“It’s hard growing up gay,” Michael Volpatt said, his voice catching as he fought back tears.
“It was clear when I was in high school that I leaned the other way,” he said. “But at the time, like every other kid, we did everything we could to live another existence or to live in the shadows.”
Volpatt clears his throat and steadies his voice. We’re sitting in the Equality Vines tasting room on Main Street in Guerneville, with “Love Wins” in bold, black letters nearly filling an entire wall. It’s a fitting backdrop as we taste the brand’s Love Wins blanc de noir sparkler.
As one of three co-owners of Guerneville-based Equality Vines, Volpatt is the voice of the boutique brand that’s closing in on 2,000 cases a year. He works closely with co-founder and co-owner Matt Grove, who handles operations.
The third co-owner in the enterprise is a man who played a highly visible role in a landmark victory for gay rights. Co-founder and co-owner Jim Obergefell, who lives in Sandusky, Ohio, was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage across the country in 2015.
Volpatt said he feels lucky to work with Obergefell on a brand that raises awareness.
“The case really changed the course and affected the life of my community members and people nationally,” Volpatt said. “When I heard about the vision with Equality Vines, I said, ‘How can I be a part of this?’”
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 line-up of edgy bottlings that appeal to the civil rights-minded. They include its Decision pinot noir, its Migrant red blend, its 19th Amendment sauvignon blanc, its Rosé the Riveter rosé and its Get Your Own Damn Coffee chardonnay.
“I ask every winery I like if they private label (make extra wine for other labels) and whether they would consider making wine for us,” said Volpatt, who has worked with Sonoma County’s Iron Horse Vineyards, Taft Street Vineyards and Russian River Vineyards. “When I tell wineries what we do, everyone is intrigued.”
“Every bottle of wine we release tells a story, and stories are how we change hearts and minds,” Obergefell said by email.
The story behind the Love Wins bottling is how Obergefell fought for his late husband, John Arthur, in life and in death.
In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had to give married gay couples all the benefits offered to straight couples. Even though Arthur was dying of ALS, the couple flew from their home in Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. They said “I do” on an airport tarmac. But soon they learned Ohio wouldn’t recognize their marriage and Arthur’s death certificate would identify him as single.
Partnering with more than 50 lawyers and plaintiffs from three other states, Obergefell ultimately prevailed; in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in Obergefell vs. Hodges.
“The most meaningful aspect of fighting this case is the knowledge that younger generations are growing up in a world that’s vastly better for LGBTQ+ people than the one I grew up in, especially those who are still closeted,” Obergefell said. “Knowing they are growing up in a world where they can marry the person they love gives me joy.”
Volpatt recalls sitting with Joy Sterling, CEO of Iron Horse, during a blending session in March 2017 when he, Obergefell and Grove were trying to come up with a name for their flagship sparkler.
“The book ‘Love Wins,’ the one about the same-sex marriage case that Jim co-authored, was on the table and we showed the book to Joy,” Volpatt said. “We 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.”
Living his truth
“Every time we take a step forward, oftentimes things will take us back. But that doesn’t negate the progress of that step forward,” Volpatt said. “Being gay as a young kid was very hard for me. I’m so glad there’s so much more support for those who identify with LGBTQ+ today.”
Volpatt grew up in Pittsburgh and went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in business and anthropology.
“My turning point was my senior year in college,” he said. “I came out to very close friends and they accepted me with open arms.”
Volpatt decided to break free, to begin his life anew as a gay man, when he started his first post-college job at Bob Evans corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio.
“I wasn’t going to live this lie anymore,” he said. “It was like a new beginning for me. I get to be my authentic self, meeting brand-new people and living my full truth.”
A few years later, when Volpatt was 25, he told his parents he was gay.
“It was challenging at first, but I figured it took me 25 years to tell them and I realized they had a coming-out process, too.”
Celebrating his 50th birthday this summer, Volpatt said he considers himself fortunate 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 fully arrive,” he said. “But what I do hope for is that there’s a time when we’re not fighting for our rights, socially, politically and legally.”
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at email@example.com or 707-521-5310.