In Southern California, the laid-back Santa Ynez Valley is an easy place to get your wine legs in an unpretentious environment. As one of five American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez Valley has more than 120 wineries, many of which are boutique, family-owned-and-operated venues. But somewhere between sipping subversive screw-top syrahs from Andrew Murray Vineyards, a reserve tasting at Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard, and estate-grown varietals among the grapevines of Beckman Vineyards, the biggest fallout of wine tasting—i.e., drinking—becomes painfully clear: the wine buzz creeps in slowly and it hits hard.
On the short ride from Buellton to the tasting rooms in downtown Solvang, I wax poetically about how much better wine tastes when you're out in a vineyard.
"I can drive you out to a vineyard, you know," our driver pipes up from the front.
"Yeah, but how do we get back?"
"I'll just wait for you in the lot. We can go to as many as you want."
"You'll … what now?"
Enter UberWine. The transportation industry's favorite disruptor saw an opportunity in California and launched its service, effectively helping wine swillers avoid drunken vineyard driving at a reasonable cost.
Depending on the size of the vehicles, it works out to about $35 to $45 an hour. Tasting room fees and meals aren't included, essentially making it a no-frills, low-cost alternative to a traditional wine tour.
Unless you have a designated driver or pay $100 or more a head for an organized tour, the risk of tipsily driving back into town is a legitimate one. Although DUI statistics can't be specifically pegged to wine tasting, logic dictates that daytime drinking in venues that don't serve food (most are BYO picnic) and then getting behind a wheel on rural roads is a dangerous combination.
The same company that gave Seattle UberPedal recently launched UberWine in Central California's San Luis Obispo County before extending south into Santa Barbara County. It's brilliant in its simplicity: You connect with a driver on demand, decide where to go and for how long, and keep the same car and driver for the day. Depending on the size of the vehicles, it works out to about $35 (UberWine) to $45 (UberWineXL) an hour. Tasting room fees and meals aren't included, essentially making it a no-frills, low-cost alternative to a traditional wine tour. Sort of the EasyJet of wine tasting.
"The thing about Uber is people can use it for the experience they want to lead," explains Michael Amodeo from Uber's West Coast office. "For people looking for wineries off the beaten path, having a private driver can be their only option; we wanted to make it so the car remains around the entire time."
Within the Santa Ynez Valley, UberWine is still in its infancy. Unlike the city of Santa Barbara, where Uber is flourishing and UberWine is being marketed as an affordable way to get to and from wine country, the valley is a mostly agricultural area located 35 miles from the coast. Only about 20,000 residents are scattered between the quiet towns of Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Buellton, and Ballard and there's only a handful of drivers within the area.
The region is also still in its fledgling stage as a culinary destination. The former stagecoach stop has a long history of farming, cattle ranching and grape growing, which can be traced back as far as 200 years ago when Spanish missionaries planted the first vines. Grape growers began making their mark in the 1970s and the wine world took note of cool-weather pinot noirs and chardonnays produced in the Santa Rita Hills, followed by Rhône varietals coming out of the warmer Santa Ynez Valley. By the 1990s, farmers were becoming respected California winemakers, but mostly flew under the radar from a tourism perspective.
For decades, the region's main highlight was family-friendly Solvang, Southern California's answer to a Danish village. Solvang doesn't kid around about its heritage: strolling the streets lined with traditional, half-timbered architecture, you'll bump into a Little Mermaid fountain and windmills, pass the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and Hans Christian Andersen Park, and nose your way to multiple bakeries churning out butter cookies and almond kringles.
Then Sideways happened. The 2004 film follows an alcoholic writer and his philandering bestie on a wine-fueled weekend adventure to the Santa Ynez Valley, using local establishments like The Hitching Post and Los Olivos Cafe as its backdrop. The movie that demonized merlot simultaneously created an entire wine-tourism industry in the valley.
On a typical visit to the area, your culinary experience can be as simple as walking around Solvang or Los Olivos, dipping in and out of tasting rooms, restaurants and the occasional craft brewery. Then there are the more remote wine estates, gracious structures tucked into rural roads amidst acres of vineyards and centuries-old oak trees and flanked by rolling mountain ranges.
Transportation between the major towns and into the rural areas is limited, and traditionally, this space has been filled by organized tour operators. These operations have grown in tandem with the industry: where there were only three or four wine tour companies "before Sideways," today there are some 30 companies in the area.
"Unlike Napa and cabernet sauvignon, Santa Barbara County is diverse in its types of wines," says Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara Vintners'Association. "So at the basic level, people feel overwhelmed by the choices; a tour that picks you up from the hotel, goes to four wineries, and has a picnic lunch is a good option."
For now, UberWine's footprint is too light to have an impact on other businesses. In fact, it's barely on the radar of the tourists who come here.
In some cases, like the 15-year-old Stagecoach Wine Tours, guides are trained sommeliers and have long relationships with the local wineries, so you might find yourself being served wine by the vintner or visiting wineries that aren't open to the general public. With UberWine, the itinerary is up to you and there is no guarantee that your driver will be a bona fide wine expert—or even have lived in the area for very long. (Ours was a recent transplant to the area.)
Of course, where there is Uber there is controversy, and there are already low rumblings within the community.
"The existing companies are concerned in terms of Uber having an unfair advantage," explains McLaughlin, whose association includes several of the local wine tour operators. "A tour company has to have really intensive insurance and its drivers have to have certain licensing."
But, for now, UberWine's footprint is too light to have an impact on other businesses. In fact, it's barely on the radar of the tourists who come here.
"Our typical visitor to Solvang comes in multigenerational groups," says Tracy Farhad, executive director of the Solvang Visitors and Convention Bureau. "It's grandparents, parents, kids, visiting family, ranging from ages 35 to 65." In that context, touring wineries is hardly a spontaneous activity that lends itself to the on-demand app.
Yet the more young, culinary-focused travelers discover the area, the more UberWine has a chance to shine—especially among last-minute planners or cost-conscious types. In an effort to reach broader audiences, Uber has partnered with the upcoming Santa Barbara Vintners Harvest Festival, and is looking into partnerships with local wineries to offer discounts on wine purchases, which is already the case in San Luis Obispo.
And in the way that Uber always seems to show up at the right place at the right time, it may have inadvertently stepped in during a pivotal period in Santa Ynez Valley in which younger, tech-savvy travelers are coming. As interest in wine continues to grow, area restaurants are moving beyond family-friendly comfort food (pea soup and Danish pancakes!) and embracing hip, chef-driven dining in establishments like Industrial Eats and Terravant in Buellton. In Lompoc's Wine Ghetto, young winemakers are serving small-batch creations in an industrial park, attracting audiences in search of serious wines in unpretentious surrounds (read: no bachelorette parties). Meanwhile, pending legislation in Santa Barbara County may allow wineries and tasting rooms to serve limited food for wine pairings and winemaker dinners, which will likely attract a new wave of culinary experience seekers.
Even the severe drought that's plagued California for years is driving an evolution within the industry. Until recently, vineyards were seeing higher than normal yields; and while the numbers in the Santa Ynez Valley are down this year, stressed vines create a more concentrated, sweeter fruit. Looking ahead, newer vineyards are planting vines with sustainable, "dry farming" techniques that rely on natural rainwater, already an ancient practice in European grape-growing regions.
Sustainable winemaking? Drinking in a metal shed? UberWine—welcome to California's new wine country.