Love rushes into Sonoma County as weddings bounce back
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My girlfriend and I escape to Sonoma County often for romantic weekends because it just has that je ne sais quoi — a beauty that anyone can embrace — and the locals warmly welcome visitors.
Sonoma is a food and wine lover's paradise, and that, along with the beautiful vistas, brings us back.
We also love Sonoma because we can tailor our getaways according to our mood. We can choose classic, rustic, or modern wine country; retro mid-20th century or rock n' roll; wine at the beach; or wine in the redwoods. Sonoma is a wonderland suited for celebrating love at every stage. It offers a wide variety of outdoor spaces for couples to enjoy each other, and for friends and families to recognize their love, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I love the beauty of this place. It is just wonderful," said Brad Beard, a gay man who is the owner and winemaker at Mercury Wine in Geyserville.
For a while, fear filled the air in Sonoma — like everywhere else — due to the global pandemic.
COVID continues to be a serious concern this year due to the Delta variant. But even with the pandemic and recent wildfires that scorched Northern California, Sonoma is trending upward among travelers, according to Longwoods International, a destination and tourism market research company, showing the area to be resilient and strong.
Sonoma is proving it is a safe destination during the pandemic, with about 78% of the population fully vaccinated, according to the county. Visitors planning a trip should check the county's COVID website for the latest information.
"I feel like the entire town is fully vaccinated," said Matt Grove, co-founder of Equality Vines, based on conversations he's had with locals in Guerneville, long an LGBTQ tourist destination.
Hotels and wineries are following COVID protocols. For the latest health orders, click here.
Sonoma itself offers plenty of outdoor venues, spaces, and things to do, allowing people to maintain physical distance.
"It's been really hard to celebrate love and intimacy," said the Reverend Justin Howard of Isis Oasis Sanctuary, about being instructed not to touch other people, even loved ones, stand six feet apart, and to wear a mask. "It's hard to get that love vibration out there."
Howard, a two-spirit queer spiritual leader, joined Oasis in 2019.
More than four decades before the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the sanctuary performed some of the first queer weddings in the Golden State in 1978 at its Geyserville temple, though they were not legally recognized.
Howard, who declined to state their age, has only hosted one in-person wedding and one virtual exchange of vows in a year and a half, they said. The sanctuary closed its gates at the beginning of the pandemic.
That wedding was for their friends, Amy Rose and Tracy Kronzak, founders of Livermore Pride, on September 5, 2020.
"It was a great experience," said Howard, who officiated the ceremony at the sanctuary.
Together for three years, the queer Livermore couple were grateful that they were able to wed during the pandemic last year.
"It was a magical experience," said Kronzak, a 48-year-old nonbinary queer person, to Rose, 38, who declined to state her sexual orientation.
"A year later, just having crossed our one-year anniversary, it remains an incredibly special memory and something that we are very grateful [for], honestly," Kronzak said of the couple's "micro-wedding," as they called it. Only six people attended.
Oasis is just starting to slowly invite people back by appointment and in small groups. Weddings and other gatherings are limited to between 40 and 60 people, vaccinations are required, and guests must complete contact tracing forms, Howard said.
There is a good reason why queer travelers are choosing to express their love in Sonoma County. Historically, the wine region has a strong connection to San Francisco. It is welcoming and easy to get to. Moreover, it offers luxury; good food; wine, beer, and spirits; and plenty of picturesque scenery to admire, explore, and use as a stunning backdrop in pictures and videos.
Sonoma boasts of more than 425 wineries, more than two-dozen breweries, 15 distilleries, and eight cideries to explore, not to mention too many amazing palate-pleasing restaurants to count, including Michelin's Bib Gourmand's newest awardees Khom Loi, Valley, and FolkTable.
"I just got [to] say, it's a beautiful place to get married," Beard said of the area.
COVID ended up being somewhat of a boon for Beard, who transformed the winery's downtown Geyserville wine tasting room's parking lot into a backyard.
"COVID good, COVID bad," said Beard, adding the yard has opened a door to a new world for the boutique winery that now provides elevated tastings and small weddings.
Love is in the air
It was clear during a recent weekend trip to wine country that romance and weddings are returning to Sonoma, but with a twist. Event planners said that for the most part, weddings are much smaller than the fancy pre-COVID-19 affairs. Elopements and ceremonies with fewer than 50 guests are popular right now.
That's one of the pandemic's impacts. Event planners are helping couples plan COVID-safe engagements and weddings. Some couples are adding their own layer of protection to their wedding ceremonies, such as requiring all guests to be vaccinated and/or having proof of a negative COVID test before attending ceremonies, the event planners said. Beyond government mandates, it's up to the couples' pandemic comfort level, they said.
Sonoma County Tourism also makes it easy to plan a California wine country wedding with its 77-page wedding guide, published at the beginning of the summer.
Pop the question
Couples, especially animal and nature lovers, ready to pop the question might consider Safari West. This is the place to have a giraffe or other wild animal crash the special moment for the photo-op when the question is asked.
No surprise, February, especially around Valentine's Day, is one of the most popular times for engagements at the Santa Rosa reserve. Its annual "Wild Jungle Love," an adult romantic safari where visitors learn all about animals' dating and mating rituals, will return after the pandemic halted tours in 2020.
"We are so excited to have it back," said Corrine Freitas, the reserve's group business manager, about the two-day event scheduled for Valentine's Day weekend, February 12-13. Reservations for the popular safari will open around the end of October.
Safari West does not host weddings. Animal lovers seeking to tie the knot can consider Isis Oasis Sanctuary to wed at its animal refuge.
Social justice: Equality Vines
Couples can support their favorite causes while tying the knot serving wines made by Equality Vines.
Self-described wine geeks and business partners Grove and Jim Obergefell, the plaintiff in the aforementioned Supreme Court case, opened the winery in 2016 to support causes they cared about.
Since selling their first bottle, Grove said they have raised more than $165,000 for social justice causes, such as LGBTQ rights, women's rights, and immigrant rights.
"For us, it's always been about the wines," Grove said. "A great wonderful wine. A beautiful expression of Sonoma County from a winemaker that you probably wouldn't have access to if it wasn't without us."
He added that for a couple's special day, "you really want to celebrate it. You want a high-end wine," and as a bonus, "look at all of the great stuff that we do."
The winery partners with the Inn on the Russian River to serve its wines at the resorts' weddings, Grove said. Couples marrying at other Sonoma County venues can get 25% off their Equality Vines orders.
Rock n' roll: B.R. Cohn Winery
Couples who love to rock out will appreciate B.R. Cohn Winery. Not only does it make good wines, due to its unique terroir and micro-climate in the valley, but live music is a part of its heart and soul.
It was founded by the former Doobie Brothers manager Bruce Cohn, who sold the winery to Vintage Wine Estates in 2015. The 93-acre vineyard is known for its outdoor concerts with big-name rock stars. The small wine conglomerate supports environmental and women's causes. It is LGBTQ-welcoming.
At B.R. Cohn, couples can say "I do" and celebrate their love on the very stage where rock legends perform, and visitors can roam through the tasting room looking at rock memorabilia.
Classic: Chateau St. Jean
Can't go to Europe? Chateau St. Jean is where couples can have a classic French chateau wedding. The vineyard features European-style architecture, gardens, and wines that provide five different wedding sites that can host elopements and weddings with up to 300 guests.
The chateau also hosts the annual Gay Wine Weekend, produced by Out in the Vineyard.
Casual wine country: St. Francis Winery and Mercury Wine
St. Francis, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a modern winery in Kenwood with a relaxed vibe.
Couples and wedding guests can walk right out into the vineyard for picture-perfect photo ops. The vineyards and Sugarloaf Ridge offer a stunning backdrop for brides and grooms exchanging their vows.
The winery hosts elopements and weddings up to 150 guests.
Mercury Wine offers a quaint laidback wedding experience at the tasting room's new backyard in Geyserville. The winery can now host up to 50 people for weddings and other events.
It also has another location on a hill overlooking the valley, Beard added. He plans to host larger weddings with 100 or more guests several times a year at that location.
Where to stay
Guests tend to stay at either the newly renovated Flamingo Resort or the Kenwood Inn and Spa.
The Flamingo is a modernized throwback to mid-20th century swank. It offers guests plenty of room to relax, have fun, and rejuvenate from its large pool to its spa to its bars and restaurant. It is also close to country and urban experiences.
The Kenwood Inn is a boutique inn tucked away in a secluded hill off the scenic Sonoma Highway. It provides an intimate experience and is surrounded by many amazing wineries.
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