part. Harder fully restored the place’s exterior to look like a 1930s filling station, right down to period-appropriate gas pumps that are not operative. Only when visitors see the lettering on the facade—”Winery” and “Tasting,” it reads—is it clear something different is going on. Feuchuck and his colleagues leave the bay doors open, which encourages motorists to park and venture inside.
“It’s cool to see [people’s] faces as they survey what’s in front of them,” he said.
What’s in front of them looks nothing like the automotive garage the place used to be. It’s an industrial-chic expanse of bare brick and open ductwork decorated with artifacts like a neon clock, an Evel Knievel pinball machine and an old Chief motorcycle. A potshot enamel sign behind the bar reads “Lubrication.” A Tank staffer walks visitors through what’s on offer, which is always something different since the batches of 50 to 500 cases tend to go quickly.
And visitors stand a good chance of buying wine to take home—that’s 90 percent of Tank Garage’s revenue, currently—or signing up to become one of the 2,000 or so members of Tank Garage’s wine club, as anywhere from 150 to 200 people do every month. A percentage of those visitors will also be interested in having a larger gathering at the garage, for which there’s a back room somewhat facetiously called the “Speakeasy.” Resembling a cross between a mobbed-up Little Italy restaurant and Elvira’s powder room, the Speakeasy is a drinking den with a black ceiling of pressed tin, tufted banquettes and murky chandelier light.
Visitors, Feuchuk said, “have never seen anything like this before,” and surely not in Napa. Why not? “Because they’ve been going to French chateaux and historic estates,” he said. The decor of the garage “sets the tone pretty early because it’s unconventional from the first step onto the property.”
Millennials by the case
Visits to the garage often turn into marketing for the brand, according to Feuchuk. “They’re Instagramming and Snapchatting about this place because they’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
And who are those visitors? Many of them are well-to-do millennials, which Sacramento, San Francisco and the nearby Silicon Valley has in abundance. And while Harder maintains that his gas-station-cum-tasting-room draws a range of people, not just the young but “people who aspire to be young,” others in the wine business peg the brand as Gen Y to the core.
“This is sort of like a very hipster-millennial focused brand exercise,” said Alder Yarrow, a popular wine blogger and chief experience officer at San Francisco brand experience agency Cibo. “This definitely evokes a millennial target,” added Stephanie Teuwen, whose company, Teuwen Communications, is a prominent PR and marketing voice for food and wine brands. “[It’s] done with good taste and with more authenticity than most brands,” she said. “They are pushing the limits like a creative fashion house. They want to attract people with taste. I am sure they are successful.”
They’re at least speaking to an eager audience. According to a 2016 study from the Wine Market Council, a not-for-profit association of growers, producers, importers and retailers, millennials drank 42 percent of all the wine consumed in America—159 million cases, to be precise. Millennials now make up a majority share (36 percent) of the wine drinkers out there, edging out boomers by two percentage points. As wine consumers, millennials have become such a force that earlier this summer, Goldman Sachs downgraded two leading beer company stocks in part because millennials like to drink wine more than beer.
But Yarrow is quick to point out that successfully selling wines to millennials and being a good vintner, or even a good blender, are not the same thing. Tank Garage, he said, “[is]not making an art out of blending—they’re making a brand out of blending. This is very much a brand exercise they’re doing. The whole thing is very well crafted, [as is]the packaging, from the arcade games to the tasting room to hiring famous tattoo artists to do their bottles. They’ve really cultivated a whole brand impression.”
Thing is, millennials, he explained, are not known for developing their palates. They care more about image. And while younger drinkers tend to be more adventurous than their older counterparts, “they don’t seem to pay all that much attention to the hierarchies of quality and provenance,” Yarrow said.
Which is not to say that Tank Garage is not making high-quality wine—as Yarrow pointed out, none of these bottles would sell if the wine inside didn’t taste good—though it may be to say that its millennial audience is probably happier with a cool wine than a great wine.
Surely, the research backs up those observations. According to wine blog The Back Label, Gen Y likes to experiment when it comes to wine, “seek[ing]out what’s different or unusual rather than sticking with the traditional or expected.” Rather than heeding the 100-point rating scale the experts assign to wines, millennials would rather drink wines with which they can feel some personal affinity. Industry watchers have observed that young buyers seem to be more attracted by the story behind the wine than what’s actually in the bottle. An earlier study from the WMC found that female wine enthusiasts in particular—who tend to skew urban, educated and older-millennial—are “more likely to buy a wine they’ve never tried before based on the label.”
As a group, millennials may not be the most discriminating wine drinkers, but Harder keeps his standards high, since many of his customers are also Gen Xers who, being more established in their careers, can more easily drop $40 or $50 for a bottle of Tank Garage. And he remains an unabashed champion of blending.
Do the old-guard winemakers sneer at what he’s doing? “There are folks who came here in the 1970s and do the traditional stuff who don’t take us too seriously,” he said, adding that “more and more,” the establishment is “becoming open” to Tank Garage. He has proof, too. Many of the young men and women who work for the surrounding vineyards? After a hard day’s work, they can be seen drinking at Tank Garage.
“We’re the garagees of Napa,” he said, “and we’ll wear that badge proudly.”