The GAY California Wine Country–NOT Only for the Most Sophisticated LGBT Traveler

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

San Francisco will always be the legendary home of “The Beats”, Flower-Power, The Castro and one of the first openly gay supportive cities anywhere. “Everyone should b e allowed to love two cities, his own and San Francisco.”  Bravo SFO! As a result of your stellar efforts, many doors have opened for us “different kind of normal” folks, doors that had been nailed shut for centuries.

About 47 miles north of the city, across the Golden Gate is California’s “real” Goldmine: wine Country.

I have designed all sorts of “Incentive Quality” programs to San Francisco and attractions north and south (Monterey, Pebble Beach, etc.). The city itself is very well qualified to hold an exciting/memorable three night program. More than three nights could be overkill and only one might lead to “blue balls”, if you know what I mean. California Wine Country could not be in a better position to “pair” (like a great wine) with our “City by the Bay”. Honestly, don’t “we” all have a bit of SFO in us?

While most of the classic LGBT “action” closest to Wine Country takes place down in the city, the comfortable and spectacularly gay welcoming of vineyards is very real. The entire area is currently basking in its awesome and well earned success/fame in wine-making. Don’t tell France and Italy but we (Americans) are really kicking their ass. Although I could not prove this, I am certain our “Gay Influence” has led to this success.

The Napa Airport is fine for small groups or VIP arrivals but when I have a couple of hundred people to entertain and jockey about, I fly them from NYC or PHL as directly as possible to SFO. Once when traveling alone, it was just as easy to fly into Sacramento. The distance is the same as is Oakland. It has nice easy in and out capabilities and who doesn’t appreciate that from time to time? (I was talking about airports).

Generally a group arrives for this sort of program on several different flights. Meet/greet, baggage claim and transfers are a pain in the ass, but part of the job. The goal is to artfully arrive (mindful of time change) mid-day.  I know of a great restaurant on the way from the SFO Airport to wine country. This one is actually in Sausalito across from San Francisco Bay and the sweeping panoramic views of the city are unsurpassed. Not to be “corny” but San Francisco is really a stunningly magnificent as seen from this vantage. The food is pretty good too.   

After lunch, it’s a fairly quick transfer (and nap) to Wine Country. (Half an hour).

The Napa Valley is considered the number two most popular tourist attraction in California after Disneyland. Don’t be confused by the outstanding job Napa has done in “branding“ itself. The Sonoma and Alexander Valleys are just as fertile and lovely as Napa. They all have a part in defining this “product” called “The California Wine Country”.

It has been said that Napa has the “name” and Sonoma the awards. All I know is, when I am driving around the area I go from town to charming town and they are not all named Napa.  The number of really fine wineries and “state of the art” vineyards that have sprung up in the last couple of years is staggering. Wine country’s rolling hills are dotted with vineyards, historic, picturesque little villages and Victorian homes. There is striking contemporary architecture, some of the world’s greatest and most exclusive restaurants and plenty of comfortable “Mom and Pop” type stores and establishments. It really is the perfect setting for a relaxing vacation away from urban life.

Alone, with a partner, date or group of friends, California wine is yet another reason to sing “God Bless America”.

I have a suggestion for each of your “bucket lists”. Try to take the opportunity to visit our Great American Vineyards in late August/early September when the days are warm and the evenings cool. The vines are hung heavily with the burden of the coming harvest. It is the fragrance that I can’t forget. The “canvas” is colorful, serene and “impressive” in the way that Renoir might have interpreted it. But, the fucking SMELL of millions of ripe grapes is beyond anything! (Almost) I will have to try it at dawn next time. If you haven’t … you just have to do it at least once!  

Mindful of the fact that most people have but a fleeting interest in wine, I walk a fine line between enough and too much. Don’t misunderstand me; I love a good glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, but, my attitude is that many “wine-snobs” are silly/insecure people. True connoisseurs are “students” who just enjoy imparting their knowledge. I think wine, like beer and spirits, are to be drunk and enjoyed according to one’s own taste, NOT the taste of others.  I have actually been known to drink red wine with fish and I am not ashamed.

In the “destination product” known as Wine Country I like to use the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa for its elegance and clean, fresh “California Wine Country” feel. I am a great fan of the Fairmont/Raffles/Swissotel hotel product all over the world. The Sonoma Mission Inn “defines” and compliments wine country just as the Fairmont San Francisco is as original as the city.(The Fairmont is the original flagship property and the famous Venetian Room is where Tony Bennett first sang “I Left my Heart in San Francisco”). I wish our beautiful “Bellevue Stratford” would be purchased by Fairmont and returned to its former glory. Hyatt is just fine but a different demographic.

If you are a connoisseur of wine or on your way to become a sommelier (that’s the “wine guy” in a very fancy restaurant) the wine education here is unsurpassed. If you are like me and most people, one or two wine tastings will be enough.  Anymore would totally be just “doing shots”.  I like to combine my tastings with a food service and try to find an unusual or memorable venue to do it in. I like Francis Ford Coppola’s winery (in the Alexander Valley) which was formerly “Inglenook Winery”. The main house was used to film interior scenes for the TV series Falcon Crest back in the eighties. I like Coppola wine. It is delicious and well priced for the most part. Many of the wineries in this area are now very “hospitality complete” in the sense that some are also museums, inns, restaurants and so forth. The Coppola complex has all sorts of special events and entertainments going on. It is just a beautiful/special place.

California Cuisine is the combination and fusion of many international cooking methods with California organics and locally made foods. I think they get a bit carried away with presentation but that’s just me.  Fresh, clean flavors paired with fine American wines are something not soon forgotten and my job to present. Just another great example of how varied and wonderful America is.

In addition to wine tastings, cooking classes and shopping, the very best spas on Earth are here in California Wine Country. I remember my last joyful group of guests walking around in their Asian influenced spa robes/slippers, swimming, dining and taking yoga classes, exercising, going for treatments and just having a ball. I remember one rather high strung woman signing up for a “Stress Avoidance” class on the day I had requested everyone be packed up and ready to leave the hotel  for the drive down to San Francisco. Miss “Stress Avoidance” scheduled her class for almost the exact same time. Seriously? I don’t wonder why she felt stressed. Too bad she had to miss the class as she clearly needed it.

Although The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is on all the gay friendly lists, it should be pointed out that this entire area has been very comfortable for the LGBT community for many, many years. It is simply an area that appeals to gay men and woman. Some things just “are”. You won’t find many bars/clubs/baths as all of that is just down the pike. You will find respect, acceptance, and peace/tranquility.  

Asking if California Wine Country is gay-friendly is like asking Woody’s the same.

Once when entertaining at this opulent, mission styled inn, my first evening’s program was California Casual. I requested that everyone wear white. Cocktails were served by the massive signature fire place and we continued out doors with a succulent poolside dinner. Food, like fashion, is all about style, function and a certain je ne sais quoi. It is influenced from the east or the west equally. Dinner was a great success, but, I must tell you that when one is planning an incentive quality trip program, every night is important and the first evening sets the tone. The challenge can be that many of your guests have had a very long day and perhaps don’t react to travel well. I try always to keep opening night all about the destination with fantastic food but a very low key atmosphere. Half of them will be asleep anyway and there are always budget considerations.

On the first full day in Wine Country, I usually offer a varied selection of winery, sight-seeing and shopping tours. Some are naturally much more serious than others and I will attempt to match people to tasting/tour. I have had culinary tours with a cooking class, shopping tours (for what that was really worth … but, people loved it.). The Willow Stream Spa right there at the Inn took most people’s attention. Certainly one of/if not the most complete, elegant luxury spa in wine country, ours was blessed with natural mineral hot springs and a 40,000-square-foot, award winning, world class spa. Spa-loving people were in “Hog-Heaven” Many of their amazing treatment products are available online. Very expensive.

In my business, spas and wine selection were not even something to consider some years ago. Simply serving wine with dinner was “Tres Classy.” Times change and change is good.  

Once in the late afternoon I took a bunch to Francis Ford Coppola’s winery. We designed a for a tasting and tour ending in a very elegant yet “rustic” space. Very wine cellar looking with one open wall showing the most beautiful vineyard scene this side of Tuscany (the look I am sure as a film maker, was going for). I kept “cocktails” light in the film museum and then moved them into dinner which I did on the heavy side with salad/pasta/beef and a Ghirardelli chocolate “bombe” for dessert. Entertainment was an awesome group of stringed musicians from SFO that could move from Baroque to Blue Grass in seconds. The highlight of the evening ended up being one very important customer who asked if his “cousins” might stop by for a drink. What happened then, I could not make up!

There are many different wine tours. I did one where you biked between wineries and there is also a “Wine Train” which sometimes is “The Big Gay Train.” As the wine business grows so will everything pertaining to it.  There is definitely a romance to wine making. I think of it as a passion which comes from the Earth, nature and man’s ability to adapt in order to create something naturally exquisite, soothing and yet totally engineered. Wine making in other parts of the world have been evolving for thousands of years. We Americans have been producing brilliant wines in California since 1859 and started as a serious industry in 1976. Only took us 40 years to “blow away” their thousands. America is so great. We should take better care of it.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Northern California Wine Country is not really “gay friendly” but rather “gay assumed and straight friendly.”  All establishments will treat straight folks every bit as well as they treat us and that is as it should be. Straights need a place to be themselves too, freeing themselves from society’s demand for conformity. Last year, when I wrote of my visit to the Yucatan, I mentioned the expected gravitational change as predicted by the Mayans. This was to “climax” on 12/21/12. It was NOT “the end of the world,” as some thought ,but rather the beginning of a new one. Changes in gravitational pull effect people and them way them think/react/create/fight/destroy and all of the wonderful and hideous things we humans do. Obviously, California has always been affected by a lighter gravitational pull for a lot longer than statehood. This has allowed for exceptional creativity, romance and just an all round positive “vibe”. It’s simply the way they roll out there, just in case you wondered. The gravitational pull in Philly got stronger and it was already fairly serious. The Mayan woman I spoke to in Mexico simply told me this, to paraphrase: “Those who are aware of these changes in gravity will be able to take advantage of this new world and new energy. Those who choose not to understand this truth will be remain where they would have been anyway. Just a little more so.”  She smiled and said, “It’s up to you amigo. You have been warned.”

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