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The nation's lingering economic recession was a distant memory Sunday for bidders raising their hands to offer $50 and $100 more than the last at an intimate brunch auction for Sonoma County's Face to Face AIDS network.

The event raised thousands for the cause, all the more important with funding cuts and continued efforts to educate people about the disease, said Mark Vogler, an event organizer and Healdsburg native.

"To see this kind of support is very moving to me, being a rural Sonoma County guy," said Vogler.

The brunch was the closing feast of Sonoma County's inaugural Gay Wine Weekend 2011, three days of wine tastings, feasts and a twilight dance, all held in Sonoma Valley.

Vogler and Gary Saperstein, both longtime Sonoma residents and founders of Out in the Vineyards, organized the weekend. Participants paid $295 for VIP passes, $45 for the bunch and auction at the El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma.

Not only do lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people need more social events to bring them to the Sonoma Valley, wine country needs their patronage, Saperstein said.

"The LGBT community wasn't on the radar for the wine industry, and in many aspects it still isn't," he said. "In this recession, every business has to reach out to every community. Niche marketing is more important now than ever."

Vineyards are trying to reach out to as many different groups as possible, said Aura Bland, director of consumer sales and marketing with St. Francis Winery and Vineyards.

Bland, who married her longtime partner in 2008, said that when she saw an email about the event, "I picked up the phone within seconds."

On Sunday, the bidding began with magnum bottles from wineries whose winemakers, owners or other staff members are gay, including Navarro Vineyards and Winery, Selene Wines, Raymond Burr Vineyards and Passalacqua Winery, Saperstein said.

Michael Tate, singer with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, had the 90-some brunchers in stitches as he emceed the auction. Tate held up a square wooden cask of Russian River Petite Syrah carved with "Out in the Vineyard, Sonoma County, 2011."

"This is not a b-o-x, this is a cask," Tate said. "That's how we roll in Sonoma, we call it a cask."

The bidding began at $200 and quickly rose in $100 increments. Manuel Merjil, 53, of Glen Ellen, stopped the bidding with his $800 offer.

"We have $800. Anyone want to top Manuel?" Tate said.

The group laughed, but no one raised a hand.

"Sorry Manuel, it's a dry season," Tate said.

The auction raised $8,400 for Face-to-Face, well beyond what organizers had hoped, Saperstein said.

Between 350 and 400 people attended various events throughout the weekend, with guests arriving from New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and northern California.

"It's nice to see the LGBT community feel so comfortable here," said Merjil a marketing executive for the Sonoma Index-Tribune who has been with his partner Paul Curreri, 73, for 28 years.

That wasn't always the case, said Vogler, who graduated from Healdsburg High School in 1983 when it felt like being gay "could get you killed," he said.

The recent sight of a gay couple holding hands in front of a Sonoma Plaza restaurant "caught my breath," Vogler said.

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