Gay Pride Month: Three openly gay winemakers tell their stories

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In a communal “I Do,” Theresa Heredia and her fiancé were among other same-sex couples saying their vows in San Francisco’s City Hall on Valentine’s Day in 2004.

Outside the ornate rotunda, the thousands of couples waiting their turn to get a same-sex marriage license found themselves the object of disdain and celebration. Enveloped in the chaos, they were screamed at by anti-gay protesters while the local flower vendors gave them free bouquets.

And so it began, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s rogue experiment in challenging the law with what he called his “moral authority.” Within six months Heredia’s marriage license, along with those of 4,035 other couples, were annulled by the California Supreme Court. But Heredia says Newsom’s bold move set the course for same-sex marriage to triumph in 2015, with the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing it in all 50 states.

For Heredia — now the winemaker at Healdsburg’s Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery — it was equality that was at stake.

“In 2004 is when I first experienced inequality,” she said. “That’s when it became personal. It became my mission in life to become active in all things equality.”

In celebration of Gay Pride Month, we tell Heredia’s story, along with those of two openly gay vintner/winemakers — Brad Beard of Mercury in Geyserville and Joe Wolosz of Gentleman Farmer Wines in Yountville.

Their stories have a common thread; Heredia, Beard and Wolosz are upbeat about the progress of equality while their wineries are upping the ante, supporting multiple causes to benefit the LGBTQ community.

Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell

The home page of the Gary Farrell website includes two icons — one for the OutAlliance and the other for the Human Rights Campaign.

Heredia says the icons are there to let people know Gary Farrell is a safe place for the LGBTQ community to visit.

“We are modern,” she said, “and today’s modern is open.”

When Heredia tells her own story, she is just that.

“I came out in June of 2003,” she says. “I had never been with a woman before but I fell in love with a woman … I was in a relationship with a man at the time, and I had to tell him. It was very hard.”

Heredia, 49, says she’s encouraged by the acceptance of same-sex couples in Sonoma County.

“Maybe the reason we don’t come together as gay people in the wine business is because maybe we don’t need to anymore,” she said. “Society welcomes us more openly today than it would have even a decade ago. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”

Finding support in the industry, Heredia says, wouldn’t be an issue.

“In terms of supporting us,” she says, “I can’t think of a single winery in Sonoma County who wouldn’t support us.”

Heredia sees a parallel between being gay and being a woman in the wine business.

“At one time it was — ‘How cool you’re a woman in the wine industry,’” she said. “It’s the same thing.”

A petite woman with dark hair and brown eyes, Heredia pours a glass of chardonnay and explains that there was a bit of serendipity in finding her way into the wine world. It was only when she met students from the enology department at UC Davis that she had this epiphany –– “Wine, peptides? It’s all chemistry, but how much more fun is wine?”

A Ph.D. candidate for chemistry at UC Davis, Heredia quickly changed course in the summer of 2000 so she could earn a master’s degree in enology and viticulture. Earlier that spring she had traveled across the pond to Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, a delicious tasting spree that left her giddy.

“I had already fallen in love with wine,” she said. “I just hadn’t realized it.”

Heredia spent a decade at Joseph Phelps in St. Helena beginning in 2002, with her later years at the winery’s Freestone Vineyards. She said her mentor was Craig Williams, who was director of winemaking at the time.

“I call him my artistic and philosophical leader,” she said. “The hardest thing about winemaking is simultaneously the greatest thing and that’s the unpredictability of the weather. I’m reminded every year that I’m not the boss. Mother Nature is the badass boss.”

Heredia joined Gary Farrell in 2012 and quickly learned that the winery had the same sensibility in supporting causes.

Gary Farrell has been a major donor for the Human Rights Campaign, and has also participated and donated wine for “Out in the Vineyard,” the Gay Wine Weekend in Sonoma, among other contributions.

Heredia is quick to show pictures of her wedding that was held on the winery property in 2016. She and partner Gilda Estevez, huddled in a rainbow American flag, were surrounded by a cheerful crowd of family and friends.

“Gary Farrell is not old-school,” Heredia said. “Equality and openness are important to us.”

Brad Beard of Mercury

On a shoestring budget and a prayer, Brad Beard came to Northern California from Phoenix, Arizona, in 2008. He worried that small farming towns might not be progressive enough to accept a gay winemaker.

“I’m not running up and down the street proclaiming my gayness,” said the winemaker, with a smile above a beard, showing a weave of brown with a hint of gray. “I grew up in the military during ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and that’s pretty much how I lived my life. I pretty much let people discover it organically.”

Beard, 50, served in the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 1992 as an air anti-submarine warfare controller. His rank was petty officer 2nd class, and he was based in Hawaii. But this tight-lipped former petty officer says any fears he had of discrimination were eliminated his first day in Geyserville.

“Everyone rallied around us and asked what they could to do help,” he said.

Beard was opening a tasting room for his brand Mercury, which he named after the Mercury Mines.

“The thriving metropolis of downtown Geyserville wouldn’t be here today without them,” Beard said. “The Mercury Mines brought the Italians, and the Italians brought the grapes, and the grapes brought me.”

Beard learned his wine prowess while in Phoenix working with sommeliers at the upscale restaurant Marquesa, and later working as a regional wine buyer for a national retail chain.

“I like growing grapes, turning grapes into wine and putting on the finishing touches,” he said. “But the hardest part is making the final blend. It’s when I decide I’m not doing anything else to it. That’s the most terrifying part of my job.”

Beard and his husband, Danny Fox, 38, work on the brand together, keeping their wedding album on the tasting bar, a testament to their confidence in Geyserville as a progressive farming town.

“When we got married in 2015, it was the talk of the town but in a good way,” Beard says, with a laugh. “About 90 percent of the 150 guests had never been to a gay wedding.”

Their ceremony, Beard says, symbolized what was happening across the country, the breakthrough that lit the White House in rainbow.

“As a grade schooler we were probably closeted,” he says. “Then with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ we basically stayed in the closet. But under Barack Obama same-sex marriage became legal, and I think that’s great progress.”

Beard and Fox keep busy with several causes, but the winery’s main emphasis is with Face to Face (f2f.org), which focuses on prevention for HIV/AIDS and outreach for Sonoma County.

“Should we band together in the wine industry and let people know we’re gay?” Beard asks. “Yes, because we’re not full circle yet, and there are plenty of opportunities to help people accept us.”

Labels, Beard says, are something he’d like to eliminate entirely but he knows they’re important to point out injustices.

“I want people to have an epiphany at home when they’re drinking wine like this one: ‘I guess I’m OK with gay people. I like Brad. I like his wine.’ Yahoo. We’ve changed one more mind, which is making the world better.”

Joe Wolosz of Gentleman Farmer

Growing up is awkward enough, but when you have to go through bullying because you’re gay, it can be deadly.

The “It Gets Better Project” is trying to thwart the spiraling suicide rate of LGBTQ youth, and that’s why Joe Wolosz and his husband, Jeff Durham, are behind it.

The co-vintners of Yountville’s Gentleman Farmer Wines say the “It Gets Better Project” has become a global movement focusing on empowering LGBTQ youth. It was conceived in 2010 when author Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, said three words to gay teens: “It gets better.”

Wolosz said the itgetsbetter.org website is making a difference because more than 60,000 people posted videos telling young people they will get over the bullying and it does get better.

A lanky 6-foot-4, Wolosz is wearing jeans, a denim shirt and slippers –– clean-cut casual. He points out projects in his house like his driftwood coffee table and the old-fashioned red phone he intends to bring back to life with the right parts.

Winemaking is clearly a craft that appeals to this creative. He took about 15 extension courses at UC Davis in the 1990s, after earning a degree in 1993 in hotel restaurant management from Cal Poly Pomona in Los Angeles County. Wolosz began the Gentleman Farmer Wines label in 2005.

Serving gougère and roasted nuts with chili and pomegranate, Wolosz said he entered the wine cellar through the kitchen.

“When we were 21, my friends and I were playing at being adults,” he says. “We’d have a four- or five-course meal and the kitchen was always a disaster. We didn’t have the bandwidth to clean it until the next day. It could have been the wine.”

To this day, Wolosz, 51, says he keeps wines in the context of the food, and the synergy is working. His bottlings are on the wine list of the French Laundry in Yountville.

To honor Pride Month, Gentleman Farmer Wines is donating 10 percent of its online wine sales from its website in June to the It Gets Better Project.

The message is a crucial SOS, Wolosz says, because it does get better. With age comes wisdom and its sidekick, perspective.

“I was just watching something with Herbie Hancock, and he said there was a moment when he realized he was a human, a father, a son, a brother — not just a musician.”

Wolosz identifies himself as a vintner, a cook, a son, a husband, a musician and a creative.

“Twenty-five years ago things were different for gays and lesbians,” Wolosz says. “Now it (your sexuality) is not considered your whole identity.”

Wine Writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

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