A trip to Sonoma County Wine Country conjures images of family-owned wineries where visitors can stroll in for tastings at their leisure.
But with the rise of smartphones, and the popularity of winery events like vineyard tours and cheese pairings, wineries are turning to new technologies to lure customers with online reservations.
Two Napa-based companies, CellarPass and VinoVisit.com, have tackled the online reservation world, aiming to do for wineries what OpenTable has done for restaurants.
The websites and apps help wineries reach new audiences, interact with customers and plan appropriate staffing levels, whether its a special event or a typical day in the tasting room.
"This is a great thing, because the more information and access that wineries can provide to visitors to Sonoma County, it's great," said Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners. "We want people to be able to find the wines and really the beautiful wineries in this region."
CellarPass, which launched in 2010, worked with OpenTable to develop its product, said Sarah Elliman, director of sales and marketing at CellarPass. It works with 210 wineries nationwide, she said.
"The reality is, there needs to be a consumer-facing portal," Elliman said. "Unlike restaurants, wine consumers are visiting multiple spots."
"We want guests to be able to do the tours, do the food pairings, learn about the wines, and visit less wineries, but have a far better experience," Elliman said. "And the consumers are really responding."
Visitors to Sonoma County can search CellarPass for pre-made lists of top syrah producers or environmentally friendly wineries. Napa winery visitors can search for killer cabernets and group tastings.
CellarPass processes 30,000 guests per month through its website and iPhone app. The app, launched in March, has had nearly 6,000 downloads, Elliman said. About a third of the site's traffic comes from smartphone devices, she said. The online app is free, and wineries pay about $50 a month to participate, plus a fee on reservations booked.
"Consumers are looking for experiences, versus just coming in for a standard tasting," Elliman said. "So the more the wine company can provide a hands-on experience ... the more interesting they become to the consumer."
Boisset Family Estates, based in St. Helena, started using CellarPass for reservations at several tasting rooms about a year ago, including DeLoach in Santa Rosa, Buena Vista in Sonoma and JCB Tasting Room in Healdsburg, said Mike Anderson, direct-to-consumer marketing specialist for Boisset. The Sonoma County wineries see an additional 200 guests per month, mostly booked a month in advance, as a result of CellarPass, Anderson said.
"It was something that we thought would work very well, with so many more industries moving toward mobile apps, not only for sales, but also for customer service experiences," he said. "We thought it would really benefit our guests as well, who were coming out to Wine Country and wanting to sign up for tours."
It also helped the company's wineries show up in search results, making them easier for customers to find, he said.
"We were pleasantly surprised about it. It seems like it's taken a pretty good foothold," Anderson said.
Cline Cellars in Sonoma uses online reservation service VinoVisit.com to book guests for its "syrah hill experience," a two-hour vineyard tour and seated hill-top wine and cheese tasting limited to a dozen guests.