Wine tastings, wine festivals and winery tours are commonplace in Sonoma County. Here in Wine Country, you almost don’t need a calendar. You can count on finding wine-related fun almost anytime.
But six years ago, the founders of Out in the Vineyard, an event and travel company catering to gay tourists, saw a need for a different kind of a Wine Country event.
In 2011, Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein created the Gay Wine Weekend, which has grown in attendance steadily ever since, with the weekend’s biggest event, the Twilight T-Dance at Sonoma’s Chateau St. Jean Winery, drawing nearly 700 people last year.
This year, Gay Wine Weekend runs July 14-16 and has expanded to include events not only in Sonoma, where the weekend celebration is headquartered, but also in Sebastopol, the Russian River Valley and Napa Valley.
“We’re seeing about a 20-percent growth every year,” Vogler said. “Last year, we had people from 16 states across the U.S. The Gay Wine Weekend has become a destination. We’ve had visitors from Europe, and we had an Australian couple fly in a couple of years ago.”
Vogler, 51, a Sonoma County native, was managing a wine company’s online business when he began to wonder why Wine Country businesses weren’t focusing their marketing efforts on the affluent, sophisticated gay population of the greater Bay Area.
“I started to get flooded with calls and emails from gay friends of mine across the country,” Vogler recalled. “They were saying, ‘What wine brands are we supposed to drink that support the gay community? Who do we support that supports us? What restaurants can we go to when we go to Wine Country? What are the hotels were I can check into with my husband or boyfriend or partner or whatever?’”
Those questions prompted an insight.
“I realized that no one in the wine business was talking to the LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community at all. I kept pitching this idea during presentations to the wine industry. They looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about,” Vogler said.
“I kept thinking, ‘Is there homophobia here?’ And it took a couple of years to realize ... they just had no experience. They had no access to the gay community,” he explained. “So I met Gary and we started talking about this. He saw a growth in gays coming to Sonoma County, looking for direction and a way to navigate Wine Country.”
Saperstein, 57, a veteran of the restaurant and hospitality industry, moved 16 years ago from New York to California, working at Auberge Du Soleil restaurant in Napa and the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma.
When the nation was stricken by an economic slump in 2008, a winery owner asked Vogler how to stimulate traffic to their wineries.
“I said, ‘Market to the gays. Throw a T-Dance,’” Vogler said. “It’s really an afternoon social event that the gay community has adopted from Victorian ladies’ socials. We had three weeks to put it together, and we had 300 people attend at Beringer Vineyards.”
At the event, gay wine aficionados expressed to gratitude to Vogler and Saperstein.
“It was the first time somebody in the wine industry was talking directly to the gay community.” Saperstein said. “That means a lot to us.”
Gay Wine Weekend
Friday, July 14
3-6 p.m.: VIP Welcome Reception and Wine Tasting at Sonoma Valley Inn
7:30 p.m.: Wine & Dine Out, various locations
Saturday, July 15
10 a.m. - 3 p.m.: Wine Tours and Lunch (departs from Sonoma Valley Inn)
6:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Twilight T-Dance at Chateau St. Jean Winery
Sunday, July 16
10 a.m.: Gay Wine Auction and Recovery Brunch
1-4 p.m.: Sunday Pool Soiree
More information at www.gaywineweekend.com.