TEMECULA – When Grapeline Wine Tours opened its shuttle doors 15 years ago, there were a scant 12 wineries in the Temecula Valley, and the fledgling tour company had just four paid customers on its first day of service.
Today, there are more than 40 wineries in the Temecula Valley – with literally dozens more in the planning stages. And Grapeline, which now operates tours in five different California wine regions, serves more than 20,000 guests a year.
“We actually thought we were going to run out of money and go out of business after the first six weeks,” co-founder Kim Kelliher, who began the company in June 2002 with her husband John Kelliher, said. “On that first day, we had five shuttles running circles around wine country. We had spent literally all of our savings and retirement funds on start-up costs, and no one really showed up.”
Fortunately, the Kellihers made a few changes, the concept caught on and things turned around. In 2004, the couple sold a Grapeline franchise into the Paso Robles area that later became a company branch. In 2006, they started Santa Barbara Grapeline. Then growth stopped as the economy took a dive, and the company had to focus on competing in existing locations.
In recent years, expansion has been possible again. The Kellihers opened Grapeline Sonoma in 2015 and began doing private tours in Napa last year. Meanwhile, Grapeline’s sister company, Stryder Transportation, also expanded its fleet and services this past year.
Stryder Transportation, which was also founded by the Kellihers, began offering Temecula Valley brewery tours with the launch of the “Stryder Brew Cruiser” in May. Grapeline and Stryder combined employ about 90 staff members.
“We’ve been fortunate to succeed in a highly competitive environment where there are new companies coming into the various wine regions every month,” Kim Kelliher said. “We have to keep innovating, and we have to provide phenomenal customer service. There are a lot of options out there.”
One concept that has helped with customer loyalty is Grapeline’s frequent rider program known as Club Kay – named after the social media voice of Grapeline, Kay Syrah. Members earn “cork bucks” every time they ride. Then, those bucks can be spent on future tours in any of Grapeline’s five locations. Club Kay members also get special wine-related swag, recognition on tours and discounts.
Kelliher said the club, which was launched less than two years ago, has more than a thousand members.
“We were surprised, initially, how often guests came out with us. We thought it would be a once-a-year thing at the most,” Kelliher said. “But we have some real regulars who come out several times year with friends, and they appreciate the special treatment and discounts.”
To celebrate its 15 years in business, Grapeline is hosting a “Summer Fizz Fest and Anniversary Party” Sunday, June 25. The specialty tour will feature eight Temecula wineries; each will be serving a sparkling wine or sangria, along with traditional red or white wine, paired with a small-plate entree. Of course, a ride on the Grapeline is included.
“It’s delicious food, wine and champagne all day long, along with a fun DD so you don’t have to worry about a thing,” Kelliher said. “What’s not to love about that?”
Participating wineries include Wilson Creek, Vitagliano, Robert Renzoni, Oak Mountain, Lorimar, Leoness, Falkner and Avensole. Thornton Winery is also planning to join the festivities, pending final approval of its jazz schedule.
Fizz Fest tickets are available at www.gogrape.com. The package rate is $149, or $10 off, if booked before June 10. Pickups are available at most local hotels and in Old Town Temecula. Call (951) 693-5755 for more information.