A blast from the past! This 1930’s mid-century designed gas station with its original gas pumps has survived ninety years of exposure to the elements, including everything from floods to fires. Located on a prominent corner of Foothill Boulevard, the main artery bringing traffic to Calistoga in the heart of the Napa Wine Country (and a few steps from Lincon Avenue, the main shopping drag) every arriving car passes Tank Garage Winery tasting rooms. There’s absolutely no reason not to stop for a “fill-up” (in moderation, of course!)
The asymmetrical building, with its flat roof, was designed somewhere between the period of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style, and was built before Mid-Century architecture really came into its own. With its sleek, definitive lines restored, it has stood the test of time and now attracts a steady flow of visitors who arrive to taste some of the most unique, artisanal wines in the Napa Valley.
The space has been transformed from a derelict garage to a very successful wine tasting venue for Tank Garage Winery, entertaining guests on the terrace around the pumps or inside at the bar that once housed a garage machine shop.
That restoration even included bringing this mammoth 40-foot roll-up door back into working condition, admitting fresh breezes into the tasting room when weather permits.
This piece of vintage wine country history was rescued by friends and partners, James Harder and Jim Regusci, who recognized the potential of the space and defied the normal expectations of how a wine tasting experience is perceived. Both are steeped in the wine industry with years of experience and are well known in the Napa Valley wine world while having also worked together in the past.
This was a dream for the partners and with no business plan, no exit strategy, and no helpful advice from the naysayers who thought they were being reckless and doomed to failure. They put their “dream” into motion: “to create a wine experience like no other.” A wine tasting destination that could be unconventional, rebellious, and youthful, as well as produce the best artisanal blended wines in a unique setting.
The gas station had outlived its use because the gas storage tanks were leaking toxic contaminants and needed expensive repairs. More than likely, the whole spot would have been demolished, its history gone forever, to make way for a new building, or simply razed as happened across the street to another historic gas station.
But instead, the space was imaginatively restored by vonRaesfeld architects of Petaluma and today the wine tastings are available on the gas pump terrace or inside at the bar, above which hangs a sign: LUBRICATION! But strictly of a more social sort, these days.
EDDIE BRATTON and his INDIAN CHIEF MOTORCYCLES
Part of the history of the building is bound up with Eddie Bratton, a motorcycle enthusiast who owned the building and ran an Indian Chief motorcycle repair shop here for many years.
In 1926, at the age of fifteen, Eddie rode his Indian Chief motorcycle from Fargo in North Dakota to San Francisco. This was during the Depression and he survived the journey eating sandwiches made with onions and potatoes dug from farms along the way. An early form of the now ubiquitous farm-to-fork movement!
Settling first in San Francisco, he made a name for himself working on Indian Chief motorcycles, building what was known as the Bratton Cam to boost the speed of the machines. Attracted by the Calistoga Raceway where he raced, Eddie moved to Calistoga and took over the old gas station and machine shop, where he developed a reputation for excellence in servicing Indian Chief motorcycles for the rest of his life. He was a daredevil biker with a colorful personality, who successfully participated in motorcycle races as well as doing death-defying stunts standing up on his speeding motorcycle.
Today, the station’s new owners succeeded in locating Eddie’s 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle, and after coaxing the owner into selling it to them, have featured it prominently inside the showroom.
For a further reminder of the building’s mechanical past, you only have to look to the station’s wall, where you’ll find some unique handmade musical instruments: guitars made from old oil cans. Yes, they work!
As an homage to Eddie, whose personality lives on inside the building, in 2016 Tank brought out a wine titled “2016 EDDIE, Red Wine, Napa Valley,” with a unique custom label designed by Shawn Barber, a renowned tattoo artist, based on photographs of Eddie in his racing days. The wine is described as follows:
EDDIE is an exhilarating Bordeaux Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec that smells like lush cassis, vanilla, cigar smoke, and worn leather, This wild thing is balanced and textured, bursting with flavors of vanilla, coffee dusted truffles, and mocha”
SAMPLING A FLIGHT OF FOUR WINES.
Welcomed into the “Tasting Room” by my Wine host, Conary, I was quickly introduced to the principals that apply to winemaking at Tank Garage Winery.
These are one-off uniquely crafted wines made in small batches, 75 – 950 case lots. Once a batch is sold out, it is not repeated. They own no vineyards: all the wines are blends made from grapes gathered from various wine regions in California. That allows for grapes grown in different terroirs and elevations — all factors that contribute to the flavor levels and a diverse palate.
From the current menu, I sampled a flight of four different wines, and I mean different! Each one had its own personality and legend.
Conary carefully poured each tasting into a Riedel tumbler, not a stemmed glass. These are unbreakable and are sold in-house. My tasting order was as follows:
CALIFORNIA BABY, 950 cases.
Now if you’re looking for one word to sum Forever Baby up, it’s sexy. A flirtatious perfume of rose petals, fresh strawberry, and lemon zest drips out of the glass. In your mouth, it’s light, crisp, and refreshing, with sensuous flavors of strawberry candy, freshly peeled grapefruit, raspberry sorbet, and jasmine. And you better call up Sting, because this tantric finish lasts FOREVER.
2020 LITTLE SECRETS 950 Cases.
Like passed love notes during the spring bloom, this wine is full of Little Secrets, not meant to be unveiled. But we’ll make an exception with this bottle. Because we’re talking about carbonic macerated Gamay, Beaujolais Nouveau style. You heard that right. On the nose, experience rose petals, dried cherries, and Hawaiian Fruit Punch. On the palate, this wine is fresh as hell with notes of herbaceous membrillo blood orange, juicy peach, and Hubba Bubba bubblegum. With bright acidity and a satin texture, this wine will enamor you.
2018 HIGH HOPES 295 cases
Medium in body with a sexy scarlet hue, we’re really stoked with how pretty this wine looks. It smells even better with fresh herbalicious (it’s a word, Google it) aromas blooming out of the glass. In your mouth, it’s all about the bright, exuberant red fruit with punchy flavors of cherry and raspberry joined by notes of rosemary and sage. This is a Pinot lover’s Merlot blend and we’re happy to drink this all day until they come to arrest us.
2019 SELF LOVE 75 cases.
A California blend of 41% Syrah, 31% Cinsaut, 22% Grenache, and 6% Valdiguié, this wine is all about red cherries and black pepper spice. There’s a reason that marriage of flavors is as old as wine itself; because it’s delicious. Completing these notes are abundant aromas of rose petals and violets and bright juicy flavors of gushing blackberry, chocolate cupcakes with raspberry filling, creamy vanilla, and clove. It’s just so lip-smacking good.
BERTUS, THE WINEMAKER.
Bertus van Zyl is the alchemist, the wizard of wine whose magic creates these unique blends. To achieve this, Bertus combines old-world techniques with modern technologies to create compelling wines. As a result, Tank is best known for its artisan approach to wine blends.
Originally from Cape Town, surrounded by the breathtaking Cape Winelands in South Africa, where he grew up, he sampled wine with his parents and developing his palate from a young age. While at school in Stellenbosh, in the heart of the grape growing country, Bertus took his first course in wine at the age of fourteen going on to study viticulture and enology at Stellenbosch University, a highly respected school that has a tradition of wine education dating back to the 1880s.
Since arriving in Calistoga, Betus made it his mission to form relationships with grape growers all over the wine-growing regions of California, seeking out grapes grown on older vines and some of the rarest and obscure varietals to add to his small-batch wine production,
Spending time on the road, he observes keenly, as the vines grow and the young bunches of grapes are formed, searching a diverse selection from different terroirs and elevations. Then, he experiments to capture the flavors and textures from each pick using a variety of winemaking techniques. Some of the more advanced techniques include extended macerations, skin contact with white grapes, carbonic maceration, whole cluster fermentation petillant natural sparkling wine, and natural wine. This is very scientific and requires a trained palate and understanding of chemical reactions in the fermentation process.
The winemaking goal at Tank garage winery is to create wines with flavors, aromas, and stories unlike any in the world — and they succeed. It is in Bertus’ creativity that Tank can depend for the interesting and unique blends that have elevated Tank Garage Winery.
There must be something exceptional about winemakers from South Africa because Bertus now has an assistant, Michael Roets, who also learned his winemaking in South Africa.
This is a brand that rises above a sea of repetitive copycat brands. Tank has developed a brand that is quirky, iconoclastic, and rebellious, a combo of brilliant thinking and unique wines. Anyone who loves words should spend time on their website reading their wine descriptions because they are smart, subtle, irreverent, and saucy. The wine bottle labels are an integral part of Tank’s branding and they have a coterie of designers who capture the story of the wine on a label, with catchy, creative names.
There is no one else who has carved out such a unique brand in the California wine industry and no one who comes close to what Tank is all about.
It is a couple of years since I added my name to TankGarage Winery’s mailing list, not because I am an oenophile (I am not!) but because I admired their irreverent attitude and skillful marketing — and the way they treated a normally venerable and orthodox topic. Wine is not one of my subjects because it is a crowded field, but when I learned that Tank occupied a refurbished Mid-Century building, I was “in”! My special interest is the adaptive re-use of space, and this free-spirited restoration is a classic example of a relic of the past that has been saved and given a new life. Kudos to all those who were responsible for saving it!
This is a unique wine tasting experience, highly recommend it, both for the experience and the wines. “It is a wine experience like no other”.
Please note: Wine tastings are by appointment and to share in this experience call to request a reservation.
The wines are not distributed and can only be bought online through the wine club. To join visit www.tankgaragewinery.com
Please support our neighbors in the wine country — between the fires and the pandemic, it has been a rough ride.
To Kathy Brazzoli of the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga, who harnessed her archivists’ knowledge to supply some missing pieces about the background and history of the Mid-Century garage building.
And especially to Ed from Tank Garage Winery who answered my endless questions and made me realize: I don’t know what I don’t know about winemaking and now I’m really interested.