Thanks to the guys of Looking, Sonoma County is now on the radar of LGBT travelers. A second-season episode of the dearly-departed gay drama had the characters leaving their beloved San Francisco for Russian River, with its tranquil beauty and hidden queer bacchanals.
Sonoma has long been a getaway for Bay Area gays craving some nature and a glass, or five, of some good wine. One of the best times to hit up Sonoma is in the fall, when the weather is crisp and bright and the wines sparkle. Autumn is also host to the annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, the county's biggest fundraiser and an excuse to stuff yourself with delicious local food and vins.
Consisting of three main events, and supplemented by daily barbecues, lunches, dinners, and tours, SWCW raises millions for local programs, with the bulk of the funds going to literacy programs for youth. The weekend's finale, an auction of jaw-dropping vacations and luxury items donated up by northern California businesses and vineyards, raised nearly $5 million for local charities at this year's event, which wrapped in early September.
The auction is more of a local's event, but visitors shouldn't miss the weekend's first night party, called Sonoma Starlight, and held at Francis Ford Coppola's home and winery. Revelers mingle around the property’s giant pool and cabanas — open to the public during warmer months — while sampling endless wine and some of the county’s best locavore delights. The music is loud and Sonoma’s elite amusingly let their perfect hair down.
Another highlight of SWW is the Taste of Sonoma, a daytime event, held for the past few years at the expansive MacMurray Estate Vineyards (opened by late actor Fred MacMurray and now operated by his daughter, Kate). There’s cheese that will make your mouth numb with pleasure and wine that will lift you off the ground, but there’s also cooking demonstrations and lessons on how wine grapes are grown and harvested. The event is a pleasant way to spend a sunny Sonoma afternoon.
If you want to go off the beaten path, away from the crowds, wine tours are everywhere. We enjoyed Ram’s Gate Winery, Benovia Winery, and had a delicious lunch at Willi’s Wine Bar; goat cheese fritters, scallop dumplings, and a glass on pinot grigio was the recipe for bliss.
If you’re looking for gay-centric fun, head to Guerneville, a tiny little town that was nearly taken over by gays in the 1970s. With about 4,500 people, Guerneville plays host to Sonoma County Pride, bear events, lesbian parties, and numerous watering holes, like Rainbow Cattle Co. and Mr. T’s Bullpen.
There are plenty of rustic and cozy hotels and lodges in Guerneville, but we stayed at the luxurious Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, on the other side of Santa Rosa — where the area’s main airport is — and about an hour away. Though it’s removed from Guerneville, it was convenient for the events at the wine weekend and a lovely, self-contained property (not a bad spot for a wedding), walking distance to restaurants and a lovely coffee shop called Barking Dog Roasters.
We can’t promise you spiritual and physical release — as the Looking characters experienced at Russian River — but we can assure you’ll find relaxation, great wine, and sparkling air in this little slice of northern California heaven.