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Inside Sonoma’s Thriving LGBTQ+ Wine Scene

In the 1980s and 90s, Guerneville and the larger Russian River Valley “became, literally, the place where young men went to die,” says Gary Saperstein, owner of Sonoma-based event company Out in the Vineyard. He is, of course, referring to the HIV and AIDS epidemic that took the lives of so many LGBTQ+ folks during that time, as well as isolated the community even further than they had already been. As with many rural LGBTQ+ communities that developed around the nation in the 1970s, the party atmosphere of Sonoma County’s gay enclave “switched to a place of rest,” Saperstein says. “To a place away from the city, where they could live out the rest of their days in peace.” 

But bucolic Guerneville, where gay men and women had escaped to “gather in the shadows” decades before President Bill Clinton first declared June Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in 1999, is now “having a rebound,” says Saperstein.

This is thanks in no small part to his dedication to cultivating the local queer wine culture. With more than 30 years of hospitality experience in wine country, Saperstein established Out in the Vineyard in 2008 with the goal of bringing his two communities together. “I was seeing an influx of queer tourists as well as people moving here—not just Guerneville, but everywhere in Sonoma County. I mean, the Castro is just 45 minutes south, but no one in the wine industry was relating to us.”

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Today, Saperstein says, Sonoma’s Pride Month is bigger than ever, attracting over 5,000 people to the Santa Rosa-based pride parade alone. And his company, which hosts queer-friendly events throughout the year, has donated over $500,000 to LGBTQ+ nonprofits, including Face to Face and Positive Images.

Saperstein is not alone in this work. These are the stories of just a handful of the area’s local LGBTQ+ wine professionals, each a unique tale with a full diurnal range. There is no one way to be queer in the wine business, and these stories reflect that. They all, however, center around Sonoma Valley, a serene land that’s established itself as one of the nation’s most gay-friendly destinations.

Mark Lyon
Image Courtesy of Eco Terreno Alexander Valley

Mark Lyon, Eco Terreno Wines and Vineyards

“I was interviewed by Blake Edwards at the SF Chronicle in 2005, and he pretty much outed me in his article,” remembers Mark Lyon, founder and winemaker of Eco Terreno Wines and Vineyards. As a result of that incident, Lyon became an unintentional pioneer in the wine world as the first openly gay individual in the industry. Though he was already out to family and friends, he was quiet about that side of his life when it came to his professional career. “It was chilling at the time because I’d been working for the Sebastiani family since 1979. But after, the family assured it wasn’t an issue.”

Lyon came out during his junior year at U.C. Davis in the late 1970s. “Most people who were LGBT back then were pretty much hidden,” he says. “I wasn’t isolated, it wasn’t that. It was just new for a lot of people; there was more fear and ignorance than hatred.”

Moving onto a career in Sonoma, Lyon witnessed the ups and downs that the local queer community up close. “I consider myself very fortunate that, unlike a lot of my friends at the time in the 80s, I did not succumb to the HIV epidemic. I’m very lucky I’m alive today at 68,” he says. “I dodged a lot of bullets.” Adding further to that fortune is the long, steady career Lyon built for himself. After climbing up the ranks at Sebastiani for 37 years, he started his own brand, Eco Terreno.

“Sonoma is, has always been, a very accepting community,” he says. “There’s very little, if any, homophobia here.” That said, he feels there’s still a stigma within the queer wine industry about coming out professionally, with many believing it’s a career disadvantage. “It’s an opinion I have about people who are my age,” he says. “With the younger generation, that may not be the case. But there are still some people who are reluctant, especially if they have their own brand or consult with a major company, that their identity will be seen as a minus.”

But Lyon is comfortable and proud to set an example. “We’re a 100% gay-owned vineyard, winery and wine brand,” he says. “We certainly don’t hide it. We celebrate it as much as we can.”

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Theresa Heredia
Image Courtesy of Theresa Heredia

Theresa Heredia, Heredia Wine Consulting

If there’s anyone who embodies the notion that next-gen wine professionals proudly embrace queer identity and culture, it’s Theresa Heredia, consulting winemaker for Gary Farrell. Having grown up with a gay brother, Heredia was already immersed in the community when she came out herself in 2003. She moved to Sonoma in 2007.

“There wasn’t a lot of gay stuff” at that time, she says. “Most of the gay culture was in Guerneville—and it was mostly men.” In general, she says, there are fewer lesbian-specific venues, events and gatherings.

Heredia started her career at Gary Farrell in 2012 and was open and proud about who she is and what she represents. “In 2015, it was my idea to start embracing the LGTBQ+ community,” she says. “We [at Gary Farrell] want to celebrate them, and I want to honor them, reach out to them and make them feel like we want them to come to our winery and tasting room. So, I volunteered to be the queer spokesperson on behalf of Gary Farrell Winery. Because I am, it’s legitimate, it’s authentic.”

Around this time the winery also put action behind the spoken message, sponsoring queer events, including hosting one of the first Gay Wine Weekend events with Out in the Vineyard, as well as donating to supporting nonprofits like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). But queer representation in the broader industry remains a struggle, Heredia says.

“There’s not much growth or effort,” she says. “But, at the same time, it’s hard to do that. It’s very different than trying to welcome people of color.” For wine companies looking to increase that part of their diversity of employees, she says, it’s all about outreach. “Shift your marketing message, get your winery where the queer community is going to be,” she advises.

As for queer folks beginning their career in wine, Heredia encourages them to be open about who they are. “It took me a long time—I didn’t come out until adulthood—but if you can be yourself, be natural, you’re always going to be better at what you do when you’re doing it as your authentic self."

Jim Obergefell
Photography by Emma Parker Photography

Jim Obergefell, Equality Wines

Love is at the heart of Jim Obergefell’s winemaking story. “Leading up to 2013, I’d been with my partner John for 21 years, and he was dying of ALS,” says Obergefell, co-founder of Equality Vines. “We wanted to get married, but we didn’t want it to be symbolic.” On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which meant the couple could finally legally wed and “at least have the federal government acknowledge us. “So that’s what we did,” Obergefell recalls. “We got married—chartered a medical jet, flew to Maryland, got married inside the jet on the tarmac and then flew home.”

At the time, Ohio was one of the many states with its own state-level Defense of Marriage Act, which declared the institution legal only between a man and woman. It ostensibly allowed Ohio to ignore lawful marriages established in other states. “So, eight days after our marriage, we filed a lawsuit in federal district court suing the governor and attorney general of Ohio; 11 days after our marriage I was in federal court for the hearing,” says Obergefell. But John’s health was quickly declining; the judge had to clear his docket to hear their case in a timely fashion. The judge ruled that same day in their favor. John died three months later.

But the battle wasn’t over. The state of Ohio appealed the decision, and Jim went to the 6th Circuit alongside marriage equality cases from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan. The case, known as Obergefell v. Hodges, finally reached a favorable ruling, requiring all 50 states to allow and recognize same-sex marriage.

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How does all this relate to wine? The national-level publicity is how he connected with business partner Matt Grove, who previously founded South Africa-based Eighth Wonder Wines. Grove was looking to create a wine label dedicated to his late aunt, Dr. Marilyn Schultz, a lesbian who filed and led the first class-action suit against NBC in pursuit of gender equality in the workplace.  

“He just googled ‘gay marriage’ and my name and face was the first to pop up,” laughs Obergefell.

Originally, the duo set their sights on Napa, but a PR consultant insisted Sonoma was the right place to establish the project. Their first wine, a sparkling produced in partnership with Iron Horse, donated proceeds in support of marriage equality. “A year later, when we were thinking about opening a tasting room, we’d established a lot of relationships within Sonoma—our wines were from Sonoma—we knew Guerneville, so ended up in Guerneville.”

Today, the pair’s vast portfolio boasts partnerships with notable winemakers from throughout Sonoma and beyond, including Paso Robles and Lodi, with each bottling donating proceeds to a plethora of causes including, but not limited to, LGBTQ+ organizations. “Equality for one is nothing without equality for all,” Obergefell says.

“My experience from the get-go has been nothing but positive,” he says of his shift into the wine industry. “What I love about Sonoma is that people come and feel welcome and safe— whether they’re queer, women or any marginalized group… you’re welcome. Come on in.”

Lloyd Davis
Image Courtesy of Corner103

Lloyd Davis, Corner 103

“Being gay and a person of color doesn’t go well a lot of places, but here a lot of people were open and willing to help,” says Lloyd Davis, proprietor of Corner 103. “When I first came to Sonoma, I had no wine experience, knew nothing about how to make wine. But people were very welcoming, helpful and accommodating in helping me understand best practices to emulate.”

Originally from New York, Davis arrived in Sonoma as a financial advisor to a then-struggling wine business, Viansa. He ultimately left his career in finance, took control of Viansa and learned the ins and outs of the wine industry—all while bringing the business back to profitability. “By the time I sold Viansa and opened Corner, there was a lot of support,” he says. “And I’ve been fortunate and blessed to have a winemaker that creates award-winning wines,” he adds, referencing Ron Goss, whom he met at Viansa.

Davis says his identity as a gay Black man doesn’t much affect his professional life. “I don’t promote that at all,” he says plainly. “I want people to come into the tasting room for the wine and experience,” and Davis sees his role as helping make wine accessible. Tastings are by appointment only and designed to cater to the guests’ specific interests and tastes.

“Something I realized in the wine space is that a lot of people are afraid or intimidated about wine,” he says. “Here, we help you understand that you know just as much as anyone, because you know what you like.” And that’s what he wants people to remember about Corner 103. “Yes, we’re a smaller brand, a minority brand, but that’s not the sole purpose for coming to the tasting room. It’s about the wine and the experience.”

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Cindy Cosco
Image Courtesy of Carole Martinson

Cindy Cosco, Passaggio Wines

“I don’t even like being coined a ‘female winemaker,’ but that’s more of my story than being gay and female,” says Cindy Cosco, owner and winemaker of Passaggio Wines. Originally from Northern Virginia with a career in law enforcement, in 2002 Cosco began traveling back and forth between California and her home state. “I fell in love with Sonoma,” she says.

At the time, she was aching to leave law enforcement. Once she made the permanent move to Sonoma, getting into wine was a no-brainer. “Since I’m in wine country, I should just get into the wine industry,” she recalls thinking.

Of course, nothing is ever that easy. She paid her dues, working in the aisles of BevMo, in the lab at Chateau St. Jean and studying enology at the Napa Valley College. It wasn’t until 2007 that Passaggio was born, starting with a meager 50 cases of unoaked Chardonnay. Then, a chance encounter with Linda Trotta—who’d been an idol and role-model winemaker to Cosco—helped her become more engaged in both the wine and queer community.

“I became really close with her and her wife,” she says. “That pushed me into the gay community, with women.”

Cosco says she’s "been in different pockets of the gay/lesbian community—Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Berkeley... there are pockets and you find your pocket.” But she doesn’t think of it as playing a role in her career as a winemaker. “I just don’t like putting that label out there,” she says. But don’t think she’s embarrassed, ashamed or shy—Cosco merely believes she should be seen and respected as a winemaker regardless of her gender or sexuality.

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It helps, she says, that Sonoma is such a welcoming community. In her nearly two decades working in the local wine space, Cosco says she’s slowly but progressively seen more LGBTQ+ folks getting into the wine business. “I think it has to do with the culture here,” she says. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable.”

Still, “there are a lot of females who are afraid,” Cosco says. “Afraid because they have families that are not supportive of them and that makes them retreat inward and not be able to be themselves at certain times. I think if we could just set that all aside and love each other for who we are, that would be the voice I would have.”

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