Online Tasting Reservation System Works 24/7

Napa Valley-based VinoVisit will take reservations and offer guidance to wine country visitors

by Paul Franson
VinoVisit founders Bob Iannetta, Tim Campbell and CEO Dan Lintz.
Napa, Calif. -- A new company hopes to mimic the Open Table online reservation system for winery tasting rooms, allowing fans to schedule visits automatically day or night, without human intervention. The company, VinoVisit, will also help direct users to wineries, capture contact information and provide other features.

The idea for VinoVisit was conceived in Napa Valley by two friends and oenophiles: Bob Iannetta, formerly of Citysearch, and Tim Campbell, a wine importer and broker with a background in technology.

The two were visiting Chappellet Vineyards and noticed tasting room staff being interrupted to make appointments for winery visits. They figured that staff could better use her time by interacting face-to-face with customers.

Inspired by the success of Open Table, which lets individuals make reservations at restaurants, and the similar Golf Now, Iannetta and Campbell a year ago teamed up with technical expert Dan Lintz, former commerce director at San Francisco's Crushpad, to create vinovisit.com.

The service is a web-based reservation system and far more. It requires no special hardware or software for either user or winery, just a standard web browser.

Rather than simply taking reservations, VinoVisit also helps users select wineries to visit and print maps, sends reminders, collects information that can be added to a customer database and enhances marketing opportunities before and after winery visits. President Tim Campbell says wineries typically only capture about 20% of e-mails accurately; using VinoVisit would eliminate this problem.

The system operates much like Open Table, and there's no cost to users. Patrons either sign-up and log on directly, or they're directed to VinoVisit from winery or travel websites. Unlike live agents, VinoVisit operates around the clock -- a bonus since most prospective visitors plan their trips outside regular work hours.

Users can specify preferences, and the system will suggest itineraries. For example, if a guest was staying in Yountville, he could schedule convenient meetings in a logical order of wineries that, say, have caves, good views and are family-friendly.

Different wineries name different advantages for using the system.

At Chappellet, which is outside Napa Valley proper in the mountains east of Rutherford, general manager Steve Tamburelli says the system should expose the winery to more potential visitors. "We're far off the beaten path."

Tamburelli signed up partly because of his experience with Open Table, especially when traveling. "You can make a reservation even after midnight -- not wait until 10 a.m. in California, when they're open."

Napa's Artesa Vineyards & Winery also has signed up to participate in VinoVisit's beta launch -- and presumably become a permanent customer. Tasting room manager Michael McKinley likes the ability to communicate with visitors before they arrive. "That way, we can tell them about special tours or tasting programs," he notes. Without it being a hard sell, he still expects many visitors to appreciate this. "They often arrive and are disappointed that they missed a special tour or tasting," McKinley says.

Artesa doesn't require appointments, but McKinley appreciates visitors making reservations, because it allows the company to schedule more staff for busy times, for example. Though the tours and special tastings sell out, Artesa doesn't turn away wine tasters, and McKinley expects to host 70,000 this year, about the same as in 2008.

McKinley also likes the security of the system, which can be accessed only by authorized personnel. He notes that the service would also be great for newer wineries in Napa Valley, which by county regulation require appointments.

VinoVisit will capture the name, e-mail address and phone number of each visitor, making it possible for wineries to contact them before and after the visit. It can also accept prepayment for visits. VinoVisit's automated e-mails and reminders facilitate communicating with customers and wine club members. The system automatically sends out a thank you letter after the visit and will interface with popular wine club and database management systems. It can help drive more repeat visits with event, release and holiday e-mail marketing.

The system also alerts staff to which visitors are from states that allow direct shipping.

The service expects to offer a frequent visitor program, and it can also identify referral sources for rewards. It should reduce no-shows and lost revenue, and can manage deposits.

The principals at VinoVisit expect concierges, tour operators, limo drivers and others also to use the service, combining its convenience with their personal knowledge and preferences. They are also investigating creating kiosks for hotels

The company is seeking investors; part of the funds will be used to market the service to people Campbell says make nearly 24 million online searches annually for wine tours and tasting room reservations. This includes buying top spots on Google and perhaps other search engines, reaching out to wine clubs, bloggers, concierges, limo drivers, hotels and inns. It also will sign up affiliates such as hotels and tour services.

Wineries will pay a monthly fee, plus a small payment per visitor booked.

At present, VinoVisit is focusing on Napa Valley, but it is in discussion with other wine regions. Currently, members of the Napa Valley Vintners receive a discount for the service. VinoVisit expects to have 50 to 100 wineries as members when it goes live, probably in late July. It will have a two-week trial before that. Campbell says the company is in various stages of discussion with about 125 wineries so far.
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