Wine country's gay hideaways
by Heather Cassell
Let's face it. California's wine country is a perfect escape. It's beautiful at nearly any time of the year. There is always something to do. You could be hopping from vineyard to vineyard wine tasting and enjoying the fresh food from the surf to turf. You could take in any one of the festivals celebrating the best things in life or treat yourself to a little rest and relaxation.
Harvest time is one of the best times of the year to visit wine country. The rolling hills are filled with vines with grapes ready to burst with flavor during crush season.
Then you have the gay wine country revolution. Gays are escaping the "gay mecca" of San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to live out and proud among the vines by buying second homes, reviving favorite destinations, and setting roots in new ones.
It's a revolution with a queer eye that is combining metropolitan chic and authentic wine country aesthetics in a sophisticated way that is truly inspiring the best in Calistoga, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and Guerneville, long a popular gay vacation spot.
It's enough to make you pack your bags right now and head north.
"You don't have to go to Palm Springs, come to Calistoga," Kurt Stevens, owner of the Meadowlark Country House, said in his German accent, waving his hand with a European air.
Stevens was wrapped in a towel on a blazing hot day sitting by the clothing optional pool as we chatted about why he and his husband, Richard Flynn, love Calistoga.
"In all of the years it never lost its earthy character. It's real living here," said Stevens, who would love it if Calistoga became the next gay resort town.
It is truly a different world. Separated by a long stretch of Highway 29 and covered by a canopy of trees, Calistoga is away from the opulence of the rest of the Napa Valley.
"It's relaxing," added Flynn, who after 20 years together married Stevens two years ago. "No one cares who you are."
The two men talked about how gay-friendly – and friendly in general – Calistoga is, how the artists and hippies took over three decades ago and never left. There are more than enough outdoor activities from the wonderful bike and hiking trails to horseback riding to community festivals, the men said.
It is that overall friendliness of Calistoga that attracted Brent Riedberger and Chris Johansen, who traded their Silicon Valley lives for Calistoga four years ago.
The day that my girlfriend and I stopped by Luxe Calistoga, the couple's five-room boutique inn, during the wine and cheese hour on the veranda, every guest was casually huddled around one table laughing and telling stories as if they'd known each other for years.
In 2011, the couple who have been together for 17 years and married for 10, followed Riedberger's dream to own a bed and breakfast and opened the inn at the entrance of downtown Calistoga. They haven't looked back.
Riedberger and Johansen agreed with Flynn and Stevens that Calistoga is toned down from the rest of Napa. However, they didn't believe that it would ever become a gay resort town, in spite of a number of the gay-owned inns and eateries, such as Brannan's Restaurant. The town is more of a place to relax than a party destination and the residents and visitors embrace the entire community.
It was perhaps that embracing attitude and the natural beauty that inspired Caitlyn Jenner's recent getaway to the area as part of her TV show, I Am Cait.
Jenner and her entourage rented a private home through Beautiful Places. The luxury vacation home management company offers more than 35 listed and unlisted properties along with a 24/7 concierge service, said Lisa Graves, who owns the company with her husband, during a tour of one of the properties. Beautiful Places' staff arranges for private chefs, wine tours, nearly everything guests like Jenner and her friends enjoyed.
LGBT vacationers looking for a way to disconnect will find it at any one of the gay-owned boutique inns in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. The area takes wine country back in time to an era before the late vineyard operator Robert Mondavi put Napa Valley on the map.
Anderson Valley could be called the "rainbow valley," with its bevy of well-appointed gay-owned bed and breakfasts and lesbian-owned and -run wineries and a creamery.
Who wouldn't want to wake up to roses, like I did sleeping in the Garden View room as a guest of the gay-owned The Madrones. James "Jim" Roberts, a gay man, has grown the inn from its four rooms to nine. The Italian agriturismo (loosely translated, "farm stays") inspired inn is surrounded by wineries, including lesbian-owned Bink Wines, and Stone and Embers, a wood fire artisan pizza place. In the back Roberts created a beautiful rose garden, which I enjoyed strolling through. I didn't need to leave The Madrones for anything if I didn't want to.
It is a sanctuary perfectly situated for an easy drive to Booneville, where guests can have the best dinner in town at gay-owned Table 28 at the Booneville Hotel or take a tour of lesbian-owned Penny Royal Farms and Vineyards for a lesson in cheese-making. Travelers can also stop off at Handley Vineyards, Navarro Vineyards, and other wineries before winding their way through the Redwoods to the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino, like I did.
It was in Mendocino, after a walk along the cliffs, that I dined at the famed Cafe Beaujolais. The restaurant is notorious for needing a reservation. It was packed on a weekday night and with good reason. The California-French cuisine is rave-worthy.
The following night I was sampling mezcal at El Barrio in Guerneville in Sonoma County. I was fascinated by the history of mezcal being told to me by bartender and photojournalist Brian Frank, who spent time in Mexico documenting the ancient practice creating the indigenous tequila. The year-old upscale cocktail bar is lesbian businesswoman Crista Luedtke's latest creation in her entrepreneurial effort restoring Guerneville to its former glory.
It's worked. Guerneville is happening, with diverse new restaurants and an influx of gays setting up shop, including Luedtke's Boon Eat and Drink, where I enjoyed a casual dinner, and lunch at the Big Bottom Market, which Luedtke opened with partners in 2011. The market got packed at lunchtime, but I caught a seat at the bar looking out onto Main Street.
I was also tempted to pick up one of the unique locally hand-crafted gifts or Luedtke's mother's biscuit mix; the biscuits are served with French press coffee at the Boon Hotel and Spa for breakfast, where I was her guest for the night.
Luedtke started it all in 2007 with the hotel and spa. When I booked the room, I had the option of a traditional room or a tent, which are the hotel's most recent incarnation of lodging options for an almost "glamping" experience.
Luedtke swore she's done, she said while we chatted over coffee and biscuits. She hopes to coax her friends, like Nick Moore and Dan Poirier – who recently bought Johnson's Beach, a camping resort with cabins and camper and tent areas, as well as a beach along the Russian River – to bring cool things to Guerneville. Today, Luedtke is more interested in leveraging her influence at city council meetings to protect what she and others are building and her forthcoming appearances on Santa Rosa native Guy Fieri's Food Network show, Guy's Grocery Games, she said.
Whether she's done or not, Guerneville is refreshed because her efforts and LGBT visitors are returning to vacation again.
One opportunity for folks to visit Sonoma County is this weekend, at the Heirloom Tomato Festival at Kendall Jackson Winery. Peter Greene, of Now Voyager Travel in the Castro, is offering something new to his boutique travel business – day trips by bus to various destinations. The first one is to the tomato festival, Saturday, September 26. Tickets are $154 and include roundtrip transportation aboard the "Bette Bus" and admission to the festival.
Greene said that future trips include a hike at Point Reyes National Seashore with a stop at an oyster bar on Tomales Bay, and kayaking on the wetlands of Elkhorn Slough, south of Santa Cruz. For more information about Bette Bus trips, visit www.nowvoyager.com.
For more things to do in Calistoga, the Anderson Valley, and Guerneville, see the reference guides online at ebar.com.