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Tank Garage Winery Revels In Its Vintage Vibes

by Bill McCool on 10/14/2021 | 6 Minute Read

If you open up a winery in an old service station, folks are bound to take note—they will also try to pump gas, of course, until they find out that you’re actually making wine.

But that’s just what Tank Garage Winery’s founder James Harder did when the winemaker opened their doors in 2014. “We always said Napa didn't need another farmhouse or Tuscan or French-style chateau winery,” admits Harder. “We needed to do something different. It was really about our willingness to explore, take risks, and try things. It felt like a cool backdrop for that.”

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Harder is no stranger to the world of wine and has been in the industry since the early 90s. After striking out with his wife, Colleen, they opened up James Cole, but after stumbling across an old gas station from the 1930s that had fallen into disrepair, Harder had an opportunity to acquire the property. The previous owner had turned it into a bottle shop, but he saw something more—the kind of garage where he could tinker around and experiment, something that wouldn't feel as stuffy as so many other wineries from the region. So, they purchased the property, restored it to its original Art Deco roots, and even added a 1920s style speakeasy, creating one of the area's go-to winemakers.

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That love for all things vintage guides much of what the winery is known for. Well, that and just doing “cool shit.” 

For starters, they never make the same wine twice. Once a bottle sells out, it's retired forever, making each release its own kind of prized treasure, and they rarely stick around for more than six months. Tank's created more than 150 different labels in their seven years of existence, and case production can be as high as 1,000 or as little as six, fostering a kind of sneakerhead thirst trap—but for challenging, innovative vino. They use a variety of new and old-world techniques to create their wares, whether it’s open-top fermentation or something that requires a classic grape foot stomp. Say what you will, they’re never dull, and creativity, imagination, and experimentation are central to the winery’s ethos.

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And it also applies to the bottle design for the Napa Valley upstart.

About 80% of the labels and bottle design is done in-house by James, general manager Ed Feuchuk, and the rest of the team. James and Ed don't have a design background whatsoever, but they managed to imbue a certain rebellious quality to their aesthetic, and you won’t find the usual manor house slapped on the bottle. “We wanted to be a little bit different,” Harder says. “If it looks like a couple of guys in a garage were sitting around and cutting and pasting and gluing things on bottles until it felt right, then that's probably it because that's what we did.”

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And what guides much of the design? “I don't want to sound arrogant, but if it looks like it would be comfortable on a grocery store shelf, it’s probably wrong,” he admits. “It's just about being inspired by something cool.” Early on, they sought out reputable designers to create their packaging design, and while those creatives delivered some admirable work, they just didn’t have “that Tank feel.” It was too good—too professional.

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“It’s almost like the Ramones,” he says. “They play three chords, and it’s clanky, and it just works.” And that’s Tank.

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Nostalgia also plays a big part in how they decide what makes it on a bottle, opting for whatever gives them the warm fuzzies. “I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, and I was a Gen X kid,” Harder says. “From a design perspective, we have the luxury of now going back and seeing if something stands the test of time or if it was a trend, right? Does it feel cool in 2021? If it does to me, then let’s try and incorporate that because if it was cool in 1979 and it’s cool in 2021, then there’s something about that.” For them, the past is a goldmine of inspiration, and they’re comfortable letting others prognosticate what the future holds in terms of design trends. They would prefer to capture a feeling or a particular moment in time with their design. 

“There’s an element of romance to that,” he adds.

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Still, they do look to outside sources for some of their releases. Their ongoing collaboration series—dubbed Tank Cares—finds them working with some of their favorite artists a handful of times a year. Shusaku Takaoka created the design for Pizzaboy, a wine developed with downtown LA slice purveyors Pizzanista, and proceeds go to Skate Wild, an organization that takes kids from troubled backgrounds to national and state parks so they can experience the natural world and all its wonders. Additionally, Tank worked with Chicago painter Dwight White, using his painting “Reborn” for a wine that benefits Black Lives Matter and The Simple Good, a non-profit that connects kids to public art projects and programming. UK artist Hizze Fletcher-King created their Love & Pride bottle, too, using a mixed media piece that celebrates queer-core culture and gives back to California’s LGBTQ Connection.

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While you could say that the brand is coasting on retro fumes—and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong—it still looks pretty, pretty, pretty good, despite Harder not even having an artistic background (not that you ever really needed one). But there’s a very punk attitude that holds sway over the brand. Sure, they’re fucking around in the garage with a copy machine and mod podge while making some out-there wines with three different kinds of grapes, but it’s that element of risk that draws folks in, too.

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“With punk bands and that particular ethos, I was in my adolescence at that time, but I just admired that,” James says. “You didn't have to be the most talented musician, or in my case, the most talented artist. You just had to have a passionate desire to put out something and take a risk. I think that's what we're all about. I did work in corporate wine culture, and it always feels like you're chasing something, right? You see a trend, and you see someone do something that blows up, and then the CEO says, 'Hey, we've got to go and do that. We’ve got to write a hit song or one like that.' And it's like no, fuck." 

“You do what you're passionate about,” he adds. “If it’s cool, people will find you and follow you.”

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