3 min

Sonoma, the gay wine capital of California

Gay winemakers and wine lovers converge

Mark Vogler (left) and Gary Saperstein flank Erinn Benziger Weiswasser at Benziger (, a biodynamic winery set in an extinct volcano caldera. Credit: David Walberg

Antoine Favero is giddy about every aspect of wine production. He chats effervescently about terroir as his reedy frame clambers up a pile of precarious ladders to the top of a 10,000-gallon steel vat. From here, in a cool mist, we can see the peaks of the Sonoma Mountains and the appellations of Dry Creek and Alexander Valley.

Clattering across a suspended catwalk, his eyes light up as we stop to rub the spongy, ruby grape pomace through our fingers. At another stop we stick our heads into a huge vat to take in the fumes of fermenting grapes. I almost pass out, my eyes smarting, my nose burning. Favero laughs. He revels in the sensory overload.

Born in the Champagne region of France, the openly gay Favero is a celebrity in wine circles. He is winemaker and general manager of Mazzocco, where he has secured many awards and honours. Wine Spectator has scored his zinfandels in the 90s, and the San Francisco Chronicle recently showered the winery with two dozen awards, including best in class and two double gold awards.

When I ask if he has considered returning to make wine in his native France, he stretches his arms out to embrace the landscape. “I’m Californian,” he says, breaking into a relaxed smile that seems the essence of carefree Cali breeziness.

Although excited about an upcoming visit to Bordeaux, he wonders whether winemaking would be as collegial as it is in Sonoma County. “It’s a team here,” he says. “Everyone pitches in.” Sure enough, when a piece of equipment breaks down, Favero is right in there, getting his hands dirty and chatting fluently with the Spanish-speaking workers. Later, at a staff cocktail reception, he’s the first to haul chairs from the back of the owner’s van.

If the relaxation of traditional hierarchies makes Sonoma an appealing place to make wine, the proximity to San Francisco also makes it comfortable to be gay.

Favero is but one of many openly gay winemakers here. The late gay actor Raymond Burr, of Perry Mason fame, owned a winery here, and his partner, Robert Benevides, still greets guests at the vineyard. Then there are small producers like Eric Hall, of the garage winery Roadhouse in the town of Healdsburg.

Eric made his money in the San Francisco technology boom and then chose to leave the city behind. He owned a guesthouse in Guerneville and worked at other wineries, with the dream of making wine of his own.

Winemaking and tech are not unrelated, he says. “Winemaking is like being into computers,” he says with a laugh. “It’s geeky.” Eric made his first wine in 2008 and started Roadhouse two years later right in downtown Healdsburg.

There may not be a dedicated gay bar in the town of 11,000, but the town boasts Moustache, a gay-owned cupcake shop. At Roadhouse, Hall and his boyfriend, Sean McMahan, host dance parties to put a gay spin on the tasting-room experience.

For every gay winemaker, there are legions of gay wine aficionados. That’s where Mark Vogler and Gary Saperstein come in. They founded Out in the Vineyard, a unique travel company offering events and itineraries for gay visitors.

In mid-June, the Gay Wine Weekend coincides with San Francisco Pride. The event packs it all in: there are dinners with winemakers; a selection of Sonoma Valley winery tours, receptions and tastings; a tea dance and afterparty; brunch and an auction supporting a local AIDS network; and, to wrap it up, a pool soirée. Guests can purchase a pass for the whole shebang or choose à la carte tickets.

The duo also produces the Big Gay Train every spring. The event features a reception, four-course meal and wine pairing on a train as it winds through the heart of Napa Valley wine country. The event is designed to allow mingling amongst guests and winemakers.

New York native Saperstein and Vogler, a Healdsburg boy, are consummate hosts. Gregarious and easy-going, the pair exude a benevolence and good cheer that rubs off on their guests, creating a friendly, buzzy vibe that is fast making their events legendary.