Business Briefs: Marriage case plaintiff Obergefell helps launch line of wines

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Wednesday July 13, 2016
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Iron Horse Vineyards CEO and co-owner Joy Sterling, left,<br>tastes dosages with Jim Obergefell. Photo: Matt Grove
Iron Horse Vineyards CEO and co-owner Joy Sterling, left,
tastes dosages with Jim Obergefell. Photo: Matt Grove

The Ohio home of Jim Obergefell and his late husband, John Arthur, was normally stocked with some bottle of Champagne or other bubbly beverage.

"We were of the belief it doesn't have to be a special occasion to have bubbles. Just breathing is a special occasion," recalled Obergefell, 50, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that established marriage equality in all 50 states.

Arthur, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, married Obergefell in 2013 on a Maryland airport tarmac three months prior to his death. Because Ohio didn't recognize the couple's marriage, the men had sued the state in federal court, as Obergefell recounts in his new book Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality â€" co-written by Debbie Cenziper and published by William Morrow.

While the men never made it out to California's famed wine country, they did visit the wineries in Canada's Niagra-on-the-Lake region across the border from Buffalo, New York. And there were a number of wineries near them in northern Ohio, though Obergefell conceded, "Ohio wines are not always the best."

The first time he visited Napa wineries was last October, and his inaugural trip to Sonoma came in February when he met with several winemakers helping to create and bottle a series of wines for Equality Wines, LLC. The San Diego-based company is a partnership between Obergefell and wine producers and distributors Elissa Nauful and Matt Grove , who are both straight.

"We wanted to make a tribute wine to him and his husband. When we asked him what wine we should make, he said sparkling," said Grove. "When he and John were going through the most difficult times, they would always raise a glass and say, 'At least we have bubbles.'"

Grove, 47, initially had set out to produce a bottle of wine in honor of his deceased aunt who identified as gay, Marilyn Rose Schultz, a television journalist who led a class action lawsuit against NBC and its affiliates in the 1970s seeking equal pay for women. Nauful suggested he think bigger.

He read a story about Obergefell and spent the next year trying to reach him. It turned out that Nauful once was a student of a man who was good friends with Obergefell. He suggested in March of last year that he connect with them.

Once he came on board, the trio then turned to Michael Volpatt , a gay man who owns Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, for suggestions of winemakers they should approach. He, in turn, introduced them to Iron Horse Vineyards CEO and co-owner Joy Sterling .

"She is the best sparkling winemaker in northern California. I knocked on her door and asked her to make a wine for this cause," said Grove. "She said, without batting an eye, 'I absolutely will make this wine. You are on to something.'"

Thus the three partners found themselves at Sterling's vineyard earlier this year tasting a variety of dosages, a mixture added to Champagne that determines its sweetness.

"It was a lot of fun, though I was nervous going into it," Obergefell said of choosing the correct dosage.

Jim Obergefell sits on a bench at Iron Horse Vineyards. Photo: Matt Grove

Of the eight they tried, two stood out and were mixed together to create the dosage they opted to use.

"I can't say why it was the one. It hit everything I liked about bubbles. I loved the flavor," said Obergefell.

Grove said he knew by the look in Obergefell's eye that was the way to go.

"I remember it vividly," he recalled. "He said if John could see me now, this is it. This is the wine."

Their first release, 200 cases of the Love Wins Cuvee , came out June 26 on the first anniversary of the court's historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Comprised of 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, the sparkling wine is made from grapes grown by Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol.

A tribute to Obergefell and Arthur on the bottle explains that, "this beautiful sparkling rosà is a toast to marriage equality and those reluctant activists who change our world."

In February they also met with Kurt Giusti , whose family has long run Via Giusti Wines in Forestville and is making a pinot noir for Equality Wines. It will be called The Decision and should be released August 1.

The company is also working with two other renowned winemakers on a cabernet sauvignon for release in the fall. They are keeping their identities a secret for now.

"We chose producers and grapes from the Russian River Valley not only for the amazing grapes that are grown in the area, but also because western Sonoma County is known for its inclusiveness and acceptance of all people," explained Nauful in a statement about the wines.

With each bottle Equality Wines sells, $8 will be donated to an organization fighting for equal rights. Its first partnership is with national LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

"Jim is on board for a couple reasons, the main one being so we always stay true to our mission and are genuine and do the right thing in terms of making an impact," explained Grove. "When you buy a bottle of Equality Wine, you are not only celebrating Jim and his husband and their rights but also contributing to great causes."

Obergefell personally signed about 100 of the Love Wins bottles, whose front label features the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court in rainbow colors. Last week, he donated one to the White House and hopes to soon personally deliver it to President Barack Obama.

The wines can be purchased online at An unsigned bottle of Love Wins goes for $60, signed it is $80. The pinot noirs will likely be priced at $80 a bottle.

The Love Wins Cuvee can also be bought in San Francisco at wine shop Swirl on Castro, 572 Castro Street, or in Guerneville at Big Bottom Market, 16228 Main Street.

Jen-Ai Notman, left, head of social impact for Leesa Sleep, checks out the mattresses that the company recently donated to Larkin Street Youth Services. Photo: Courtesy Leesa Sleep

Dog washers host canine events

Noe Valley's VIP Scrub Club, run by business and life partners Sage Cotton and Lancy Woo, is hosting several events for canines and their owners this month.

Next Thursday, July 21 will be the dog-washing business' second Yappy Hour, where dogs and their owners can meet up, take a snapshot in the "fun Fido phone booth," and enjoy wine, juice, and snacks. The kid-friendly events will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. the first and third Thursdays of the month.

From 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday, July 30 DOGTV â€" â€" will be shooting dogs in tubs at the business for an upcoming show.Â

VIP Scrub Club is located at 1734 Church Street. To keep abreast of more special events at the business, visit its events blog at and sign up for its "pup-dates" at the bottom of the page.

Honor Roll

During Pride Month in early June the online, luxury mattress company Leesa Sleep â€" â€" donated 200 mattresses to Larkin Street Youth Services, the San Francisco-based agency that offers a variety of housing options to at-risk youth, particularly LGBT youth who are homeless or transitioning out of foster care.

The donation came to a retail value of $60,000 and was part of the company's One-Ten initiative where it donates one mattress for every 10 it sells. Leesa has donated more than 5,000 mattresses to date to shelters and transition homes across the country.

UPDATED 4/6/22 to clarify that Obergefell and Arthur had filed their federal lawsuit a few months before Arthur died.


Got a tip on LGBT business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail