Jonathan Elliman was raised in Napa Valley, the famed grape-growing region of Northern California. His high school friends were sons and daughters of winery owners, so everyone used to hang around the area’s ubiquitous caves, barrel rooms and fermentation tanks. Given his unique surroundings, it’s not surprising that wine — figuratively — got into Elliman’s blood.
After graduating from college, Elliman worked for early web tech companies. Soon, he put together an idea to link his love of wine country with a web idea. He spent several years building and piloting CellarPass, launched in 2012. It’s an OpenTable-type reservation system to explore, book and share wine country experiences. A free CellarPass app is also available for iPad and iPhone users.
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With harvest season underway, Next Avenue asked Elliman to share his advice for planning a visit to wine country:
Next Avenue: Why are California winery visits so popular in late summer and fall?
Elliman: The hypnotic aroma of the harvest, the action in the vineyards and the blood, sweat and tears of the production teams are simply remarkable.
Many wine country travelers don’t realize that harvest is a short period — two to three months and it’s done. To celebrate this special time of the year, many wineries offer something called “grape to glass” tours, by appointment.
Essentially, you learn about the entire wine production process: from the winery’s growing practices via a vineyard tour (while the grapes are still hanging on the vine), through the “crushing” process, through the fermentation tanks, through the barrel room and then to the tasting room where you get to sample a glass of wine, sometimes right out of the barrel.
Also this time of year, wineries throw some of their biggest parties of the year called “harvest parties." Tickets to these events are sold through CellarPass.
What is the optimum length of a visit to wine country?
I recommend at least three days. This allows ample time to visit the region’s best wineries and also to enjoy other experiences like balloon rides, Michelin-starred restaurants, relaxing day spas and resorts, hiking and biking trails, golfing and in some areas, rafting.
If you have just one day, we recommend not venturing too far, especially during high season, as there is often heavy traffic on the weekends. There are a dozen wineries in the Crusher Wine District in south Napa, just a 45- to 60-minute drive from San Francisco. These small production wineries deliver wines that rival the iconic brands and also offer amazing tasting experiences. In most instances, the person pouring the wine is also the winemaker — and you can literally walk from one to the other.
How does CellarPass work?
Many tourists flock to wine country only to find that not all of their favorite wineries are open to the public, let alone have space. In Napa Valley, there are only two- or three-dozen wineries that are legally open to drop-ins; the rest require reservations. That’s where CellarPass comes in.
Wineries use CellarPass to organize and promote their real-time availability just like restaurants do with OpenTable. Our destination partners pay a monthly fee to be part of our program.
Guests can go to the website or download the mobile app to check availability and book instantly. There is no charge to users.
For folks who do not know which wineries to visit, CellarPass.com can help them make informed choices. Our search tools allow visitors to pick from dozens of “points of interest” such as wine cave tours, barrel tastings, vineyard treks or food and wine pairings or they can narrow it down more by varietals, such as Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon or Super Tuscan Blends.
We don’t feature every single winery; that’s done intentionally. Each of our featured destinations goes through a rigorous qualification process and is “secret-shopped” to maintain its status.
Have you looked at the demographics of your visitors?
About 34 percent of our visitors are between 25 to 34 years old; they are the generation that grew up with wine at their parents’ tables. About 37 percent are over the age of 45, and we are seeing an increase in this older group as first-time visitors.
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CellarPass has a virtual concierge to help guests personalize tours. What criteria do you use to help them select wineries?
We always ask where they are staying. We try to minimize their travel time and maximize their time at the winery so they can enjoy the experience, relax and not feel rushed.
The second question we ask is aimed at finding out the type of experience they want. Are they looking for a simple tasting, a lunch with a winemaker, a vineyard trek, a private tasting or something in between?
Lastly, we ask if it is their first trip to wine country or if they are celebrating a special occasion like an engagement, honeymoon, wedding anniversary or milestone birthday. We recommend destinations that will be ideal and leave a lasting impression.
How much does it cost to visit a winery?
The cost is based on the experience and on the location of the winery, so there’s a wide range. Tastings that include food or a personal tour with the winemaker where you blend your own wine can cost more than $300 per person. A handful of wineries offer free tastings, while others offer complimentary ones with bottle purchases. CellarPass shows all the pricing before you book and does not charge guests to book a reservation.
Can you offer any other practical advice to visitors?
Start your day with a light breakfast. There is nothing worse than trying to get through one or two tastings before lunch without a decent morning meal. Your body will thank you for it. There are great cafes to check out like Bouchon in Yountville and Alexis Baking Company in Napa. Traveling to wine country, you’ll quickly realize that it’s also a foodie heaven.
After breakfast, we recommend that you book two wineries before lunch at the most popular destinations that are on your list, then schedule one or two smaller ones after lunch to avoid the crowds.
(MORE: Try This Simple Trick to Drink Less Wine)
It’s important to pace yourself. Pour out wines you do not like. The tasting room staff actually likes to see this (it’s not an insult) and that’s what the buckets on the counters are for. Drink lots of water. Wineries offer or sell water and we recommend that you have at least one to two glasses of water for every glass of wine. This not only helps you hydrate, but also helps your body stay fresh and ready for your next stop.
We urge visitors never to book more than three tastings a day without appointing a designated driver.
[For additional information about visiting and touring Napa County’s 800 wineries (there are hundreds more in Sonoma County), visit the Napa Valley Tourism website.]
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.