SAN FRANCISCO — Wineries are coming out loud and proud in their support of gay marriage. They're putting it right on the label.
“Little by little, we're breaking down the barrier,” says Gary Saperstein of Out in the Vineyard, an events and tour company based in Sonoma wine country that caters to gay travelers.
One of the barrier-breakers is Same Sex Meritage, a red blend that sends its message on the bottle and at the cash register — $1 for every bottle sold is donated to the advocacy group Freedom to Marry.
“It's the right thing to do,” says Matt Gold, who is based in Chicago and teamed with Josh Stein of Stein Family Wines in California to make the wine, which launched last December. Meritage is a brand name that refers to a Bordeaux-style blend. And, of course, it sounds a lot like marriage.
Gold and Stein see their business partnership as a way to make wine and make a statement. “Everyone should have the right to marry. Everyone should have the same rights as anyone else,” says Gold.
Same Sex Meritage isn't the only wine reaching out to the LGBT community.
Egalite, a bubbly from the Burgundy region of France, was launched earlier this year with the name — French for equality — reflecting the wine's origins as a Burgundy cremant (sparkling wine) and its support for the gay community. Each quarter, a portion of profits is donated to a LGBT nonprofit organization chosen by fans of the wine on Facebook; $15,000 has been donated since the wine's January launch.
From Stand Tall Wines, there's Genetic Pinot Noir, which refers to sexual orientation having genetic origins. Stand Tall Wines was founded by Larisa Stephenson and partner Dana Sabin. The wine is being made in the Napa Valley using grapes shipped from Oregon's Willamette Valley and 1 percent of Genetic sales is being donated to the Napa LBGTQ Project (which is the process of changing its name to LGBTQ Connection).
And though it doesn't have a message-specific label, Barefoot Wine & Bubbly has been supporting marriage rights for gays for 25 years, donating to local LGBT centers and other organizations, investing in Pride Week events, even putting up a 20-foot-tall inflatable wedding cake in front of San Francisco's City Hall to show support for gay marriage.
“We definitely love to celebrate the LGBT community and all of its progress,” says Jerime Black, Barefoot's national LGBT sales and marketing manager. “Barefoot really is all about fun. It's taking the stuffiness out of wine.”
OK, so not too many major wine companies have an LGBT marketing manager. So far as he knows, Black is the only one of his kind. “I like to say I have the gay man's dream job,” he jokes. But there has been a growing awareness of the importance of that community.
Along with the philosophical statements, the marketing effort makes good economic sense. Saperstein credits some of the awareness of LGBT consumers to the economic crisis. With consumers cutting back on luxury purchases, producers started studying the market, looking for niches.
Out in the Vineyard sponsors a Gay Wine Weekend each June and this year had more than 30 wineries involved at various levels of participation.
For Sonoma and Napa Valley producers, the LGBT market is a particularly good fit since the wine regions are close to San Francisco and its substantial gay population which, Saperstein points out, includes a lot of people who love food and wine.
As with all marketing, it's important to back up the message with a real commitment. “Don't think it's a one-time hit and you're going to get a payback right away. You have to show the community that you care,” says Saperstein.
Gold's aware that message-specific wines are in danger of being dismissed as a gimmick, which is why he and Stein work to make sure the wine in the bottle lives up to the label.
“We have to have a good quality wine,” he says. “Otherwise people are only going to buy it once.”