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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.

"This is an experiment for us, more than anything else," said Kathryn Nudelman, communications manager at Cline Cellars. "Since so many people do all of their business on their phones and computers, this is just our way of attempting to be a little bit more available and make it easier for customers to connect with us. You can still call and we'll talk to you ... but it's easier for a lot of people to get on the phone and make a reservation."

VinoVisit.com launched in 2010 and works with 80 wineries, said Bob Iannetta, executive vice president of sales at VinoVisit.com. It counts Sonoma-based Foley Family Wines and Kenwood-based Kunde Family Estates among its clients. Using its online reservation system, visitors can search by appellation for wineries in California, New York, Oregon or Washington. Once the first reservation is booked, search results are integrated into Google Maps and sorted according to what's nearby to help plan a reasonable route.

"More and more wineries are requiring reservations for things like food and wine pairings, tours, and general tastings as well," said Bob Iannetta, executive vice president of sales at VinoVisit.com. "Wineries want to get a better understanding of how many people are coming in every day, for staffing purposes, and they also want to collect that customer data in a way that's not intrusive to the guest."

The VinoVisit.com website includes explanations of the difference between a barrel tasting and a component tasting, so visitors can better understand what they're signing up for. It recently launched an app for smartphones and tablets.

"People are always online, playing around and checking out things," Iannetta said. "Having the ability for people to book from their smartphones is very important."

Still, there's no substitute for a good old phone call. Concierges, who often help tourists plan itineraries, are still interested in personal contact with wineries to ensure that people get the best service, said Colby Smith, executive director of the Concierge Alliance of Napa Valley and Sonoma.

"When it would be good for them, is when they can make a reservation after hours," Smith said. "I would use one of these services to hold the spot, and then I would call them the next day to give them more information about the guest."

Using online services to make reservations can be tricky if confirmation emails go only to the concierge, but not the guest, she said.

But that customer experience can be vastly improved if a winery is prepared for the right number of customers.

"We're a really busy tasting room here, so any time we can automate a process and make it easy for customers to interact with us, we want to do that," Nudelman said.

"We can really cater to our customers a little bit better if we know they're coming in at a certain time," Anderson said. "It gives us a better way to connect with the customers."

You can reach Staff Writer

Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.

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