Out in the wine industry

My friend, Alvaro Cardenas, is a wine importer and retailer in Los Angeles. When I met him last year, he was only the third out LGBT importer I'd met in 10 years in the wine business.

My friend, Alvaro Cardenas, is a wine importer and retailer in Los Angeles. When I met him last year, he was only the third out LGBT importer I’d met in 10 years in the wine business.

Wednesday, October 11, was the 28th annual National Coming Out Day.   As I was reading NCOD posts on Facebook, it occurred to me that I don’t know very many other LGBT people in the wine business, or who write about wine.  So I decided to ask the few I know about their experiences in the wine industry, and also ask for recommendations of others I could talk to.  This is the first of a couple of blog posts about those conversations.

First, some background.  NCOD was founded in 1988 with a simple premise: progress on civil rights comes in large part from visibility.  Given that there were few out individuals in the previous decades (let alone centuries), it was the norm for most people to assume that their family members, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances were straight.  LGBT people were a shadowy “other,” and it was much easier to disparage what you didn’t know.  But by coming out, LGBT individuals showed that we’d been there all along – the only thing that had changed about us was that others now knew our sexual orientations or gender identities.

As far as the wine industry goes, I’ve been in it for about 10 years now and have found that there are many more out LGBT people at the retail level, particularly sommeliers, than up the supply chain (producers, distributors, importers).  While you can do an internet search and find some out LGBT winemakers, few are out professionally.  Those who are live almost exclusively in California, with some in Oregon and Washington and a smattering elsewhere.  The glossy wine magazines tend to portray winemakers as rugged individualists – invariably straight (if they mention their personal lives at all).  And they’re mostly male, even though a few female winemakers have received greater visibility in the past few years.  In the import world, I found that when I first started getting invited on organized importer wine tours, I was the only openly gay person among dozens of invitees.  As time went on, there might be one other out LGBT person, and at most I’ve seen is two others on one particular tour.  Altogether, four of us among 200 or so I’ve met.

The relatively small numbers of out LGBT people above the retail level might come as a surprise to people who aren’t in the wine business.  Despite the valiant efforts of bloggers and writers, there seems to be an attitude that people who enjoy the complexities and intricacies of wine are as effete as Niles and Frazier Crane.  (When those two get to talking about wine, they sound an awful lot like Will and Jack on “Will and Grace,” despite being ostensibly straight characters.)  And that’s just people who drink it, so I can imagine the perception of those who sell or make it, since their lives are even more about wine.

Obviously, thinking about this and NCOD left me with a lot of questions.  First, I wanted to check to see if my impression of the scarcity of out LGBT people as winemakers, distributors, and importers was in fact the case.  Then, I wanted to ask people if and how being out had affected their businesses, and if that had changed over the years.  Was the experience different for winemakers than for importers and distributors?  For example, could it be that some winemakers aren’t out because they think it will hurt sales?  After all, the demographic of most serious (and high-spending) wine collectors definitely skews older.  And although those customers clearly like wine, they might not be as comfortable with LGBT people as younger customers.

I thought I’d start with importers, my area of expertise, so I contacted two out importers for interviews.  One told me that being out hadn’t made a difference among people who knew – but it also wasn’t central to personal or business identity, and asked to remain anonymous.  The other importer, Alvaro Cardenas, lives and works in L.A.  He and I met in Toledo, Spain, at a wine show in 2015.  He has worked with wine in various jobs since 1994.  Today, he’s co-founder of JK Wine Imports/Hudson & Green and also the owner of two wine retail shops.  His downtown L.A. Wine Stop opened this week.

It was fun catching up with Alvaro and comparing our experiences as importers.  Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.

I was already out when I started First Vine, and Cy came along on most of my European scouting trips with me.  I introduced him as my husband even before we were married because calling him my “partner” left the door open to people thinking we were just business partners.  So there was no question that we were out.  Was that true for you, too?  I’ve been out the whole time.  When I was a kid my mother told me, “Your body is going to start to change and you’re going to start to like girls, or boys – whatever is fine.”  Clearly she had an idea of what was going on.  And I never tried to hide it, as if I could.

Did being out had any effect on doing business initially?  Probably not.  I think that the few difficulties I had at first were because I was young and inexperienced.  If there was any anti-gay feeling in that, I didn’t see it.

Do you think that being in California made a difference?  Absolutely!  Everyone is pretty open here, especially in the cities.  I don’t think it helps or hurts being out.  There are a ton of LGBT sommeliers out here – many of them started as servers and worked their way into the wine end – that I don’t have any issues dealing with customers.  You know how somms are, if you have a good product at a very good price they’re going to want to buy no matter what they think of you.  Even the straight ones.  I only know a few out importers like you and me, though.  And I have to say there’s still sometimes an issue selling outside the big cities.  Not really overt, but at least at first I could see a reaction from customers in some of the smaller towns, and sometimes still do.

And is there a difference selling outside California, too?  Yes.  When I started visiting distributors in Texas and Illinois to do customer tastings, there was visible discomfort.  Like they didn’t quite know what to do with me.  You know me, I’m way out, and I don’t think they were used to it.  Even as little as five years ago.

Has that changed?  It is getting better – some of it is just that they know me and are used to me, but even among people I meet there for the first time fewer seem to have the same kind of discomfort as before.

We both buy European wines and sell them in the U.S.  I haven’t had any issues being out and buying from the wineries.  I buy from only one producer who isn’t married to an opposite-sex person, so I guess it’s possible he could be gay.  But I don’t have any indication he is.  Have you met any out LGBT producers in Europe?  No, none.  I’ve met a few who were definitely the most flamboyant people in the room – even including me – but they aren’t out and don’t even talk about it with me privately.  And it’s not just that “Gay or European, you decide” thing, either.  Religion plays a bigger role in Europe, though, and lots of people live with their parents until they’re married and they’re usually not out at home.

Do you think some of it is just a reserve as opposed to the instant informality we have here in the states?  I buy from three producers with LGBT children.  But it wasn’t until we’d done business together for a couple of years that I started finding out about them, as I got to know the producers more personally.  None of my producers has told me they have LGBT children, so I’m impressed!  Yes, there’s definitely a reserve there, but you’d think it would go away once we’ve been doing business for a while.  It hasn’t for me in Europe, though.

Thanks for talking with me!  Before we hang up, how’s the new store opening going?  When you and I first met I thought I’d be open soon.  But it has been over two years start to finish – first all the surprises when you get rehabbing an older building, and then all kinds of permit/license/inspection delays with the city.  Nonetheless, I’m really excited to open Wine Stop in downtown L.A.  And thanks, really fun talking to you.  You and Cy have to come to L.A. and see the new place!

—————

A preview of a forthcoming post on Bodega Hiriart, the maker of this post's featured wine. Non-trellised vines, and lots of clusters left after harvest for quality control. You can tell these grapes are Tempranillo rather than Grenache because the clusters are shaped like South America.

A preview of a forthcoming post on Bodega Hiriart, the maker of this post’s featured wine. Non-trellised vines, and lots of clusters left after harvest for quality control. You can tell these grapes are Tempranillo rather than Grenache because the clusters are shaped like South America or Africa.

Since Alvaro and I met in Spain, I thought I’d recommend a Spanish wine.  Bodega Hiriart Roble 2014 ($14) is 100% Tempranillo, aged in oak for four months and then in the bottle for at least six.  Cy and I visited Hiriart about a year ago.  I’ll write a post about the winery and our visit another time, but for now let me say that this may be the best Roble I’ve ever had.  While the actual rules for making a wine called “Roble” differ from region to region, the best Robles are like a lighter version of Crianzas – the next step up in the Spanish red wine hierarchy.  Robles generally contain grapes from younger vines than Crianzas, and spend less time aging.  But in very good years, you can end up with something wonderful at a very good price.  Hiriart’s 2014 Roble certainly qualifies.

The Roble pairs well with plenty of different foods.  It’s fall now, and lots of squash are available.  I love stuffing acorn squash and baking them, they’re really tasty this time of year.  And the baked, stuffed squash looks impressive on the plate.  For a red wine like the Roble, I like to stuff the squash with rice, mushrooms, and pine nuts, and cook them in a little tomato sauce.  The sauce adds acidity to the sweetness of the roasted squash, and the mushrooms call for a wine with some earthiness.

A couple of hints I’ve picked up on squash over the years.  First, the squash roast more evenly and you have less potentially tough skin if you use a vegetable peeler on the ridges of the squash.  Plus, they look prettier with the alternating bands of flesh and skin.  Second, the squash will have more flavor if you roast them a little before stuffing.  Before you start making the filling, put a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.  Brush the cavity side of the halved squash with some olive oil, then salt and pepper them.  When the oven has heated, put the squash cut-side-down on the hot sheet pan.  Roast the squash for about 15 minutes, then take them out and fill them.  (You don’t have to do this, of course, you can stuff the squash without pre-cooking.  Just bake them longer.)  You’ll be cooking the mushrooms and rice anyway (unless you have some left over), so it’s not difficult to use the time to roast the squash.

I don’t make tomato sauce ahead of time.  I just take crushed tomatoes from the can, mix in a little salt and pepper, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a couple of tablespoons of white wine, and two smashed and peeled garlic cloves and put the mixture in the bottom of the baking dish.  Then put the stuffed squash in, cover with parchment and foil, and bake.  Take off the parchment and foil, add some grated Parmesan cheese, and bake to brown.

Needless to say, I’ll have some Thanksgiving wine recommendations to come.  But that’s another post and another week.  For now, enjoy recovering from Halloween!

Cheers!

Tom

Baked Stuffed Acorn Squash

Serves 4

2 medium acorn squash, 3 pounds or so total

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 cup cooked rice (white or brown)

12 ounces Cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and bottom part of the stems cut off

4 ounces Shiitake mushrooms, stems removed (or use more Cremini mushrooms)

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, or ¾ teaspoon dried thyme

3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

1 small onion, minced

1 garlic clove, peeled and minced, plus 2 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

¼ cup grated, peeled apple

1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 tablespoons white wine

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put a sheet pan in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  While the oven is heating, take a vegetable peeler and peel a strip of skin off each of the ridges on the squash.  Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard them (or rinse the seeds off and save them to roast for a snack).

When the oven comes to temperature, brush the cut sides of the squash and the cavity with plenty of the oil.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then place cut-side-down on the hot sheet pan.  Roast for 15 minutes, then remove the pan from the oven.  Turn the heat down to 350 degrees F.

In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet.  Saute the onion and thyme for 3-4 minutes until soft.  Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.  Roughly chop the mushrooms while the onion is cooking (by hand or in the food processor).  Add the mushrooms to the onions and garlic in the pan, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, then mix everything together.  Cover the pan for a couple of minutes, until the mushrooms release their liquid.  Uncover the pan and cook until the liquid is almost gone and the mushrooms start to brown a little.  Stir in the grated apple, cook for 1 minute.  Then mix in the cooked rice and pine nuts.  Taste for salt and pepper.  The filling should hold together a bit when you press it with a spoon.  If it doesn’t, add a little water.

In a glass or ceramic baking dish large enough to hold the four squash halves, mix the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, white wine, a half teaspoon of salt, ¼ teaspoon of pepper, and the crushed garlic cloves.  Remove the squash from the sheet pan (you may need a spatula to help), and put them cut side up on the tomato mixture.  Stuff the cavities with the filling, mounding it up and leaving some of the squash on the top exposed.  Drizzle with a little oil.  Cover with a large piece of parchment inside a large piece of aluminum foil, tenting the parchment and foil so they don’t rest on the stuffed squash.

Bake for 35 minutes.  Remove the foil and parchment, and use a sharp knife to test that the squash are tender.  If not, cover again and bake for another 10 minutes.  Remove the foil, sprinkle the grated cheese on the filling, then raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F and bake for another 10 minutes.  Let cool a few minutes before spooning the sauce in the pan over each squash half, then serve.

Note:  you don’t have to pre-roast the squash, you can stuff and bake them without that step.  Bake the covered squash for 1 hour before testing for doneness, then bake uncovered as directed.

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