“It’s hard growing up gay,” said Michael Volpatt, his voice catchy as he choked back tears.
“It was clear when I was in high school that I was leaning the other way,” he said. “But back then, like all other children, we did everything to live another existence or to live in the shadows.”
Volpatt clears his throat and stabilizes his voice. We’re sitting in the Equality Vines tasting room on Main Street in Guerneville, with “Love Wins” in bold black letters filling almost an entire wall. It’s a perfect backdrop to enjoy the brand’s Love Wins blanc de noir sparkler.
As one of the three co-owners of Equality Vines, based in Guerneville, Volpatt is the voice of the boutique brand which closes 2,000 cases per year. He works closely with co-founder and co-owner Matt Grove, who manages operations.
The company’s third co-owner is a man who played a very visible role in a historic victory for gay rights. Co-founder and co-owner Jim Obergefell, who lives in Sandusky, Ohio, was the lead plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage across the country in 2015.
Volpatt said he felt lucky to be working with Obergefell on a brand that increases awareness.
“The case really changed the course and affected the lives of members of my community and people nationwide,” Volpatt said. “When I heard about the Equality Vines vision, I said, ‘How can I be a part of it? “”
Volpatt said the label fights for equality for three main groups: women, migrants and those who identify as LGBTQ +, and contributes 15% of its sales to organizations that support them. To date, Equality Vines has donated $ 162,000 with a range of bold bottlings that appeal to civil rights-conscious people. Among them, his Decision pinot noir, his Migrant red blend, his 19th Amendment sauvignon blanc, his Rosé the Riveter rosé and his Get Your Own Damn Coffee chardonnay.
“I ask any wineries I love if they have a private label (make extra wine for other labels) and if they would consider making wine for us,” said Volpatt, who worked with Sonoma County Iron Horse Vineyards, Taft Street Vineyards and Russian River Vineyards. . “When I tell the vineyards what we do, everyone is intrigued. “
“Every bottle of wine we take out tells a story, and stories are how we change hearts and minds,” Obergefell said via email.
The story behind the bottling of Love Wins is how Obergefell fought for her late husband, John Arthur, in life and in death.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government should grant married same-sex couples all the benefits available to heterosexual couples. Even though Arthur was dying of ALS, the couple flew from their Ohio home to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. They said “yes” on the tarmac at an airport. But soon they learned that Ohio would not recognize their marriage and that Arthur’s death certificate would identify him as single.
Partnering with more than 50 lawyers and plaintiffs from three other states, Obergefell ultimately won; in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in Obergefell v Hodges.
“The most meaningful aspect of fighting this case is knowing that the younger generations are growing up in a much better world for LGBTQ + people than the one I grew up in, especially those who are still locked up,” said Obergefell. “Knowing that they are growing up in a world where they can marry the person they love gives me joy.”
Volpatt remembers sitting down with Iron Horse CEO Joy Sterling in a mingling session in March 2017 as he, Obergefell and Grove tried to come up with a name for their flagship sparkler.
“The ‘Love Wins’ book, the one on the same-sex marriage case that Jim co-wrote, was on the table and we showed the book to Joy,” Volpatt said. “We have decided to name the sparkler Love Wins. The book and the case were the inspiration for the first wine we made and the essence of the brand.
Live your truth
“Every time we take a step forward, things often take us back. But that does not prevent the progress of this step forward, ”said Volpatt. “Being gay when I was young was very difficult for me. I’m so glad there is so much more support for those who identify with LGBTQ + today.
Volpatt grew up in Pittsburgh and attended the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in business and anthropology.
“My turning point was my last year in college,” he said. “I went out with some very close friends and they accepted me with open arms.”
Volpatt decided to break free, to start his life over as a gay man, when he started his first post-graduate job at Bob Evans’ offices in Columbus, Ohio.
“I was not going to live this lie again,” he said. “It was like a new start for me. I can be my authentic self, meet new people and live my whole truth. “
A few years later, when Volpatt was 25, he told his parents he was gay.
“It was difficult at first, but I thought it had taken me 25 years to tell them and I realized that they also had a coming out process.”
Celebrating his 50th birthday this summer, Volpatt said he considers himself lucky to have landed in Guerneville, where he can be his authentic self and champion equality with his label.
“I think we have a long way to go and I don’t know if we’ll ever get there completely,” he said. “But what I hope is that there comes a time when we don’t fight for our rights, socially, politically and legally.”
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at [email protected] or 707-521-5310.