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Bertus van Zyl Breaks Boundaries at Tank Garage Winery

Cover Image for Bertus van Zyl Breaks Boundaries at Tank Garage Winery
By Sophie Brochu

Bertus van Zyl hails from South Africa, but he’s made a home—and a name for himself—in Napa. For the past ten years, he’s been making wines from vineyards all over California. At Tank Garage, van Zyl focuses on approachable, small-batch, and experimental blends intended to take the stuffiness out of wine.

How would you describe your winemaking style?

We make close to 40 different wines between the two wineries (Tank Garage and James Cole), spanning a lot of different styles, pretty much all the styles you can think of. Pét-nat sparkling wines, orange wines, carbonic red and white wines, all the way up to really high-end Napa cab and everything in between. So for me, stylistically, it’s about finding really amazing vineyard sites, and then trying to amplify what I see and taste in those sites.

We only own a very small percentage of our own vineyards, and everything else is purchased fruit. I travel all over California, working with awesome people and amplifying the amazing fruit that we receive here. The other fun part is blending, being super creative, thinking outside the box, and taking risks where we can.

How do you approach blending?

We have all these different building blocks to work with. There are times when we’re walking through a vineyard and going, ‘Oh. This tastes amazing, and this would go really well with this block that we’ve already picked from another vineyard, or this block that we’re going to get from this vineyard.’ You can already start to kind of see a blend coming together in your head a little bit. Other times it’s just about sitting down and tasting through all the wines that we’ve made.

In the off-season, when we’re not harvesting, we’re always checking in on the wines and their development, seeing how they’re changing during the aging process. Some really fun ideas start to come out. We come up with these really limited release wines that are fun, kind of small-scale, like little fermentation experiments.

General manager Ed Feuchuk compared these small batch releases to limited-edition sneakers. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

Exactly, with these one-off wines, even though we work with a lot of the same vineyards every year, we continue to tweak the wines. Then, of course, you have external factors. For example, this was a really terrible year for frost up in the Sierra Foothills so instead we’re using grapes from Santa Barbara. Even working with the same vineyards, we try to take a very creative approach, where we’re like, ‘Okay. We’ve done these things in the past. What else can we do with this fruit, and what else can we try?’

“We’re a bunch of creatives who want to swim against the stream.”

What is something that people should know about Tank Garage?

We’re a bunch of risk takers. We’re a bunch of creatives who want to swim against the stream and change some of the preconceived notions that people have about wine. We like to take the stuffiness out of it. Wine doesn’t have to be this white tablecloth thing. It should be an everyday, fun beverage. Ultimately, it’s an agricultural product. I think people forget that, but it’s farming. It’s working the land and dealing with mother nature. It’s a really special thing, but it doesn’t have to be this stuffy, overbearing product at the same time. It can be fun. That’s what I love about Tank.

What makes the best bottle of wine?

Capturing a whole season, sometimes multiple seasons in a bottle. The temperatures, the ups and downs, the struggles and stresses of one season in a product that is very transparent. It’s amazing to showcase time and place this way. On the other hand, it’s all about who you’re enjoying it with. You can have a bottle from a gas station on a special occasion with your partner and have this really incredible experience.

You mentioned the frost. What other challenges do you face during harvest season?

We’ve dealt with wildfires the past couple of years. That’s been a very rough learning curve for us, but thankfully, part of our business model is built on risk mitigation and building resilience. We’re sourcing from Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, Solano County into Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, down into the Central Coast, and even Santa Barbara. The vineyards are all kind of very spread out, but in a good way. We always have a diversity of fruit. But at the same time, let’s say there is a wildfire in one area. We have this hedged backup of regions that we work with. With Tank, we’ve come up with creative solutions that have helped us build these strong relationships with our growers. It’s a nice thing that people aren’t expecting the exact same product every year from us.

Which bottle would you recommend for the holiday season?

An unusual one is probably our orange wine right now. It’s called Love Saves the Day. I think it’s a really interesting, food-friendly wine that’ll go with a lot of things. And if people can, they should get their hands on Softcore. It’s a carbonic red wine that we made, so it’s a little bit brighter, lighter, and spicier in style.

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