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Wineries court gay customers

Tom Van Wormer, right, talks with Steven Groth, his husband, while the two have lunch in the B Wise Vineyards wine cave Saturday near Sonoma, as part of Out in the Vineyards' Off the Beaten Path winery tour.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 9:31 p.m.

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.

The county's $1.9 billion agriculture, food and wine sector has cashed in on that activity, officials said.

“Now we see gay travelers in Wine Country from quiet villas in Glen Ellen to chic wineries in Alexander Valley to the great restaurants in Petaluma and beyond,” said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism, the tourism agency.

Gay wine drinkers say tours and events tailored to them offer a chance to explore new territory with other same-sex couples. The outings also provide a break from the standard fare of pride events that some say they have outgrown.

“Been there, done that,” said Steven Groth, 58, who said he retired in Santa Rosa with his husband Tom Van Wormer largely for the wine country lifestyle.

The shift has coincided with a widening acceptance of same-sex relationships, allowing a greater number of wine industry officials to come out themselves and back the push for civil rights for the gay community.

That message in several instances has even been carried on the bottle, notably in a California blend called Same Sex Meritage and a French wine called Egalite, meaning equality.

Sebastiani Vineyards winemaker Mark Lyon, who is gay, said the change has brought his professional and personal worlds “a lot closer to home.”

Sebastiani is a prominent participant in the weekend event, including today's auction to benefit Face to Face-Sonoma County AIDS Network.

“This is not just trying to promote a winery or a company,” Lyon said. “It's a personal cause.”

Some gay wine consumers welcome the wider recognition, saying it gives them an opportunity to push for positive changes with their pocketbooks.

“It's an excellent chance to remind people that if you build it, we will come,” said Zenzi Poindexter, 50, who traveled from Los Angeles for the wine event.

“It's the power of the dollar, for sure,” she said.

Vogler, the event promoter, stressed that destinations and businesses catering to gay wine connoisseurs face more scrutiny than they might from straight consumers.

“The community is very savvy about who is marketing to us for a quick revenue hit versus who really wants to invest in our community,” he said. In other sectors, companies have gained favor through their equal treatment of LBGT employees and use of materials that promote rather than hide same-sex relationships, Vogler said.

“The gay community look at that to guide where they're going to spend their money,” he said. “You can't just pour some wine once and expect someone to join your wine club.”

Sonoma's El Dorado Hotel, the host for the wine weekend, appears to have passed the test. It won so many fans among previous attendees that it was booked months ahead of time, Vogler said.

For other businesses, new and repeat customers can come from something less tangible.

On Saturday, Lorenzo Petroni, owner of Petroni Vineyards, shared stories of his Italian homeland with patrons over flights of his red and white wines, paired with fresh foccaccia bread, artisanal cheese and honey.

“These guys really know what they're talking about,” said Petroni, a longtime San Francisco restaurant owner. “I think it (the wine event) is great for the valley. They should do it more often.”

Several patrons said they'd be back.

“Word is definitely getting out,” said Matt Kowalski, 36, of Oakland.

“It's just going to get bigger,” said Anthony Chiu, 47, of Marin.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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