Los Angeles couple Brian Chield and Bryan Hollingshead sat around a patio table Saturday sipping Rosso di Sonoma, a red blend from their host Petroni Vineyards, perched high over Sonoma Valley.
For a warm weekend in Wine Country, the scene was hardly groundbreaking. But the pair of tasters and the half-dozen other same-sex couples with them were part of a new brand of gathering in the gay and lesbian community built around wine.
On Saturday, the event was Gay Wine Weekend, featuring tours and tastings at 32 local wineries, dining, dancing and a charitable auction held today in Sonoma. Now in its third year, the three-day event is the signature gathering for Out in the Vineyard, a tour and event company founded by Sonoma business partners Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein. It was expected to bring more than 600 people to the area.
While that doesn't measure up to other wine events throughout the year that can draw thousands of tasters, the visitors this weekend included some who traveled across the country and wine aficionados, who — gasp — had never set foot in Sonoma County.
"We wouldn't have come here if it wasn't for this event," said Hollingshead, 52, who with Chield was on a five-day wine tasting trip along the coast.
In the clamor for the next "new" market in wine tourism, tasting room managers, innkeepers and industry promoters are turning increasingly to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers for business.
The trend has surfaced in a growing number of single-day vineyard tours and winemaker dinners, along with more extravagant weeklong cruises of California's wine-producing coast and trips through the Tuscan countryside. Wine regions in South Africa and Argentina are quickly becoming new frontiers for gay travelers.
Still unique among the offerings, industry officials say, is the multi-day gathering, a twist that has landed Out in the Vineyard's Gay Wine Weekend in the spotlight. It has been featured in gay travel publications in Germany and Britain and gained followers through social media sites and simple word of mouth.
"The wine industry is just waking up to this," said Vogler, a Healdsburg native and longtime wine marketer, most recently for the international Treasury Wine Estates.
Experts say the trend is the natural evolution of a two-decade pitch to a population that prizes travel and good food — and often has more disposable income to spend on both.
"It's that combination of a community that values the product and has the income and time to enjoy it," said David Paisley, senior research director for Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based travel research company that focuses on gay and lesbian consumers. "That combination has been very good for the tourism industry."
The approach follows similar moves by beverage, banking and travel companies in years past. The driving force is an economic reality: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT population, now makes up about 5 percent of U.S. residents. It accounts for up to 10 percent of U.S. consumer spending, including the annual $759 billion travel business.
For Sonoma County, where gay visitors long ago made Guerneville an outpost, paving the way for double-digit growth in same-sex households over the past decade, spending by gay and lesbian consumers likely makes up at least 5 percent to 7 percent, or more, of the annual $1.47 billion tourism economy, according to Paisley and a county tourism official.