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 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 mixing different wines, in a literal garage, to create a unique blend—the French practitioners of which were known as garagistes. While blending itself is an age-old tactic that protected winemakers in the event of a bad harvest, the garagistes had their own style of blending that differed from the traditional methods of the big Chateaux, and were regarded as apostates. Garagiste “was a derogatory term in Bordeaux with the French,” Harder explained, but the garage producers had “a cool way of thinking” that made them “underground renegades.”
Harder had resolved to take that independent blending style to California, to be a renegade himself. 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.