These LGBTQ+ Wine Pros Are Shaking Up an Age-Old Industry
“Who I love does not affect how your glass of cabernet sauvignon is going to taste.”
Winemaking wasn’t always in the cards for RAM Cellars’ Vivianne Kennedy. Though she now spends her days “making and self-distributing and doing sales slash everything else for a little urban winery in Southeast Portland,” the accomplished Jane of all trades holds a Master’s degree in business and was working in retail management until the vintner bug bit back in 2008.
“I had an epiphany,” she recalls. “I was tasting wine at a winery in Washington State, it was a cabernet franc aged in different oak barrels. There was a large group of people there and became so engrossed in it, I didn’t realize that everybody else had left. It was just the winemaker and I, talking 45 minutes later. When I walked out of the cellar into the sun, it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Her passion was instantly ignited. After studying viticulture and enology at Washington State University, Kennedy threw herself head-first into the Pacific Northwest’s lush wine industry via volunteer positions, internships, and, eventually, a gig as an assistant winemaker and cellar master at Portland’s Enso Winery. She launched RAM in 2014, released her very first bottles in early 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.
Today, RAM is a chosen family affair, and a markedly queer one at that. “They’re also on the gender-nonconforming spectrum,” she notes. “My partner, Aiden, is non-binary, and my best friend, Rebecca, is gender fluid.”
But despite her undeniable commitment to the craft and ultra-supportive team, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “I came out in 2018, and there were a lot of difficult things about coming out and moving to that liminal space,” Kennedy says. “I went back and forth about whether or not the winery would even continue. I was genuinely concerned that there would no longer be a place for me in the industry.”
After a serious bout of self-proclaimed “soul searching,” Kennedy chose not only to carry on with the business, but transform it into a platform to uplift the greater LGBTQ+ community.
“The conclusion I came to is that we needed to change our focus and make sure we were taking steps to support queer and trans folks,” she explains. “So in 2019, we created another label for the winery dubbed the VIV label. It’s a shorthand for my name, and it’s also a French root word that means to live, to be alive.”
From its inception, the offshoot—which features enticing selections like La Lumière white blend, a zesty 50-50 Dry Riesling and Gewurztraminer split, a sultry unfiltered pinot noir-fueled rosé, and a single-varietal petit verdot fermented on native yeasts—has had a very real impact. For every bottle sold, $5 goes directly to nonprofits dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ folks. Beneficiaries include the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund’s name change project and Portland’s Q Center, which provides tons of vital services to local queer and trans Oregonians. In its first year, donations accounted for 4.8% of total VIV label sales.
“The way I look at it, being able to come out, receive support, and fully live, I have an obligation—a responsibility—to do whatever I can to open the door for more folks,” Kennedy says. “As long as the winery exists, doing everything we can for the communities we’re a part of is only going to be a bigger and bigger piece of the picture.”
And according to Kennedy, she isn’t alone in these valiant efforts. She’s quick to point out the ways in which her beloved industry is also changing to become a more inclusive place for folks of all experiences. Earlier this year, she participated in a digital conference put on by the pioneering wine industry advocacy group Lift Collective.
“Every single discussion was coming from a social justice lens, and to see that happening in real time—voices elevated that aren’t typically represented in classic wine spaces, dialogue and discussion around making fundamental changes—it feels like the wine industry at large, the great amalgamation of all of its various parts, is moving toward a better future,” she says. “I am the only openly transgender winemaker that I know about. But I look forward to a future where I am not.”
Thanks to Kennedy and the growing number of enterprising wine pros like her, that future is fast approaching. Here are several other queer movers and shakers to watch (and support) as they continue to build a more inclusive, accepting, and vibrant wine industry.
Jeff Davis and Greg Brickey
Co-owners/winemakers, Majuscule Wine
“We are a gay, married couple,” says Jeff Davis, one half of the husband-husband team behind Napa’s Majuscule Wine. “For a couple, we work extremely well as business partners. We each have our roles and we lean into each other's strengths. It works for us.”
The pair’s love affair with wine dates back to one fateful Christmas day back in 2004. “Our wine journey began when we stopped in Sonoma and Napa during a holiday road trip—we became hooked on the wines and region,” Davis notes. “This kicked off a routine of visiting Napa and Sonoma every other month to explore, learn, and join way too many wine clubs.”
With a life in Arizona and established white collar careers, a shift to professional winemaking represented a major lifestyle change. They began by purchasing a neighborhood wine bar in Scottsdale, a move that led to Brickley completing the lauded winemaking program at UC Davis before they eventually pulled the trigger and started their own vineyard in 2018.
As a small town kid, Davis grew up around table wine and admits that in college, “Boone’s Farm was a regular part of my pre-going out routine because it was so cheap.” For chief winemaker Brickey, however, the road to Napa was even more unlikely: “My interest in wine began while living in France when I was 20 on a church mission,” he explains. “I was fascinated by the wineries and vineyards that I rode my bike through. One day I visited Taittinger to learn how Champagne is made and at the end, I was handed a glass of Champagne, which I declined, due to my religious beliefs at the time. The French hosts were shocked.”
Regardless of their particular point of entry, both Davis and Brickey have found their niche within Northern California’s winemaking landscape, putting out vintage after vintage of exceptional and widely acclaimed reds and rosés that make good use of the area’s lush cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc bounty. They’ve picked up a slew of awards, mentions, and top ratings along the way—alongside an ultra-supportive professional community.
“The wine industry is full of LGBTQ+ folks, especially on the hospitality side and here in California,” Davis notes. “Our philosophy is that we’re two guys who happen to be gay. Whether in person or on our website, we present our authentic selves to every customer, yet many don’t realize we’re a gay couple or dwell on it. They just want to learn about our wine and enjoy it, and that’s more than fine with us.”
“I made a declaration about being a winemaker at a party when I was about eight years old,” says McMinnville, Oregon native Remy Drabkin. “The wine industry here is just over a decade older than I am, and I grew up around it. When we helped pick grapes, that meant cinnamon rolls and tractor rides. Pressing white wines meant jugs of fresh juice—there was always great food and lots of laughter.”
Fast-forward a few decades later and Drabkin is the driving force behind both Remy Wines and Three Wives Wines. Remy’s first label, Remy Wines, comes from a distinctly Old World-style philosophy, cultivating classic Italian varietals like lagrein, dolcetto, sangiovese, and barbera and translating them into thought-provoking, complex expressions fit for any palette. Dubbed “wines without rules,” Three Wives Wines takes a more laid-back approach, allowing the endlessly creative winemaker to experiment with different recipes and processes while churning out utterly approachable, easy-drinking blends.
As a person, the queer-identified winemaker is just as layered, multifaceted, and inspiring as the bottles that put Remy Wines on the map.
“I manage the Estate, make the wines, and act as GM of the winery, and I’m also a director on the Oregon Wine Board and a founding member of our newly forming nonprofit Wine Country Pride,” says Remy. “I just got off a Zoom with the diversity trainer for the Washington State Wine Commission—they want me to participate in an education webinar on diversity in wine. As a small business, my advocacy for minority communities in and around wine is a year-round effort.”
Remy’s out and proud status hasn’t always been easy, but living one’s truth is almost always worth the hurdles. “Being out is hard—not always, but it is hard,” acknowledges Remy. “I glazed over my homosexuality for years, but then I had an out gay tasting room manager and he started outing me to people. It was just the push I needed. Have we lost businesses because of it? Yes. Absolutely. Have we gained business because of it? Yes. Absolutely.”
Beverage director, The Seagate Hotel & Spa
“I grew up between Chicago and Bangkok, spent some of my younger years in Germany, and then all over the U.S.,” says Gina Netisingha, a seasoned wine expert who’s just recently signed on to lead the beverage program at the luxe Seagate Hotel & Spa in Delray Beach, Florida. “One of my first gigs was smack dab in the middle of central California wine country. I still recall turning the crispy pages of the wine menu at Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel at 19, in awe.”
After her stint by the sea, Netisingha moved to New York City where she cut her teeth “under the tutelage of some of the most talented female sommeliers around”—no small feat considering the fact that cis-men still dominate the industry’s highest levels. Netisingha has obviously always been pretty good at finding her people, a skill that proved especially helpful when it came to living her life as an out and proud bisexual.
“I never had a huge ‘coming out,’ never hid my preferences or shied away from any questions asked,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I’ve sought out organizations known for diverse and inclusive cultures. In the past decade, hospitality as a whole is moving slowly towards the right direction regarding belonging and acceptance.”
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced some “teachable moments” in the workplace throughout her career. “The most common question I’m asked is, ‘Why do you call them your partner?’” she explains. “But other than being asked if my partner is male or female, I find that how I identify does not affect my day to day professional life, nor should it.”
General manager/founding partner, Bergevin Lane Vineyards
“I’m a fifth-generation Walla Walla native,” says Annette Bergevin, referring to her hometown in Washington State. “We knew most of the people starting wineries in Walla Walla back in the late ’70s and ’80s and it was magical. By the early ’90s, there were seven to 10 wineries you could visit all in a day and I loved tasting through everyone’s wine and hearing their stories. My dad, being a man of few words, would change when it came to wine—he could talk about wine for hours.”
Yet despite the fact that Bergevin’s ancestors had been tilling the area’s fertile soil since 1864, she was actually the first to introduce grapes into the mix. “I became interested in wine after college when I moved to the Bay Area,” she explains. “My then-partner and I were looking for an opportunity to move back home, so I reached out to my dad and he said, ‘Why don't we start our own winery?’ A few meetings later, our house in California was sold and we were headed out on our new adventure.”
The adventure officially kicked off in 2002, subsequently blossoming into a 5,000-case-per-year operation housed inside a 20,000-square-foot industrial warehouse. A sleek, inviting tasting room in downtown Walla Walla invites wine-lovers to comb through standout reds like the 2016 Princess Syrah, a highly rated single-vineyard gem, and the peach-hued 2020 Linen Estate Rosé, aged three months in new oak and imbued with ripe fruit and bright, playful acidity. Bergevin continues to do it all, from overseeing the onsite retail shop and monitoring the winemaking process to sampling grapes to determine optimum pick time and trucking bottles around the country on sales calls. And while her business might have been off to an accelerated boom, her professional coming out process was a bit more gradual.
“When we started our winery, we wanted people to focus on our wine and not us,” says Bergevin. “I was masterful at deflecting questions about my personal life. When I wore a wedding ring in the tasting room, so many people would say, ‘Your husband must be so proud!’ Or people would ask me if I married into the family because my name was the same as the winery. I always had to make a decision whether to correct them or just laugh and pour another sample. This got pretty tiring.”
That all changed as her daughter grew older and Bergevin began thinking deeply about the example she was setting by staying closeted. “I felt like I needed to step up and be a voice, in my own way, for my LGBTQ+ family,” she reflects. “I wanted her to know that I’m proud of who I am and I didn’t want to hide behind all of the brave women and men who paved the way for me, for all of us. People shouldn’t be judged by who they love—who I love does not affect how your glass of cabernet sauvignon is going to taste.”
Baltimore-based consultant and beverage expert Chelsea Gregoire, who identifies as queer and non-binary, traces their interest in all things booze back to an undeniable attraction to the world of hospitality. “I enjoyed the showmanship—making a latte, brewing tea, making a cocktail, opening a bottle of wine,” they explain. “It felt ritualistic and meditative, but at the same time, it was a vehicle for creating an experience and making someone feel welcome.”
Another unlikely entrant into the wine scene, Gregoire graduated with a Master’s in theology from a conservative university. When they came out publicly shortly thereafter, the future didn’t seem so clear.
“Every opportunity I had on the table in front of me disappeared, one by one, as soon as word of my ‘lifestyle’ spread,” they continue. “At the same time, I was working in hospitality to pay the bills, and realized that both paths were tied to my love for people, for creating community, and for celebration.”
Gregoire managed to make (fermented) lemonade out of the situation, going on to set up a successful consultancy and eventually joining the opening team for the soon-to-open Church cocktail bar. Along the way, they began to view coming out as less of a professional liability and more of a powerful means of leaving a lasting impact on their beloved industry.
“Being out in my career has presented me with a lot of great opportunities for advocacy on behalf of the other people I work with who need an advocate at the table, whenever I’m given a seat,” they say. “Many of my co-workers, colleagues, and friends have proven integral to my personal journey of figuring out how to navigate my world, apply vocabulary to my feelings and expression, and be authentically myself. This industry brings together passionate, whip-smart folks who don’t want the traditional career at a desk—there’s never a dull moment.”
Sommelier and co-founder of Endless West Spirits
“I remember bringing a wine textbook to a coding class and reading about the crus of Beaujolais instead of whatever else we were learning that day,” says gay Filipino-Canadian sommelier Josh Decolongon, reflecting on the winding trajectory that led to his current roles as co-founder of spirits company Endless West and manager of Blackwell's Wines and Spirits in San Francisco. “During a second-year algorithms exam, I finally gave in, figuratively threw my hands in the air, and started writing an essay about Cabernet Sauvignon instead. I dropped out not long after. Regrets? Nah.”
The road to wine might have been unexpected, but it fit like a glove. “I was very much that person in university who changed their major a million times,” Decolongon continues. “Not only was wine a great distraction from an environment where I didn't really fit in, but it also turned out to be an intersection of so many things I was interested in, like science, art, flavor, gastronomy, and culture.”
Whether he’s guiding folks toward unexpected purchases at the shop or, more famously, making hilarious—not to mention super informative—videos on Instagram as @sommeligay, Decolongon is on a mission to queer the wine world in just about every way possible.
“I'm absolutely exhausted by the cis-straight-white male energy this industry carries,” he says. “It results in hyper-Eurocentric wine pairings, the snubbing of particular cultures and cuisines, unnecessary gatekeeping, and this excessively rigid way of thinking about wine and flavor.
“People go off about ‘ridiculous’ tasting notes—yes, let's make them ridiculous,” he says “Let’s compare wines to different ’90s heartthrobs or Lil Nas X songs. Tell me about how it reminds you of the hot alleyway asphalt of childhood summers. Tell me how it reminds you of tamarind, of calamansi, of arroz con gandules.”
That playfulness remains a constant thread throughout Decolongon’s work. He created his Instagram page, in part, to usher in potential wine-lovers who might otherwise feel ‘othered’ by the wine industry’s stuffy reputation. A sense of fun bubbles through every post, from a recent mashup of pop culture clips edited to describe different wine styles to a video riffing on the infamously tough Master Somm exam where Decologon compares a thin-skinned grape to “me in highschool.”
“In the world of stereotypical ‘gay’ jobs, pleasure-centric careers like drag queens, fashion designers, or museum curators, we never name the sommelier, the flavor analogue of such examples,” muses Decolongon. “Now, this might have to be a goal of mine.”