Wine country tour operators in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have a formidable new competitor.
Since April, Uber has been offering Uber Wine, a ride-sharing service to wineries and tasting rooms in the two counties.
Michael Amodeo, a spokesman for Uber, said the company has provided thousands of rides to customers looking for a low-cost, reliable option to get around wine country without worrying about having to enlist a designated driver.
Some wine tour services that I contacted said they’ve lost business to Uber and others have not noticed an impact. All said bookings remain solid because the wine industry is growing and they offer more of an educational experience along with the fun. They complained that the playing field is not level in competing with the ride-sharing service.
Uber customers can use an app to request an Uber X vehicle that transports up to four or an Uber XL ride that accommodates up to six. They can have the driver wait for them between stops at wineries and tasting rooms. The fare is based on time and distance. Uber says its fares are as low as $35 an hour for Uber Wine and $45 an hour for Wine XL. The cost can be split among riders.
I ran numbers on an imagined four-hour wine trip for four from downtown Santa Barbara with stops at three wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, based on fares on the Uber website.
The cost came to $196, which could be split among the four riders at $49 each.
Wine tour operators list fares online of $99 to $130 per person for scheduled tours that usually include lunch and may also cover tasting fees. If only two people booked the Uber ride, the cost would be closer to what the tour services charge.
Uber does not seem to be causing the same upheaval in the wine tour business that it has in the taxi industry.
Kevin Donoghue, co-owner with his wife of Santa Barbara Classic Wine Tours, said in a phone interview that they have seen the business grow since they launched it a little over a year ago. The tours are conducted by a certified sommelier and lunch is included.
Shawn Farrell, owner of Wine EdVentures, offering tours in Santa Barbara County, said, “I personally have not noticed any difference in our business, nor while I’ve been up there with my customers (have I) really even seen their vehicles around.”
He offers guided tours that include behind-the-scenes education on wine production.
Jill Tweedie, founder and president of Breakaway Tours, serving San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara wine country, said Uber has had an impact on scheduled tours.
She said Breakaway, founded 20 years ago, originally served only corporate groups. It added scheduled tours for individuals in 2009 despite worries about them turning into “booze cruise” trips.
“Where we do sell educational wine tours, typically we have found over the years that that’s a natural filter for us, that our guests are interested in learning about wine and want something more than just a designated driver,” she said.
Katie Hayward, owner of Uncorked Wine Tours in Paso Robles, said she feels that Uber has impacted bookings, even though she cannot track it. “I’m still busy since we’re in a growing wine industry right now,” she said. “I’m busier than I was last year. It’s hard for me to track it specifically, but I guarantee I’ve lost business because of them.”
Hayward said she has used Uber many times when she travels and thinks it’s a great thing.
“I think the biggest problem, just to cut to the chase, that I have with Uber: I don’t care if they’re taking my business, I think there’s enough business to go around. I think that they’re not playing fair. They’re not playing the same game.”
Tour operators cited the higher costs they face compared to Uber because their drivers are employees, not private contractors, and wine tour companies have to buy more insurance. They are licensed to transport larger groups than the four to six that Uber serves.
“We have over $5 million in insurance,” Tweedie said. “Our vehicles are inspected annually by the CHP. Our drivers are prescreened and are in a random pool for drugs and alcohol [tests]. They’re Class B drivers, which is a special license and also requires a medical card that has to be renewed every two years.”
Uber operates as a Transportation Network Company that transports no more than six customers in vehicles owned by its drivers. It carries $1 million in liability and uninsured motorist coverage. Drivers are screened through criminal background checks and Uber reviews their driving records while they are with the service. They do not need a Class B driver’s license.
Amodeo said Uber looks forward to making its rides available to more visitors to wine country in the weeks and months ahead.
The competitive environment could change, to a degree, if a class-action suit on behalf of California Uber drivers succeeds in overturning their classification as independent contractors.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]