The ride-booking service Uber is making its next move into Wine Country, and this time, it’s going after wine tourists.
Since Uber’s debut in Sonoma and Napa counties in May 2014, its drivers have completed more than 150,000 trips in Sonoma County and nearly 300,000 trips in Napa County, according to the San Francisco-based company. Nearly 2,000 residents in both counties are now driving for the service, it said.
In the process, Uber has cut significantly into the local taxi business, snagging everything from trips to restaurants to rides home for kids.
Uber is now turning its sights on wine tourists, taking a different path than it has in other California wine regions.
Now that it has reached a critical mass of drivers in the North Bay, Uber plans to operate much like it does in San Francisco, where riders can use its smartphone app to catch one ride to their destination and use it again to hail another driver to quickly go somewhere else, spokeswoman Laura Zapata said.
That’s different from the company’s UberWine service launched in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, where a sole driver will take tourists around to different wineries for about $35 an hour ($45 an hour for its upscale UberWineXL service). Such services are available from other local transportation companies but typically cost much more on an hourly basis. One Napa provider starts at $65 an hour.
Uber is targeting residents around San Francisco with the pitch that they can get a private car ride up to Napa for between $97 and $126 on its lower-priced UberX service. Visitors typically can shuttle between wineries for an average of $10 to $15 per stop, depending on distance, and then head back to the city. For a group of four passengers sharing the rides, each individual would end up paying much less than $100 for the entire day’s transportation.
“A lot of people can’t spend the night over and have to do a day trip up there. A lot of people in San Francisco don’t have a car,” Zapata said. “They can split the fare. … We see a lot of people doing that. It’s cost-effective.”
The company still has its UberLimo service in Napa, but it is a pilot project while Uber focuses on increasing its stable of drivers. Its overall goal is to grab a larger share of the market in Wine Country, which by one estimate is home to roughly 20 transportation companies and 60 independent guides as well as the beleaguered taxi services.
Uber also is using its vast data analytics team to help target and market its services. It recently released the top 12 winery destinations around Napa, with each location receiving at least hundreds of Uber visits during the prime tourist season of Sept. 1 to Oct. 15, coinciding with the grape harvest. The list included Silver Oak, where winery CEO David Duncan touted on Uber’s blog that the company was “promoting responsible consumption and safe driving on our roads.”
Uber will release a similar list for Sonoma County later this year. The company said Gundlach Bundschu Winery and Vineyards in the Sonoma Valley was the top destination during the same time frame, drawing hundreds of visits.
Elaine Barr, Gundlach Bundschu’s tasting room lead, said in an email that San Francisco-based executives and out-of-state visitors frequently use Uber to visit the winery because it provides a flexible alternative for those who don’t want to commit to a full-day tour of Wine Country. At a few events, guests have said, “We’re Ubering home,” Barr noted.
Peter Stetson, a Napa Uber driver who spends roughly 40 hours a week ferrying passengers through Wine Country, said the service especially benefits the empowered tourist who wants to craft their own winery itinerary instead of relying on guided tours.
“It’s definitely on the upswing,” Stetson said. “Everybody is aware of Uber.”
Stetson targets times that have the potential for more lucrative trips, such as the evening rush when wine tourists will rely on Uber to go to restaurants. He said he thinks there is room for the service to grow in the North Bay. For example, a tourist could save money by taking Uber up to Napa from a Bay Area airport, compared to a multiday car rental. An Uber trip Thursday from Oakland International Airport to Napa had a price estimate from $70 to $90.
Uber’s entrance into the market has triggered consternation among local taxi drivers and car services. Critics argue Uber has an unfair advantage because it classifies its drivers as independent contractors instead of employees, though that stance is being challenged at state regulatory agencies and in the courts.
Uber likely will gain traction with its strategy of targeting day trips from San Francisco because of its attractive pricing, said Don Rickard, who has owned Platypus Wine Tours in Napa for 11 years.
“I think that could be a useful service,” said Rickard, whose firm would charge $85 an hour for a day trip from San Francisco. His drivers typically do not like to venture down to San Francisco, given the traffic, he said. Instead, Platypus focuses on customers who take the ferry, which stops in Vallejo, or who stay at local hotels in Napa or Sonoma counties.
While it can’t beat Uber’s prices, Platypus has an advantage, Rickard contends. His firm, for example, can offer an intimate private tour or a larger one in mini-buses, providing a tailored experience for customers that Uber riders would not get, such as offering a picnic at one of the wineries. Platypus Wine Tours recently was named as one of the top 10 tours in the country by TripAdvisor.com, a travel rating website.
The Napa Valley is “a really complicated place to visit,” Rickard said. “If you go up (Highway) 29 to wineries that don’t require reservations, you can do that easily. … The vast majority of people want something more than that.”
His growth has flattened in recent years, though Rickard said it was hard to gauge how much was because of Uber. But he says Uber will continue to change the industry, especially as its ultimate goal is to use driverless cars.