This is my second post talking with out LGBT people in the wine industry. In the first post, I spoke with Alvaro Cardenas, an importer and retailer in Los Angeles. We both noted that we had met only a few other out importers during our time in the wine business – and he’s been in it a lot longer than I have.
I wanted to see if the same was true for winemakers, and if so, why. As I mentioned last time, online searches don’t find many out LGBT winemakers, and most of them are in California. So I contacted Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein, founders and owners of Out in the Vineyard, a Sonoma, CA company that promotes wine-related tourism for the LGBT community. They put me in touch with Mark Lyon, winemaker for Sebastiani Vineyards for 30+ years, and who has now started his own Alexander Valley winery, Eco Terreno.
All three confirmed that winemaking as a profession is “98% straight,” as Lyon told me. And some LGBT winemakers still aren’t out, although Vogler and Saperstein think that the majority are, especially in the last few years.
Lyon came to California to attend U.C. Davis for winemaking. He started at Sebastiani after graduating in 1978, choosing Sonoma County because it was close to San Francisco. Vogler and Saperstein confirmed Sonoma’s current gay-friendliness. But it wasn’t always that way. Vogler grew up in Healdsburg in Sonoma County and thought he was the only gay person there. He left after high school. He and Saperstein moved separately to Sonoma as part of what they called a mini-LGBT exodus from the big cities that started in the late 1990s. By that time, Sonoma County had long become a weekend destination for LGBT people from San Francisco, many buying second homes there as well.
The recession that began in 2008 was a catalyst for starting Out in the Vineyard. The California wine industry was hard-hit and needed to find new markets. Vogler and Saperstein had already met many wine-industry LGBT people, and they started lobbying their friends to market to the LGBT community. Not all LGBT people fit the double-income-no-kids model, but it could still be hugely profitable. The beer and spirits industries had already discovered this, and the wine industry was slow to follow. “It was really hard at first to find sponsors for LGBT-oriented wine events,” they told me. They also wanted to convince some of their winemaker friends to come out publicly. So they decided to hold a winemaker dinner as part of their annual Gay Wine Weekend – a separate event that would have the friendliest possible audience, and would undoubtedly lead to plenty of future sales. At least one winemaker came out so that he could participate.
These days, it’s much easier to get winery sponsorship for their events, even from wineries that aren’t LGBT-owned or operated. But it’s not always a slam-dunk. When I asked Vogler and Saperstein why they thought that some winemakers weren’t out or didn’t want to sponsor LGBT wine events, they cited two reasons. The first is that it’s still a farming profession, and some winegrowers and winemakers hadn’t been as exposed to the LGBT community as others.
The second is customer perception. Vogler and Saperstein cited a winery owned by two partners, one gay and one straight. The straight owner has resisted sponsoring LGBT wine events and using the gay owner’s connections to market to the LGBT community out of concern that their product would get a reputation as “gay wine.” This might seem like a stretch, since the owners are unlikely to put a rainbow flag on the label. By customer demographics, though, it’s not impossible to think that there could be an impact. While millennials – who are more open in their LGBT support — are beginning to drink more wine, the sweet spot for serious (and more lucrative) wine collecting is among people over 45. Not to say that some older people aren’t just as supportive. But as we saw in 2012 and 2013 polls on same-sex marriage, younger people were much more likely to support it than those who were older.
Lyon disagreed about the farming community, and said he hasn’t experienced any change in attitude among his peers since they learned he was gay. But he confirmed that he also had concerns about potential customer reaction when he came out professionally in 2004. He was already out socially, and had been with his now-husband for a few years. His professional coming-out was part of an interview with a major newspaper to promote the wines he made for Sebastiani. It was certainly a bigger audience than he had expected, and bigger than most people coming out ever have, especially before social media.
He wasn’t yet out at work, so he had to make the announcement when he knew the article would appear. “I was worried, but I shouldn’t have been. The Sebastiani family was incredibly supportive, and looking back I should have known they would be.” He also worried about potentially homophobic wine buyers. “I thought there might be some awkwardness at minimum, but that didn’t happen – it was absolutely neutral, zero impact.”
As my talk with Lyon came to an end, I asked him about the two percent figure for LGBT winemakers and why it’s lower than what you’d find in the general population. I thought that part of it might be that LGBT people like Vogler felt like they had to leave their rural farming communities in the past. Lyon agreed, but also said it will change with time. “It’s like any other profession in some ways. We’re making inroads now, and that’ll continue. Think of how many business leaders you have for every Tim Cook. We’ll get there.”
Vogler and Saperstein had the same optimism. “Some of our friends in the wine industry still haven’t come out professionally,” they told me. “But we think they will soon. Sonoma’s an LGBT-friendlier place even in the time we’ve lived here.”
If you’re a reader who automatically scrolls down to the end of the post for the recipe, you’re probably wondering what’s happening here. I’ve decided that I’ll occasionally put the recipe and wine pairing in a separate post. More than a few readers who are also writers have told me that the written content and recipes don’t always go well together. I think they raise a good point. Sometimes they do work in tandem — like if the post is about certain aspects/characteristics of food and wine, interviews with cookbook authors, etc. But in a post like this one, the transition to wine and food talk can be less than smooth.
Never fear, there will still be recipes and wine pairings. You’ll just get to read more posts from me, that’s all!