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Cheers to Wi-Fi

Each fall, I spend a weekend touring the northern California wine country, enjoying the flurry of activity that comes with every new harvest. This year, I thought I'd try something a little different—an experiment that I hoped would combine my passion for wine with my insatiable curiosity about all things wireless.

Like many Wi-Fi enthusiasts, I've done my share of "net stumbling." I suspected there might be a hotbed of wireless activity around Napa, perched just to the north of Silicon Valley. But how, I wondered, does the wine industry actually make use of Wi-Fi? I decided to find out for myself.

Day One: Wi-Fi everywhere and nowhere

For this year's road trip, I packed my tiniest notebook running NetStumbler and AirMagnet Laptop, a pair of Pocket PCs running AirMagnet Handheld, an external antenna, a GPS, and a DC power inverter to keep everything juiced.

As soon as we turned onto California State Road 29, I fired up my notebook. Ding, ding, ding! Sure enough, Wi-Fi was just about everywhere. In fact, the roadway was lined by NapaNet access points, a WISP that offers commercial Wi-Fi Internet from Vallejo to St. Helena.

However, as I examined survey data and carried my PPC into several vintners along Napa's Silverado Trail, my search for winery Wi-Fi came up dry. Those WLANs must be here, I thought, I'm just not finding them. I vowed to look harder tomorrow.

Day Two: Wi-Fi over the hill

The next morning, I headed northwest over the Mayacamas Mountains to tour the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. Once again, I encountered over one hundred WLANs within earshot of my route, including WiFiHealdsburg, a free public wireless service covering downtown Healdsburg.

This morning, I hit pay-dirt at our first scheduled stop: Jordan Winery. Multiple on-premises WLANs were clearly visible from my PPC as we toured this beautiful French-style chateau. A Linksys 802.11n router delivered wireless Internet to the hospitality wing. Another Linksys 802.11g AP served a technical tasting room. An outdoor wireless bridge appeared to be used to reach a more distant portion of the estate.airmagnet.jpg

Gordon Palmateer, Jordan's Director of Sales and Marketing, told me that some visitors come to the winery for entertainment (tours, tastings, dining, overnight stays) while others are there to conduct business (channel partners, vendors).

"As our business is founded on word of mouth referrals, we look for every opportunity to serve our guests," said Palmateer. "That includes offering wireless access to those who need it, [for] activities ranging from checking e-mail to making presentations."

Wi-Fi adds flexibility and mobility for Jordan's employees as well as for guests.

"Our winemaker uses it in the technical tasting room, when he's working in there with our production team, tasting different samples. We also use it during meetings with customers and vendors and comparative tastings," said Palmateer.

After leaving Jordan, I spotted several more winery WLANs, including a Cisco 802.11g AP at Silver Oak Alexander Valley and a handful of Cisco 802.11g APs at the J Winery tasting room. Unfortunately, staff either did not know or were reluctant to discuss how those establishments took advantage of Wi-Fi. Oh well, I thought. I'll just keep looking. [Read more.]