Corkpiercer :: Big Gay Wine Train Rolls into Year Five, Controversy

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Saturday February 14, 2015
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It's a big gay affair in wine country when the Big Gay Wine Train rolls out of downtown Napa up the valley to St. Helena. Guests will enjoy wines from LGBT vintners paired with a special menu. And this year marks the event's five year anniversary.

Five years later, it remains a unique event, the producers said. As usual, the promoters Gary Saperstein and Mark Vogler, founders of Out in the Vineyard, the Sonoma-based LGBT wine event and travel company, produces the Big Gay Wine Train. Yet, the event's five-year anniversary hasn't gone off without a few bumps on the track.

Controversy in the Vineyards

The celebration of the popular event intensified late in January when Kaveh Azari, owner of Azari Vineyards, pulled out of the event.

The 33-year old gay man, who took over his family's decade old Petaluma-based winery last year, was scheduled to be one of the featured wineries on the train, but he became concerned after a photo Vogler posted on his Facebook page.

The photo was of a group of Middle Eastern women dressed in hijabs with the caption "Here's to the ladies who lunch -- #Islam style." The photo was taken and posted during his recent tour of the Middle East.

The comments that proceeded to follow the caption and photo included questions about how the women ate their food, to statements about their "husband or husbands" letting them out for lunch "so we can make funny comments about your pic!," to fashion statements commenting on one women's red shoes and "One is definitely showing a lotta leg!!!"

Azari, who is of Persian decent, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, before his family moved to California. He objected to what he considered anti-Islamic and Middle Eastern statements, and was rebuffed by Vogler's friends and Vogler himself.

Vogler declined to comment for this article, stating that what he photographed and wrote in one of his posts wouldn't have been any different if it was a group of women lunching in New York, Tokyo, Maasi Mara or West Hollywood.

On Facebook, he accused Azari of "cyber-bullying" and told Azari to "get the fucking chip off your shoulder" and to drop his "Holier Than Thou attitude," after Azari explained why the post and comments were so offensive.

"Nothing about ladies who lunch is offensive -- unless u (sic) don't like Barbra Streisand," Vogler wrote responding to Azari's comments.

Saperstein told the Bay Area Reporter that the issue was a "difference of opinion" and became a "moral issue" on Facebook.

"It seemed that everyone's comments were more in jest and [Azari] took it very seriously," said Saperstein, stating after Azari's comment the "tone of the message thread changed" and "went downhill from there."

Azari wasn't alone in taking offense to the photo and the comments that followed. Gay Middle Eastern men told the B.A.R. that they were sickened and very saddened by what they read.

Ghazwan Aisharif, founder of Asheq, a Middle Eastern and Northern African LGBT group that replaced BiBiSF, identified that the women were probably from Saudi Arabia based on the style of the hijab they were wearing. Aisharif assessed that they were visiting Qatar, where the photo was taken.

All three gay men said that the women in the photo definitely did not give Vogler permission to take the photo, in spite of Vogler claiming he had the women's permission.

Aisharif said he wouldn't attend an Out in the Vineyard event due to the anti-Islamic sentiment, however he expressed that he would be willing to meet with the principles to educate them.

Gay Times

So, despite the controversy, the train keeps rolling. The annual event on the Napa Valley Wine Train that chugs through the vineyards in antique train cars has been a hit, selling out every year since its first year.

On the train, guests enjoy wines from gay and lesbian winemakers and winery owners paired with a specially crafted menu for each wine created by Chef Kelly Macdonald.

This year's featured winemakers are Mark Cargasacchi of Jalama Wines, John Newmeyer of Heron Lake Vineyard, and Tanya Woodley and Elaine Jomwe of SuLei Cellars. The vintners come from Napa, Santa Barbara, Sonoma and Walla Walla, Washington. Saperstein mentioned that there might be a surprise vintner added at the last minute.

Joyce Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards, an LGBT-friendly winery, will provide an exclusive tasting of the not yet released Rainbow Cuv�e at the reception before guests walk across the "Love Lock Bridge" to board the train.

The winemakers and winery owners mingle with the 200 guests during dinner. The vintners stroll through the different historic cars, stopping at tables while their wine is paired with a course. They chat with guests about their wines to give them an up close and personal wine tasting experience.

A Gay Time in Wine Country

Guests said they are attracted to the train for the great food and good wine created by LGBT winemakers, and like being with their community in wine country.

Ian MacWilliams and Larry Kolka were attracted to the first event for its "great food" and exposure to LGBT winemakers since the first train rolled out of the station.

Ever since then The Big Gay Wine Train has been an annual event for the 50-something gay men.

"It's one of those events that is now on our calendar," said MacWilliams.

Kerri Carder-McCoy agreed. She loves being able to chat with the winemakers to learn about where the grapes came from, how they are grown, the process of turning the grapes into wine and then the pairing of the wine with a unique meal that perfectly complements the wines.

"They are very passionate about what they've made," said Kerri. "To have it paired with such a nice meal is a really cool." Kerri has been on the Big Gay Wine Train twice with her wife, Erin Carder-McCoy.

While the food and wine are good, the atmosphere and presentation isn't "stuffy," added MacWilliams.

Kolka agreed, noting that the environment is very warm and welcoming. There's a diversity of guests representing the LGBT community from people in their 20s to their 80s aboard the train.

During the Carder-McCoy's first experience on the train, they ended up in the lounge car singing along to songs with a group of people who gathered around a gentleman playing the piano after dinner.

"It was just such a good time," she reminisced.

Saperstein also recalled that evening on the train.

"You never know what's going to happen on The Big Gay Train, but you can be guaranteed fun along with great food and great wine," he said.

Both couples also noted that they got to meet new people from all over the San Francisco Bay Area and the world. They also said they enjoyed seeing old friends every year on the train.

The Big Gay Grape

Saperstein can't believe that the company's flagship event is marking its fifth anniversary in March.

"I can't believe it. It is five years now doing this event," said Saperstein, 55, who noted that the Big Gay Wine Train was the first event that gained the company national and now international notoriety.

Vogler, who is 40-something, wasn't available for comment due to traveling.

"It was the first, literally, and it still is the first time that anyone's bringing gay winemakers or vintners to an event where they can be themselves for a winemaker dinner," said Saperstein, who hasn't had a problem finding LGBT vintners over the years.

"They love it," said Saperstein. "Every year the winemakers tell us what a great time they had and how much fun it was. They love just having the opportunity in a work situation to just truly be themselves they can just be out and have a great time with their community."

The gay Sonoma Valley residents knew there were other gay people living and working in California's wine country, but everyone was spread out and disconnected from each other, Saperstein told the B.A.R.

It was the men's goal to highlight gay people in wine country. Many of the wineries the highlighted are boutique wineries that create handcrafted wines.

"It's great to turn our community onto winemakers who are a part of our community that they've never heard of before," said Saperstein, pointing out that many, but not all of the vintners are handcrafted boutique wineries and some big name vineyards. "It's great to be able to introduce these smaller wine producers to the community."

Being Out in the Vineyard

By launching Out in the Vineyard, the two men filled wine country's thirst for uncovering its LGBT community beneath the vines.

The company's first event was a Twilight T-Dance, a Pride celebration and fundraiser for various organizations, at Atwood Ranch & Vineyard in Glen Ellen in 2010. But it was the Big Gay Wine Train that became the men's signature event that put them on the map.

"Five years later it is still so much fun," said Saperstein. "People have a blast on the train," he continued, couples, together with their friends or meeting new people during the three to four hour dinner. "Everyone just meets and mingles with people. It just brings everyone so close together."

The party continues off the train after guests return to Napa. Out in the Vineyard hosts an after-party for train guests at the host hotel the Napa River Terrace Inn, which is within walking distance from the train station.

The event has also become a weekend affair with some of the guests heading to Napa for wine tasting and exploring what the valley has to offer before and after the event, said Saperstein.

The Big Gay Wine Train rolls through the Napa Valley on Saturday, March 28, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Following the train ride, an after-party will be hosted at the host hotel the River Terrace Inn. Tickets are $185 Gourmet Express Car / $215 VIP Vista Dome Car. To RSVP call 800-427-4124 and mention the Big Gay Wine Train.