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Sonoma County taps into LGBT tourism market with annual Gay Wine Weekend

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The Sunday morning benefit wine auction, held outdoors at tables draped in white cloth, raised about $28,500 for charity, and guests then headed for a soiree around the swimming pool at the upscale MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa in Sonoma.

But this nearly all-male crowd was not your usual Wine Country gathering.

“With this event, we don’t have to be on guard,” said Ian MacWilliams of Walnut Creek. “We don’t have to be looking over our shoulders. We are the majority.”

About 600 people from at least 20 states, many from the Bay Area, attended the fifth annual Gay Wine Weekend, the vast majority of them gay men: singles, couples and groups of friends.

Tourism officials and analysts say the spending power of the LGBT community has only recently been recognized, with Sonoma County well positioned to benefit as events like Gay Wine Weekend help market the area as a destination.

“There’s a real camaraderie,” said Larry Kolka, MacWilliams’ partner for 27 years, on Sunday. “You get to meet new people, to share with them the discovery of wines and food.”

There were some heterosexuals in the mix, and MacWilliams said they were welcome.

“If they want to come along, so much the better. We’re on a fun train here,” he said.

The weekend featured multi-course, winemaker-hosted dinners, vineyard tours and a Saturday night dance at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, the signature event.

On a hot, sunny afternoon Sunday, the atmosphere around the pool was emphatically casual, with dance music pumping from a DJ’s booth and men sitting in the shade and sunning themselves in the water.

The three-day event, put on by Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma-based tour and event company, offers sophistication “without pretentiousness” just an hour away from the urban grind of the Bay Area, MacWilliams said.

Gary Saperstein, who co-founded Out in the Vineyard with business partner Mark Vogler, said the event books all 64 hotel rooms at MacArthur Place.

“It’s ours for the weekend,” he said. Men “can hold hands with their partners; they can kiss their partners without thinking anyone’s watching.”

Several men said it was also important to them that the weekend benefits Face to Face, the nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals living with HIV and AIDS in Sonoma County. Previous events have raised more than $100,000; this year’s total, including the auction proceeds, will be tallied later, Saperstein said.

Rich Dean, executive director of Face to Face, said his group stages fundraisers throughout the year and it’s “such a gift” to have someone else put one on.

“We’re very appreciative,” he said.

There’s also some serious marketing going on as local wineries take the opportunity to bid for a piece of the LGBT community’s $800 billion to $850 billion a year in purchasing power, a figure cited by Marci Armstrong of the SMU Cox School of Business in April.

Rob Izzo, director of wine sales and marketing for Wilson Artisan Wineries, said he was at the event to introduce the Wilson group’s newest acquisition, St. Anne’s Crossing Winery in nearby Kenwood.

Marketing to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is a natural, Izzo said. “We’re into welcoming everyone.”

“Now more than ever,” said Scott Nava of La Crema Winery in Windsor, part of the Jackson Family Wines empire. Gay men are ideal customers, he said, with disposable income and “a taste for fine wines.”

But Vogler, who worked for five years in the marketing department of Treasury Wine Estates, the Australia-based global wine giant, said the wine industry is late to the party in courting the LGBT market.

“Beer and spirits (industries) figured it out 20 to 25 years ago,” he said. Anheuser-Busch, which holds a 48 percent share of U.S. beer sales to retailers, is “all over every gay event,” Vogler said. “They understand the value of the market.”

Until recently, wine brand managers were “indifferent” to sexual minorities, not hostile, Vogler said. “We weren’t on the radar at all.”

Wine marketers are coming around, he said, but they are not nearly on a par with the sellers of beer and liquor.

The LGBT community’s presence is well known in the tourism industry, experts said.

David Paisley, senior research director at Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco-based LGBT marketing research group, said the segment accounts for at least 6 percent of Sonoma County’s tourism spending, which amounted to $1.6 billion overall last year.

Paisley’s group estimates that LGBT people take 50 percent more trips than the average person, in part because lesbians and gays tend to be in dual-income households with no children, a demographic that travels more whether gay or straight, he said.

Travel is a “cultural identity marker” in the LGBT community, Paisley said. Sonoma County is at a “real advantage” over other destinations because it picks up both the “fly-in market” of people coming from far away, along with the “drive-in market” of visitors from the Bay Area, he said.

Community Marketing’s latest LGBT Tourism & Hospitality Survey, released in December, rated Sonoma County at No. 20, tied with Napa County and a few other spots, on a list of favorite destinations. The top five destinations were New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Events like Gay Wine Weekend bolster tourism because they typically generate longer visits and encourage “a skeptical visitor to give a destination a try,” Paisley said.

Sonoma County Tourism has been promoting the county as a gay destination for years, said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer. The county has a “gay-friendly” reputation dating back to the 1970s, when gay men from San Francisco’s Castro district began visiting the Russian River area, he said.

Gay travelers tend to support places “where they know they will be comfortable,” Zahner said.

Near the pool at MacArthur Place Hotel, Ron Ryan of San Francisco said he felt that way in Sonoma, where the LGBT rainbow flag flew at City Hall over the weekend.

“We’re all together,” he said. “We’re in Sonoma. This is our Pride.”

“Cheers to that,” said a friend, Anthony Mistretta of San Francisco, attending Gay Wine Weekend for the first time. “I love it. It’s been a blast.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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