Travelers seeking a wine getaway in Northern California’s famed Napa, Sonoma, and up- and-coming Mendocino counties can’t go wrong no matter what time of the year they visit, but the best time of the year for a wine vacation is in October.
October is known as crush season, when the grapes are rapidly being plucked from the vines and crushed into wine, and the grape leaves turn to a brilliant gold and reds. It is simply magical.
California makes 90 percent of all of the wine in the U.S. and is the fourth largest producer of wine in the world after France, Italy, and Spain, earning the state $61.5 billion in 2011, according to the Wine Institute. California’s wine country attracted 20.7 million visitors touring the rolling hills of Sonoma and Napa lined with rows of vines, not to mention the other regions running up and down the Golden State.
Tourists spent $2.1 billion in California’s wine regions alone in 2011, according to the Wine Institute. That doesn’t include the $1.39 billion revenue in exports.
The wine industry is so influential in California that Governor Jerry Brown declared September “California Wine Month” in 2011. This year the wine industry celebrated with events throughout the month.
Father Junipero Serra most likely didn’t see what the future would be when he planted the first grape seeds in 1779, but Robert Mondavi, the late wine mogul of Napa, did in 1966. His vision helped put Napa Valley on the wine map. The region got another boost when France was knocked off of its wine pedestal in 1976 in the blind tasting test now known as the “Judgment of Paris.”
It is only natural with wine country’s aura of sophisticated simplicity that LGBT travelers from around the world are drawn to the region. The area also makes for a great weekend getaway for local residents. Increasingly, LGBT wine lovers are doing more than simply imbibing the varieties of fruit turned into a celebrated and savory drink: They are carving their own place in California’s wine country, catering to the community’s travelers.
The Napa Valley is beautiful with its sprawling estates and grand mansions and wineries. The valley is designated an American Viticultural Area and within that are 14 other AVAs with distinct microclimates and terrains, according to the Wine Institute. Napa’s 400 wineries are known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Rhone varietals.
It is a perfect weekend getaway, which is what my girlfriend and I have done on several occasions. Our first trip was a birthday celebration with a group of her friends at the Silverado Resort and Spa. We spent the weekend relaxing at the spa, playing golf and tennis, and touring the wineries along the Silverado Trail.
It is also a great day trip with friends for a bike ride or a romantic date on the Napa Valley Wine Train. There is nothing like biking along the country roads passing vineyards and stopping to taste wine on a warm sunny autumn day with friends or enjoying a romantic gourmet dinner on the Wine Train.
The Wine Train also partners with Out in the Vineyards for the annual Big Gay Wine Train, which attracted 240 guests this year, according to Mark Volger, co-owner of Out in the Vineyards.
LGBT travelers looking for more personalized trips with exclusive lodging and tours rather than large social wine events might consider GayNapaGetaways.com, based in Napa.
“The gay market is totally underutilized in wine country,” says Charles Kimball, a 55-year-old gay hospitality professional who created the company five years ago.
At the time there were no other high-end gaycentric full-service hospitality and tour services offered to Napa, Sonoma, or any of California’s wine regions, he says. Charles developed a portfolio of vacation rental properties from cottages to mansions, created exclusive wine tours, and became certified to plan and perform same-sex weddings. Today, he produces about four or five vacation packages a month, he said.
LGBT vacationers planning to stay in Napa will find that there is one gay-owned bed and breakfast, the Inn on First. There are four gay-owned lodging options – Chanric Inn, Chateau de Vie, Meadowlark Country House, and Luxe Calistoga – located in nearby Calistoga.
For a list of TAG-approved hotels in wine country look up the county or city.
Napa doesn’t have a gay bar, but Napa Guerilla Gay Bar, a nonprofit social organization, turns local venues into gay “hot spots” for a day.
Napa’s LGBT community has been embraced by the larger community. The second annual Napa Valley Film Festival, November 7-11 is honoring bisexual actor Alan Cumming at a tribute on November 8 and is showing two LGBT films, “Any Day Now”, starring Cumming, and “Cloudburst”. Last year the festival showed lesbian country singer Chely Wright’s bio documentary, “Wish Me Away”.
“We are proud to feature a wide range of stories and characters in our film programming,” says Marc Lhormer, executive and artistic director of the film fest. He tells Girls That Roam he is honored to present Cumming for his “talents and contributions to cinematic story-telling” that will be highlighted at this year’s festival.
Sonoma County, located closer to the coast, has 13 AVAs and is part of the North Coast AVA, according to the Wine Institute; 260 wineries call the area home. The region is known mostly for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc varietals, but also for Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel varietals produced in some of the well-known valleys – Alexander, Bennett, Dry Creek, Russian River, and Sonoma.
I have to confess, my girlfriend and I make regular quick escapes to Sonoma. We just can’t get enough of this area’s beauty, great wines, amazing cheeses on the new Cheese Trail, a plethora of events, and popular gay resort town, Guerneville.
There is always something interesting to do in Sonoma.
In October and November alone, Sonoma has four great events. On October 27 is the Healdsburg Farmers Market Pumpkin Festival from 9 a.m. to noon. November events include the Wine Road’s 14th annual A Wine and Food Affair November 3-4 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., (tickets are $30 to $70) and the 29th annual Holiday Open House, on November 23-24, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (tickets are $45).
For a guide to all of the state’s wine festivals, check out California Wine Festival.
There are also LGBT events throughout the year. Since its first event three and a half years ago, Out in the Vineyards, the newcomer, has received a great reception from local wineries and attracted more than 500 guests to its annual Gay Wine Weekend, says Gary Saperstein, 52, and Mark, 47.
“We are making a mark here in wine country,” says Gary.
Greg Bjornsted, owner and winemaker of Bjornsted Cellars, added that due to Out in the Vineyards and other events, “little by little” the LGBT community in wine country is “finding each other.”
Greg, 52, a gay man, has been making handcrafted unfiltered wines since 2005. A vineyard consultant, he has worked regularly with Out in the Vineyards for the past couple of years, he says. He also distributes his wines at a collective wine tasting room, Vinoteca, which is open on the weekends, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., in Santa Rosa.
Many of the LGBT-owned lodging options are located in Guerneville, but there are plenty of gay-friendly lodging options throughout Sonoma. Camellia Inn in Sonoma offers girlfriend getaway weekends and chocolate events for the ladies and Hampton Inn and Suites in Windsor and historic Hotel La Rose in Santa Rosa offers an LGBT-friendly central location for ample exploration of all Sonoma has to offer.
A hidden gem is the lesser known Mendocino County. There are 56 wineries but over 340 grape growers. The area is home to many wineries producing the region’s Alsace and Pinot Noir varietals, putting the county on the map along with is secluded location.
Mendocino is in the coastal county above Sonoma with its 10 AVAs and six subappellations tucked away between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Unlike Napa and Sonoma, which are well developed, Mendocino is quite untouched. Only a long single lane windy highway leads to the bucolic Anderson Valley.
“Anderson Valley, as a region, is still not quite as well-known as Napa or Sonoma,” says award-winning interior designer James “Jim” Roberts, a 49-year-old gay man who owns the Madrones, an Italian styled villa with lodging above wine tasting rooms and a shop.
“Napa and Sonoma are pretty crowded. When [travelers] come up here they still get an authentic experience,” he adds. “We definitely have a more laid back lifestyle up here.”
The Madrones is the most recent addition to the Anderson Valley. The Boonville Hotel and its fine dining restaurant, Table 128, is also gay-owned, along with lesbian-owned Bink Wines, which opened its first tasting room, located at the Madrones, for its 10th anniversary.
Four spacious guest suites – overlooking the small country road on one side and the valley on the other side – are above four wine tasting rooms: Bink Wines, Drew Family Cellars, Lula Cellars, and Signal Ridge, and an eclectic shop, also owned by Jim.
Environmental engineers Deborah “Deb” Schatzlein, 54, and her partner of 22 years Cindy Paulson, 51, bought their Yorkville Highlands vineyard in Mendocino County in 1999 and began producing the winery’s first vintage in 2002. The first year they produced under 100 cases, today they produce 1,200 cases and introduced nine new wines, says Deb. The couple has also provided the wine for the National Center for Lesbian Rights‘ annual gala and Water for People for the past five years and they donate to other animal, environmental, and human rights and women’s causes on a regular basis.
Cindy continues to work as an environmental engineer, while Deb focuses on Bink Wines.
“It’s a big deal for us,” says Deb. Opening the tasting room this year allowed the couple to create wine to be “celebrated with friends.”
One weekend a month the four wine tasting rooms and Jim, who lives next door and has an exquisite garden, throw open their doors to the public for a free wine tasting event with food and music, says Deb.
“It’s been fabulous for us,” she adds, talking about other events hosted at the villa in conjunction with local arts and food festivals, including the forthcoming Mendocino Beer, Wine and Mushroom Festival November 2-11.
Down the road is Navarro Vineyards. The vineyard, known for its high quality organic wines, has a new venture with Sarah Cahn Bennett, 31, the lesbian daughter of the family-owned vineyard. Sarah started Pennyroyal Farm and Farmstead Cheese with her business and life partner Star White, 46. The couple, who are expecting their first child, teamed up with friend and cheesemaker Erika Scharfen to roll out their brand of goat and sheep milk farmstead cheeses.
Sarah still works side-by-side with her father on Navarro’s viniculture, adding to her parents’ nearly four decades of eco-friendly and organic practices by implementing current ideas and technology, she says.
“I’m proud of the vineyard,” says Sarah, but she is really excited about the next season of Boont Corners cheeses.
LGBT travelers can choose to stay in Boonville and Philo or continue to the coast for ocean-side seclusion at LGBT-friendly Cobbler’s Walk and its sister boutique hotel the Glendeven Inn or beach town charm at one of the three Blue Door Group inns. Couples seeking to completely unplug can do so at the Glendeven Inn where cell phones, computers, and televisions aren’t welcome. Vacationers who aren’t seeking to be completely cut off from modern luxuries might want to stay at Cobblers Walk, which opened this month across the road from the five-year-old ocean-side Glendeven Inn and was designed by Jim.
All of the Mendocino boutique hotels offer assistance with wine tours and same-sex wedding packages.
Getting to Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino
For travelers outside of the Bay Area, any of the airports provide easy access by car, limo, or tour bus to Napa and Sonoma. For travelers who want to see the view over the rolling hills dotted with mansions surrounded by vineyards, especially during crush and foliage season, fly directly into the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa.
Napa is easily accessed from the Bay Area and is less than an hour and a half drive across the Bay or San Mateo bridges (if coming from the Peninsula or San Francisco) up I-80 to exit 33, which merges into CA-37. Take exit 19 to CA-29 North to downtown Napa.
Sonoma is about an hour outside of San Francisco. Take the Golden Gate Bridge and continue north on Highway 101.
To get to Mendocino, drive about two hours up 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties to route 128, a one-lane highway that winds through the mountains. To go all the way to the coast, continue on 128 to Highway 1 for another 40 minutes.
To book your California Wine Adventure, contact Heather Cassell at Girls That Roam Travel at Travel Advisors of Los Gatos at 408-354-6531at or .
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