09.20.2011  
 

Sonoma Visitors Hop on Vine Line

Shuttle service hits the road in Sonoma and Carneros

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
vine line sonoma county
 
A converted school bus, Vine Line transports passengers between downtown Sonoma and wineries in Southern Sonoma County.
Sonoma, Calif.—A purple-painted, open-topped converted school bus is now shuttling wine tasters among several wineries in southern Sonoma County. The Vine Line invites paying passengers to “hop on, hop off” Thursdays through Sundays along a route between Sonoma’s downtown square and the Cornerstone center near the junction of highways 121 and 116.

The brainchild of former stagehand, construction manager and electrical engineer Rich McKee, Walnut Creek, Calif., Vine Line debuted last month with runs scheduled at two-hour intervals allowing passengers to pick and choose among destinations including the tasting rooms for 25,000-case Meadowcroft Wines and 1,200-case Keating Wines at the Cornerstone; 3,500-case Bonneau Wines; 15,000-case Robledo Family Winery; 2,500-case Larson Family Winery and the Cellar Door at The Lodge, a tasting room pouring wines from 9,000-case Mayo Family Winery; 1,600-case Chandell of Sonoma and 1,000-case Guerrero-Fernandez Winery.

After an arduous, six-month permitting and licensing process, the Vine Line “Ho Ho” hit the road in August with free rides for local residents, but it has not yet hit its stride among the target audience, Bay Area day trippers who’d prefer to let a cheery, sober local do the driving through scenic southern Sonoma.

The Vine Line neither solicits nor accepts commissions from wineries. Until business picks up, perhaps warranting another bus, McKee would prefer to maintain his tight route and stay on schedule, although he has been talking with sparkling wine specialist 120,000-case Gloria Ferrer, just across the highway from the Cornerstone. Nearby Walter Schug (50,000-cases) is another possibility—McKee and managing partner Alex Schug have been friends since college in San Diego—but McKee worries that his busloads might overwhelm Schug’s tiny tasting room.

Meadowcroft owner Tom Meadowcroft told Wines & Vines that he’s excited to have the Vine Line’s southern terminal at the Cornerstone, and observed that the shuttle’s passengers purchase both wine and picnic items; they can also play bocce ball and tour the Cornerstone’s showpiece seasonal gardens.

The bus has a sound system, but McKee has yet to determine a musical mix. He will offer to stream a soundtrack from passengers’ iPods, if requested, and has invited a buddy to play guitar. Although there is no refrigerated wine storage on board, clients are welcome to leave cases on the bus and collect them at the end of their tours.

Since owner/chauffeur McKee lives in the East Bay, the purple bus spends its off-hours at the Cornerstone, which made itself a landmark with eye-catching outsized art including a giant, bright-blue Adirondack chair at its entrance. The bus is also available for wedding parties and other private charters after the daily 5 p.m. drop-off in downtown Sonoma. It can accommodate as many as 48 passengers per trip.

Daily fares are $25, with a 10% discount for online bookings. Children ride free, and free parking is available at both ends of the route. Until demand increases, Vine Line is scheduled to run this season through Thanksgiving.

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