Marriage Case Plaintiff Obergefell Helps Launch Line of Wines

by Matthew S. Bajko

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday July 17, 2016

The Ohio home of Jim Obergefell and his late husband, John Arthur, was normally stocked with some bottle of Champagne or other bubbly beverage.

"We were of the belief it doesn't have to be a special occasion to have bubbles. Just breathing is a special occasion," recalled Obergefell, 50, the lead plaintiff in the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case that established marriage equality in all 50 states.

Arthur, who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, married Obergefell in 2013 on a Maryland airport tarmac three months prior to his death. Because Ohio didn't recognize the couple's marriage, it led Obergefell to sue the state in federal court, as he recounts in his new book, "Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality," co-written by Debbie Cenziper and published by William Morrow.

While the men never made it out to California's famed wine country, they did visit the wineries in Canada's Niagra-on-the-Lake region across the border from Buffalo, New York. And there were a number of wineries near them in northern Ohio, though Obergefell conceded, "Ohio wines are not always the best."

The first time he visited Napa wineries was last October, and his inaugural trip to Sonoma came in February when he met with several winemakers helping to create and bottle a series of wines for Equality Wines, LLC. The San Diego-based company is a partnership between Obergefell and wine producers and distributors Elissa Nauful and Matt Grove , who are both straight.

"We wanted to make a tribute wine to him and his husband. When we asked him what wine we should make, he said sparkling," said Grove. "When he and John were going through the most difficult times, they would always raise a glass and say, 'At least we have bubbles.'"

Grove, 47, initially had set out to produce a bottle of wine in honor of his deceased aunt who identified as gay, Marilyn Rose Schultz, a television journalist who led a class action lawsuit against NBC and its affiliates in the 1970s seeking equal pay for women. Nauful suggested he think bigger.

He read a story about Obergefell and spent the next year trying to reach him. It turned out that Nauful once was a student of a man who was good friends with Obergefell. He suggested in March of last year that he connect with them.

Once he came on board, the trio then turned to Michael Volpatt , a gay man who owns Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, for suggestions of winemakers they should approach. He, in turn, introduced them to Iron Horse Vineyards CEO and co-owner Joy Sterling .

"She is the best sparkling winemaker in northern California. I knocked on her door and asked her to make a wine for this cause," said Grove. "She said, without batting an eye, 'I absolutely will make this wine. You are on to something.'"

Thus the three partners found themselves at Sterling's vineyard earlier this year tasting a variety of dosages, a mixture added to Champagne that determines its sweetness.

"It was a lot of fun, though I was nervous going into it," Obergefell said of choosing the correct dosage.
Jim Obergefell sits on a bench at Iron Horse Vineyards. Photo: Matt Grove

Of the eight they tried, two stood out and were mixed together to create the dosage they opted to use.

"I can't say why it was the one. It hit everything I liked about bubbles. I loved the flavor," said Obergefell.

Grove said he knew by the look in Obergefell's eye that was the way to go.

"I remember it vividly," he recalled. "He said if John could see me now, this is it. This is the wine."

Their first release, 200 cases of the Love Wins Cuvee, came out June 26 on the first anniversary of the court's historic ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. Comprised of 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, the sparkling wine is made from grapes grown by Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol.

A tribute to Obergefell and Arthur on the bottle explains that, "this beautiful sparkling rosé is a toast to marriage equality and those reluctant activists who change our world."

In February they also met with Kurt Giusti , whose family has long run Via Giusti Wines in Forestville and is making a pinot noir for Equality Wines. It will be called The Decision and should be released August 1.

The company is also working with two other renowned winemakers on a cabernet sauvignon for release in the fall. They are keeping their identities a secret for now.

"We chose producers and grapes from the Russian River Valley not only for the amazing grapes that are grown in the area, but also because western Sonoma County is known for its inclusiveness and acceptance of all people," explained Nauful in a statement about the wines.

With each bottle Equality Wines sells, $8 will be donated to an organization fighting for equal rights. Its first partnership is with national LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.

"Jim is on board for a couple reasons, the main one being so we always stay true to our mission and are genuine and do the right thing in terms of making an impact," explained Grove. "When you buy a bottle of Equality Wine, you are not only celebrating Jim and his husband and their rights but also contributing to great causes."

Obergefell personally signed about 100 of the Love Wins bottles, whose front label features the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court in rainbow colors. Last week, he donated one to the White House and hopes to soon personally deliver it to President Barack Obama.

The wines can be purchased online at An unsigned bottle of Love Wins goes for $60, signed it is $80. The pinot noirs will likely be priced at $80 a bottle.

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