It’s fair to say James Harder captured a little of my patriotic, wine-loving heart when his Tank Garage Winery website and sentient IP geo-bot acknowledged our shared homeland. It’s a small thing, but that patriotic nod to his Canadian roots is just one of the many savvy insights that James and his partners bring to the increasingly challenging art and science of wine marketing.
Marketing 101 says if you’re going to launch a portfolio of brands, ensure maximum separation to avoid cannibalization. As I explored the breadth and depth of James’ three Napa Valley winery offerings, it’s clear he’s followed this wisdom while following his heart.
James Cole, the small intimate winery he built with his wife Colleen is a dream-come-true, charmed and charming winery; a little slice of Napa heaven on the Silverado Trail that makes exceptional, super-premium Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
T-Vine in Calistoga is a boutique, Zin-focused winery that taps James’ fascination with California’s iconic gnarly vine. With a down-home vibe and bar-crowd farmhouse feel, T-Vine makes me go searching for my cowboy boots. James and his business partner Jim Regusci re-launched the T-Vine brand a couple of years after the James Cole Winery was up and running. Their respect for the grape growers who put California’s wine country on the map is woven throughout the T-Vine tapestry.
His third brand, Tank Garage Winery – also in Calistoga – is ‘garagist’ in form and function. The resurrected 1930s gas station, with a tasting room called the Lubrication Tank, allows James and partner Jim Regusci to explore their wild side. The team is blending a fantastic range of noble and “underdog” varietals and creating a limited edition Vault of wines that are as much fun as they are unique. I easily lost half a day reading the Oscar caliber (ok – Cannes Lions caliber) advertising copy for each of their Tank blends. Names like Liquid Light Show, Drive Like You Stole It, The Love Removal Machine and their latest release – Post Disco give the team permission to tap their fascination with prohibition, pop culture, automotive culture and art & design. The winery is as much adult toy box and excuse to indulge in cool vintage stuff as it is a tasting room!
If it’s not obvious, James was a wine marketer before he was a winemaker. In the small world category, there’s a good chance our wine paths crossed in a Toronto ad agency board room a quarter century ago when the agency I worked for managed the Vincor advertising business. Vincor International, was the fourth largest producer and distributor of wine brands in North America and was based in Toronto (the business was sold to Constellation).
Vincor hired James fresh out of university and over a six-year period he honed his sales and marketing chops working for Canada’s pioneer wine brand. From there, he moved to British Columbia’s preeminent fine wine brand, Mission Hill. It was during a business trip to San Francisco when James met his life and business partner Colleen and their dream of owning a winery in Napa, was hatched.
I’m not sure there’s a smarter marketer in Napa or a nicer guy (although I recognize I’ve said this for all the Canadians I’ve profiled). James sells all his wine Direct to Consumer (DTC) and through his wine clubs. Sadly, as the maple leaf emoji says, we can’t order James Cole, Tank or T-Vine wines here in Canada, so I guess I’ll have to book another trip to Napa.
Meet James Harder.
I asked your neighbour Ray Signorello this and I’ll ask you too: What Canadiana traits or attributes have you’ve exported to Napa?
Wow – let me think. I think there’s a general humbleness that we Canadians all bring with us. I know when I meet Canadians down here, whether they’re in the wine industry or not, I usually hear about them before I even get to meet them. So and so’s from Canada. Their reputation always precedes them. I think Canadians are just good people. Humble. Caring. They give back. And I don’t take that charge lightly in this world down here so I like to think that’s what I bring to the industry too.
And you have a brother who’s also in the wine business…
Yes, he’s in the Okanagan Valley. We grew up just east of Edmonton – near South Cooking Lake. But he moved early in his twenties to Kelowna and did a few different ventures there, mostly manufacturing wakeboard and water ski boats. After he decided to get out of that business he asked me about the wine business and lo and behold he was able to buy some land and plant some grapes and 10 – 15 years later he’s got his own winery called Ex Nihilo . So yea, it’s a lot of fun. We spend a lot of time supporting each other and sharing stories on the trials and tribulations of trying to build a wine business.
Is it a passion for agriculture that you’re both ‘working the land’?
Yea, it was for me. We grew up in rural Alberta and our grandparents had a cattle farm. My parents lived right next door. So we grew up on that farm doing all the chores and being outside all the time. As young kids, that life inspired both of us and made me want to have a piece of land and grow something, for sure. I know that still resonates with me today as I think about my children and what I want to pass along to them.
You got an early start in the Canadian wine industry at Vincor. What did your experience there teach you?
I was exposed to a lot of things really early. I jumped into that career right out of Simon Fraser University. I started there a week after I graduated and I started in wine sales, which was Bright’s Wines at the time. I was really fortunate because I had great mentors there – guys like Gordon Monroe, Jim Gill and Keith Davis – guys who had worked in the industry and came from Labatt’s. They were in their mid-thirties and I was in my early twenties, so being exposed to the importance of professional selling, and wine marketing and promotions, I learned alot.
They were kind enough to move me around different territories in the lower mainland and then when I got an opportunity to go into brand management I jumped at it. I was relocated out to Toronto and got to learn about marketing programs for wine, and label design and I just soaked it all in.
Eventually I left there – I was recruited by Anthony Von Mandl to work at the Mission Hill Winery – and I worked on Mission Hill and a little bit on the Mike’s Hard Lemonade business. I really loved the art and science of marketing and digging into why people buy, what they get excited about. I love the marketing piece and knew I wanted to make it my life’s work.
I had an opportunity to come to the US and I met my wife – we had mutual Toronto friends who set up a blind date in the late 90’s, and so I moved down and got a job at Wilson Daniels one of Napa’s premier marketing companies. They had a big domestic and import portfolio of wine and spirits and I worked on Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Tequila and also on their wine portfolio – on brands like Schramsberg and Silverado, Wild Horse and some really good import wines. And then I went off on my own and started marketing consulting. My wife, Colleen and I had bought 10 acres on Silverado Trail and started planting a little vineyard and while that was coming into fruition I would consult. And then I met Jim Regusci – he had a vineyard management company and he planted our vineyard for us. He had his own winery and needed some marketing, so we really just started that way. We hit it off and started a few projects and brands together, and 18 years later we’re still going strong.
So when was your first vintage?
We bought in 2000 and made our first vintage in 03 at Jim’s winery. We built the winery on our property in 07. Along the way, Jim and I started a company called Nine North Wine Company where we created a lot of negociant brands together. We focused on developing brands and sourcing grapes and wine, and blending it. We started that in 02 and sold it in 2012. We saw the way Napa was going and the importance of and shift to Direct to Consumer and that’s when we purchased the T-Vine brand from Greg Brown. We bought in 2009 opened that winery in 2012. And then we opened the Tank Garage in 2014.
Wow. You were busy. So now you have three brands – James Cole, T-Vine and Tank Winery. How are you separating them?
It was Colleen’s and my dream to find a little piece of property and plant some grapes. We poured our heart and soul into that and James Cole is a reflection of how we lead our life. If you come to visit you’ll see a small-scale winery. It’s really intimate and personal. We always say it should be an extension of our home and our living room and quite frankly when you come visit and see the aesthetic and the feel, it is basically how we live our lives and what’s important to us. So that one is really wrapped around growing what we think is best for us not only on our property, but also around Napa Valley. James Cole is a Cabernet based winery and we grow some Bordeaux varieties. It’s very small and we’re trying to make the absolute best wine we can regardless of growth and volume. We started by making 200 cases. We’re about 15 vintages into it and we only make 2500 cases. We keep it small because that’s the vision.
And then, when I came to California I fell in love with Zinfandel. It’s not indigenous to California but it really became one of the signature California grapes and I just loved the old vines and the history of it. And then we had the opportunity to purchase T-Vine. Greg Brown was getting out of the industry, and it was a small intimate boutique-ish brand and he had developed a following back to 1992 when he made his first Zin and Grenache. These were well made wines from old vines with lots of character. I was a real fan of those wines. When we got word he might be willing to sell we jumped at it. From there, we built a small farmhouse winery up on Hwy 29 and it really is an ode to growers – second, third and fourth generation grape growers in California. We go around the northern part of the state looking for regions that we feel grow the best old vines. So anywhere from Dry Creek in Sonoma to Russian River, Lodi, Amador County….we’re constantly sourcing for old heritage vineyards where we can purchase the grapes and showcase the wine through our T-Vine Winery
And then…. as we were building T-Vine we got word that this old 1930’s garage was becoming available and that’s just something I always wanted to do. When I first got in the business with Bright’s Wines in Vancouver, one of our first educational trips was down to Walla Walla, Washington. There was a gentleman who had an old service station and it was really small and funky and he was making these super rustic wines. But he was quite unapologetic about them. This was his passion and the whole thing just resonated with me. And I compared it to our visit to all these fancy wineries and chateau style exteriors and interiors and it was so different and just so cool. So I was always on the lookout for something like that. When this old station became available in Calistoga I jumped at it.
We spent a couple of years renovating it and making it as cool as we could. It was really about what we like. I always say a brand is what a brand loves. I love old vintage motorcycles, I love history, I love everything from the old prohibition days, speakeasies….. so we tried to wrap all of that up in this funky space.
We try to make wine that we love. It’s all about blending – it’s not about any one area in California and it’s not about any one grape. We’re continuously trying things, going down new paths. Being curious. It’s been a lot of fun.
Do you see separation in audience between your three offerings and is it the audience you envisioned?
Yea, I think so. Each of them seems to find their audience by nature of what they are. We find when someone is loyal to one they really appreciate the others and we do have some club members who are loyal to all three.
A lot of people say to us you’re going after the millennial crowd and I say no, we’re really just trying to do something different. We didn’t think Napa needed another farmhouse, another chateau, and another stone building because we have a ton of them. So if you’re going to open something in a garage or an old 1930’s service station you better bring something that’s a little different to the party. I think we have with the varieties we blend and how we approached the artwork. And that approach is resonating with a cross-section of demographics.
Sure we have younger and emerging consumers who love that there’s no pretense to the place. It’s not stuffy. It’s totally relaxed. But we have boomers who come on a regular basis and some pull up in their old cars and love the nostalgic part of it. So there was no great design when we did it to say that’s specifically who we’re going after. It was more like we dig this and lets do something that’s cool and hopefully others will like it.
I’m loving the label art! And who does your copywriting? Serious SHOUT OUT to your writers!
Haha. Thanks. We’re a team here. We do it all in-house so it’s myself and my head of marketing Ed Feuchuk, and one of our brand managers, Darcy Dellera. Ed’s in his thirties and Darcy’s in her twenties. I’m the old guy in his forties. But between all of us we manage to appeal to all the audience segments. Yes, we’re like the old Beck song – two turntables and a microphone. When you’re small it forces you not to overthink things and when you launch 14, 15 up to 16 new labels a year, you need to keep moving.
We do sometimes develop the labels in-house. We’ll use a simple vintage photo that we stumble across or something we think is cool…. or we have a handful of artists that we just really dig, who do collage art or who are tattoo artists. All of them operate outside of traditional wine industry packaging. They like what we’re doing so we throw out ideas, come up with a story together, get it on the bottle, and move on to the next one.
Was Tank’s strategy to create small lot, limited edition wines and create demand?
There isn’t really a grand strategy to make them exclusive and sell out. I had a lot of my own learning coming through the business. Many people come into this business and think if they’re making 200 cases, it’s just as easy to make 2,000 cases. And I would see people sitting on inventory and they’re desperate to sell it off, and that excess created all these flash sites. No. We’re going to grow into what we deserve. So we always start small and it usually stays small and then if we sell-out we can grow into the next one.
The whole Vault thing happened because people were collecting the wine and holding on to it and then contacting us the following year and saying – ‘Remind me, how many cases were made of Vinyl Love’? So we just decided to post the story and production history on the site so people could track it all. But we are sold out on all those bottles. We’re very fortunate. We may have a case or two cases that we hold back just so we can see how these wines age out, because we’re doing a lot of different blends. But yea, we started at 100 case lots and now we’re up to 500 case lots on some, and they’re usually gone in one to two months. So we find smaller keeps people interested in our wine and they keep coming back to stay on top of it because they don’t take it for granted.
Are you exclusively DTC?
James Cole has always been 100% direct to consumer. Tank and T-Vine were launched that way. We did do a little bit of wholesale but we just made the decision at the beginning of this year that we are completely out of wholesale now so it’s all made up of tasting room sales and the wine club. It’s mind-boggling what’s going on at wholesale. There was a time when we enjoyed it and did well but now it’s not for us given our size and scale. We simply don’t matter in a three-tier system.
You live next door to Ray Signorello who lost everything to the fires in October. I read you used water from your hot tub to keep the flames at bay….
We had 4 or 5 neighbours behind us who also lost their homes in the fire. It was the same path that took Ray’s winery. Yea, the clean up continues. People are still in shock but it did pull our community together. There were neighbours that I knew to say hi to at the mailbox and now we give hugs and we have each other’s backs and we lend things to those who need them. So I think it strengthened us a lot.
Tourism is still recovering. The industry was shut down during the busiest time, which was the month of October. That was hard. We had tremendous support from our customers and they stepped up and started ordering wine, which was so appreciated but the folks that were planning to go to Napa in the fall and spring changed their plans. Things are starting to return to normal. I have another Canadian neighbour, Richard Warke, who wasn’t here at the time and I had to let him know his house was ok, but he lost his guest-house, his garage and his car collection. He said well ….that’s ok. Those things can be replaced. Does anybody need to use my house? That’s the kind of stuff you love to see.
We had some really close friends with a number of kids and they lost everything. Absolutely everything. They got out with their car. We’re in shock for them. It’s pretty amazing to see their kids and their resilience. It’s one thing for Ray and I who have been in business a long time to rebuild and keep going. But talk to a 10 year old girl who lost all of her favourite possessions who rebounds and says ‘I got some new clothes and I’m back in school and my mom and dad are looking at building a new home and life goes on’. That’s really impressive.
And you were able to hang on to your home and winery…
We had a lot of friends show up unannounced because everybody got word early through social media. We had our hot tub at one end of the property and the water tank at the other end and we did the bucket brigade and only lost a couple of small out-buildings. A garden shed and the gazebo where we hosted wine tastings burned down and lots of landscaping and fencing. We are the lucky ones. We had a dozen guys – including my business partner Jim Regusci, show up and go to work in the middle of the night. Without them we would have definitely lost more.
Having a stone winery helped because there was a lot of ash and sparks being thrown because of the winds. It kept them from hopping over. We were super-fortunate.
With all of that behind you, what is the greatest joy and challenge in making wine in Napa?
The greatest joy is watching it all come together. It’s the old adage – grape to glass. It’s the growing of it, the relationships you form, working with hard-working families. Whether we grow it ourselves or work with long time growers. No one’s here for the money (haha). I remember Robert Mondavi told me years ago – I had the pleasure of meeting him before he passed – he said ‘I was successful but I probably could have been successful in a lot of other industries but I wouldn’t have had the passion’. So, yea, it’s the passion, it’s the life, it’s agriculture that you can bottle up and share with people and then watch how it ages. So for me there is a lot of joy in what I do.
The challenge – it’s always changing. When I got into the business it was all wholesale and then maybe you’d get a high score from a new release and you sent out a fax or a customer sent you a fax order and you sold out. It’s gotten a lot more competitive. Wholesale has changed completely, dominated by big box retail and big distributors now so the challenge now is finding our little slice of it in the direct-to- consumer world. The question is always how do you stand out with 700 wineries here in Napa Valley when everyone is offering shades of the same thing. I think we make great cabernet but so does my neighbour Ray Signorello and so does his neighbour Darioush.
And how do you stand out in the world of branding and marketing and hospitality? Authenticity is such a big one for us. There’s nothing that we want to do with any of our wineries that feels contrived because we think some hipster kids might think it’s cool. We gotta love it and we gotta believe in it.
And then consumers’ tastes are changing. Five years ago it was big, ripe, high alcohol wines and now it’s about refinement. So I think the opportunity is to continue to evolve and learn and not be too rigid so you are evolving with it.
Thanks James. I can’t wait to visit you in Napa to try your wine!