Open door for gay wine tourists
Published: Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 10:56 a.m.
Though the rainbow flag has long flown along the banks of the Russian River, increasing numbers of Sonoma County businesses are rolling out the pink carpet for gay tourists.
Named one of the country's top 20 tourist destinations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, Sonoma's appeal is broadening beyond weekend retreats in Guerneville to wine- and food-tasting adventures throughout the county. Headlining the trend: The second annual Gay Wine Weekend, June 15-17 in Sonoma Valley.
Expected to attract nearly 500 attendees, the weekend features upscale wine dinners, tastings, parties, an auction and gay-friendly activities throughout the valley. The event follows the Sonoma County Pride festival in Guerneville on June 3 and precedes San Francisco's massive Pride Celebration on June 23-24.
“We want Wine Country to be a destination for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) crowd,” said Gary Saperstein, co-director of Out in the Vineyard, a gay-focused tour company based in Sonoma hosting the event. He and business partner Mark Vogler found more than a dozen local wineries, restaurants and hotels eager to participate in the weekend-long celebration. Among them are the El Dorado Hotel, The Girl and the Fig Restaurant, Sebastiani Vineyards, which will host a cabaret night, and wineries Deerfield Ranch, B Wise, Loxton, Benziger and St. Francis.
“Ever since the economy went south, people all of a sudden had to look at niche marketing, and one of those markets is the LGBT market,” said Saperstein. “And the wine industry is really waking up to this target audience. We've found that everyone is really receptive and supportive to what we're doing. We haven't found a winery yet that doesn't want us there.”
Saperstein's company also organized this spring's sell-out “Big Gay Wine Train,” on the Napa Valley Wine Train and creates three- and six-day personalized itineraries for visitors wanting to patronize LGBT-friendly wineries, hotels, restaurants and businesses.
“It's all about hospitality,” said Saperstein. “When we go to a winery, we want to be recognized.”
Gay travel to Wine Country has a long tradition.
“Sonoma and Napa have a strong following locally and nationally,” said David Paisley, Senior Research Director for Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based travel research company that ranks the popularity of LGBT destinations.
“It's a situation that's unique,” said Paisley, given the region's coast, wineries and what he calls the “LGBT infrastructure” of bars, guesthouses, restaurants, hotels and nighttime activities that cater to gay visitors.
“It's very attractive,” he added. “People largely underestimate the power of the LGBT community in this area.”
The county's hospitality industry has targeted LGBT travelers for years.
“Sonoma County has been a destination for gay travelers for a long time,” said Tim Zahner, Director of Public Relations and Marketing for the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau. Spending an estimated $65 billion on travel each year, according to Community Marketing Inc., and with a higher disposable income than the general population, it's an attractive demographic.
“Competition for the gay/lesbian travel dollar is fierce,” said Zahner, who has seen gay travel migrate from its West County epicenter to areas like Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys, Sonoma Valley, the Coast and other parts of West County. The bureau has actively encouraged area hotels, including Santa Rosa's Flamingo Resort, Fountaingrove Inn and Hyatt Vineyard Creek to become “TAG-approved,” a rating based on the hotel's non-discriminatory practices toward customers and employees.
But organized events are only a small portion of Wine Country's gay tourism industry. Zahner estimates that between 5 and 10 percent of visitors to Sonoma County are gay or lesbian. But when you start asking around, it quickly becomes apparent that LGBT tourism is, well, pretty much like any other kind of tourism.
“There is so much more blending,” said Crista Luedtke, owner of Guerneville's Boon Hotel + Spa, Boon Eat + Drink and the recently-opened Big Bottom Market. “It's not just straight or gay. It's about if you enjoy food and wine, just come on up,” she said. “It's a lot about more openness all around.”
Beau Wine Tours' Craig Haskell agrees.
“Most wineries are very friendly. You have people making good incomes looking to go out and spend their money,” he said.
In order to help visitors and locals identify gay-friendly businesses, he is working to create the Northern California Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Though still in development, Haskell rattles off wineries and restaurants — El Coqui in Santa Rosa, DeLoach Winery, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Locals Tasting Room in Geyserville — that have gained favor by word of mouth in the gay community.
“It's a network,” Haskell said.
Ultimately, Saperstein and others hope to program more gay-friendly events and encourage more Wine Country businesses to embrace LGBT travelers.
“We have the ambiance, food, wine and lifestyle here. We want to share it,” Saperstein said.
(Heather Irwin writes a food and dining blog at BiteClubEats.com.)
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