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Salon Roi entrepreneur Roi Barnard reflects on five decades in business

Stylist recalls AIDS epidemic — and Marilyn’s calming presence

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Roi Barnard, gay news, Washington Blade
Roi Barnard on the roof of his business Salon Roi. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

For some — perhaps gay men disproportionately — the draw of a grand staircase is irresistible. Especially if one has logged much time in square-footage-starved city quarters. 

Roi Barnard looks proudly around his eponymous salon at the staircase and wall beside it decorated in images of Marilyn Monroe. 

“Fifty years I’ve been walking that staircase like Carol Burnett,” he says. “The staircase first sold me on this location. The shop can be whatever you want it to be. It can be elegant because of the staircase. It’s unique and they’re disappearing.”

Roi Barnard (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Barnard still works at Salon Roi, though he sold it 12 years ago and has recently cut back his hours since a heart attack. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in business at the same location this month (Aug. 9). Ten years in, the Marilyn mural was created. Now an official D.C. landmark, she’s about to be refurbished. Barnard is celebrating the milestone with the publication of his book “Mister, are you a Lady?” A documentary is also being planned. 

Still, it’s Marilyn’s face just as much as his clients who continue to inspire him. 

“I first saw her in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ when I was 10,” he says after having his picture taken in front of her mural painted on his roof. “I remember thinking how sad she looked despite her smile. Like me back then. After she died, I wanted to bring her with me. Now she lives on here.” 

For Barnard, the movie legend is more than a mere decorative element. He sometimes speaks of her as if she’s still around. 

“We’re going out on the roof for a picture with Marilyn,” Barnard says as he’s halfway out the bathroom window. “Come join us.”

It’s hard to believe this nimble 81-year-old survived not only ’70s excesses, the ’80s AIDS crisis and various waves of conservatism, but also a recent heart attack. He says he did it with his salon and a little help from his friends. 

Roi Barnard (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“They’re my family,” Barnard says of his clients and staff. “And those who have been with me from the beginning, we’ve survived a lot. You can see it in their eyes.”

“I would say one part of the attraction of working here for me is not only the beauty of the building but also the family aspect,” says Zakiya St. Rose, a bisexual 28-year-old aesthetician at Salon Roi. “Everyone in my book (of clients) feels loved and cared for, and that’s a part of Roi’s legacy.”

Salon Roi, an upscale salon inside a cozy Woodley Park townhouse, began its life in 1969 as Charles the First, the unisex brainchild of Barnard and his former partner, Charles Stinson. 

“We were co-owners and lovers,” Barnard says. “The late ’60s and early ’70s were so incredibly wild. Be glad you weren’t there then because you probably wouldn’t be here now. Times were that wild.”

While Barnard was in a stable relationship and didn’t do drugs, he did enjoy diamond earrings, long fur coats and driving a gold Rolls Royce to Studio 54 on weekends with Stinson. At discos, they would go out on the dance floor and throw up cards in the air granting one free haircut like cost-effective wishes.

“That’s how we got them in,” he says. “We had a big house off 16th street with a big Marilyn Monroe swimming pool. Charles and I were so public and so out there. I was just coming off a fashion modeling career and we were not afraid.”

Still, he remembered challenges, even from gay folks.

“Gay people were afraid of us back then. We had a better time in the straight community,” Barnard says, frowning. “The gay community liked us but were afraid of us because we were out and they could get fired back then, especially if they worked for the federal government.”

Barnard remembers those pre-Stonewall times when, ”We had to hide everything.”

He remembers paying to go to a private party to meet other gay men and a half-hour after he left, it was raided by police. Some of the men he knew had their names printed in the paper and “they were told not to come back to work. They lost everything.”

He and Stinson each married lesbians because, “that was what you did at the time.” But times changed and a taste of freedom led to men wanting more, both gay and straight. 

“Half my clientele are straight men,” Barnard says. “They love being pampered. Before the ’60s and ’70s, men didn’t have much choice when they went to the barber. Then suddenly they had a lot more freedom in how to wear their hair. And one cookie leads to a whole box.”

This new desire for freedom led Barnard and Stinson to open a unisex salon. One goal was to spread the love to government workers. Their client lists grew from federal workers to senior officials. 

“Why couldn’t we help both men and women?” Barnard says. “Hair is hair. But it caused quite a media frenzy at the time. You see, women went to beauty parlors and men went to barber shops and the twain shall not meet.”

So Barnard and Stinson bucked convention and opened their shop to everyone, but not without controversy.

Barnard recalls being a guest of Maury Povich on D.C.’s “Panorama” and being asked to name-drop his more exclusive clients. He refused. Later, the secretary of defense stopped by his salon to thank him personally. Barnard’s stylists took care of the secretary’s entire family and to this day he is proud to serve the grandchildren of the first children he styled. 

“The children saved us,” he says, memories of the AIDS crisis giving him a haunted look.

The repression of the ’50s gave way to the freedom of the ’60s and the flamboyance of the ’70s, but the crisis of the ’80s threatened to take that all away.

“Everybody was scared,” Barnard says. “In those early days people were getting sick, a lot of people, and we didn’t know what was going on. People were losing their shops.”

He seemed unable to shake the fear of the time. 

“We still have the same eyes. I can see the ravages of war in the eyes of the girls who survived it with me. I lost five gay male hairdressers — major hairdressers,” Barnard says. “They were up-and-comers. Rising stars. I was mentoring them to open their own shops one day because that is what you do. But then suddenly they got sick and were gone. All of them. Gone.”

He says what happened in his shop happened in many shops in many other cities all over the country. Barnard jokes that before the crisis the term “gay hairdresser” was redundant but afterward, women took control of the industry because they had to. 

“We were hit hard in those days,” he says. “Robin Weir, who used to do Nancy Reagan’s hair, had a big salon on P Street. Maybe 25 or 30 hairdressers. He came to say goodbye. So many salons were closing and the owners coming to say goodbye to me.”

He describes how the crisis worsened and how salons started to look like hospital wards as sick stylists kept working despite losing their eyesight, getting tired and having to conceal blotches on their skin. 

“No one knew they were dying back then,” Barnard says. “No one knew what was going on. They were just desperately trying to get through their day. You know when you get sick you think you’ll get better and that there is a better day coming, but it didn’t come. For some it never came.”

To help his business survive, Barnard had to make two tough decisions. One was to get an instructor’s license and train all the female assistants “to the once-pompous boys” to do hair. 

“Not a single girl got sick,” Barnard says. “It was do that or lose the shop.”
The other was to leave Stinson and buy out his stake in the shop. 

“I thought drugs were changing Charles,” Barnard says. “Not a brain tumor caused by AIDS.”

Stinson, Barnard says, was becoming increasingly unstable toward his staff, his clients and his partner. Barnard had to take action, though now older and post-heart surgery he looks back with regret. 

“I should have taken him in,” he says looking around the nail room. “I could have let him work here while we watched over him and took care of him. We shouldn’t have left him alone.”

In those early days of the crisis, before Stinson knew he was sick, both he and Barnard were invited to Georgetown University to explain what they knew about gay life. The goal was to learn what about their “lifestyle” was filling the hospital wards with men who should be in the prime of their lives. 

“Our secrets were killing us,” Barnard says. “So I told them. I told what I knew.”

Barnard and Stinson took straight but intellectually curious doctors to gay bars around town and told of back rooms where sketchy sex could be had easily “in pitch dark with five, 10 men.” 

“At one bar a homeless man walked in off the street,” Barnard says, wrinkling his nose at the memory. “And right into that back room. Even if they couldn’t see him, which was a blessing, they had to be able to smell him, right?”

Barnard’s squeamishness may have saved his life.

He and Stinson introduced the doctors to Jim Graham, the director of a little walk-up clinic on 18th street called Whitman-Walker. Gay men frequented the clinic to treat “VD” or venereal diseases, now called STIs or sexually transmitted infections. 

“Jim didn’t like me telling them our secrets,” Barnard says, shaking his head. “But they had to know. We were dying.”

Back rooms began to close, but Barnard felt he needed to do more so he took his styling scissors on the road. He started doing hair for sick young men to help them feel beautiful again. He also joined DIFA, the Designing Industry Fighting AIDS. 

But like war nurses who suffer their own forms of PTSD, seeing the constant death began to take its toll. 

“One of my beautiful young friends got sick,” Barnard says. “He had these purple spots all over his face. His flesh just hung from him. His skin …”

Barnard was there to cut his friend’s hair but, “I just couldn’t do it.”

“I excused myself to sit alone on his front porch and check in with myself asking, ‘Can I do this? God, please help me.’ I finally told him, ‘I think I’m OK now. I just need some water.’ He asked me, ‘I look that bad?’ And I said, ‘Oh buddy, yeah. Yeah, you do.’”

Barnard styled his hair and warned his friend to take a picture and send it to his family before inviting them out to see him. 

Stinson’s condition deteriorated to the point where he wouldn’t last long. Barnard sent him to a friend connected with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. Once known for developing a safe polio vaccine, the institute was now battling AIDS. Though well treated, Stinson would be experimented on before succumbing to the disease. 

“Over 300 people came to his funeral,” Bernard says. “Kindness came through.”

As the public learned more about the disease and the death toll eased, business slowly recovered at Salon Roi. 

“The fact that we were child-friendly saved us,” he says. “Our children in the ’80s didn’t know about AIDS. They were babies. They are still coming today with their babies.”

The business has now expanded with a spa and other services. Most of the staff still consists of women, but Barnard notes young gay men are returning to the field. Some of the old flair from the ’70s is starting to return as well. 

“Now, there is a boy who works here and is extremely flamboyant,” Barnard says. “But he has no idea what we went through before. The lifestyle had to come way down because of the backlash due to the AIDS crisis. But we came through. We survived.”

Roi Barnard says the undulations he and his business have been through in five decades would be unfathomable to Millennial or Gen Z gays. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role

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Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop

Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen

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Melissa Etheridge brings her ‘One Way Out Tour’ to the D.C. region next week with a show at the new Capital One Hall in Tysons. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

Melissa Etheridge
‘One Way Out Tour’
Tuesday, April 26
Capital One Hall
7750 Capital One Tower Rd.
Tysons, VA
7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55
ticketmaster.com
capitalonehall.com
melissaetheridge.com

We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26. 

It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.

Her comments have been slightly edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?

MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded. 

BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?

ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”

BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.

BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.

BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?

ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.

BLADE: When did you start back on the road?

ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.

BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”

BLADE: Do you talk to her often?

ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy. 

BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun. 

BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?

ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.

BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?

ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her. 

BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys?  Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?

ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.

BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it? 

ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else. 

BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition? 

ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved. 

BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you? 

ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.

Melissa Etheridge says slowing down wasn’t an option for her when the pandemic hit. She’s glad to be back on the road now, she says. (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)

BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?  

ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way. 

BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays? 

ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best. 

BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end? 

ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.

BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?

ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.

BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?

ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey. 

Melissa Etheridge, gay news, Washington Blade
Melissa Etheridge (Photo by Elizabeth Miranda; courtesy Primary Wave)
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New Cranes sommelier brings spirit to wine and sake program

Stewart-Woodruff curates eclectic list for Michelin-starred restaurant

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‘I bring my whole self to work,’ says Eric Stewart-Woodruff. (Photo by Rey Lopez)

Outfitted in a blue damask dinner jacket with satin lapels and an energetic smile, Eric Stewart-Woodruff carves an impressive figure when chatting about his favorite vintages. Stewart-Woodruff, who’s gay, is the new sommelier at Michelin-starred Cranes in Penn Quarter.

Stewart-Woodruff curates an eclectic wine – and sake – program focusing on pairings with celebrated Chef Pepe Moncayo’s innovative, global flavors. Cranes, which explores intersections of Spanish and Japanese cuisine, opened just before the pandemic, and received a coveted Michelin star in 2021.

Stewart-Woodruff did not start off in the wine industry. In fact, he does not have any formal training in wine. Instead, after a career as a professional photographer, he pivoted to the restaurant industry, where he developed his love of wine. While working for a distributor, he connected with D.C.’s own District Winery. This opportunity allowed him to express his truest self, as a lead tour guide, wine ambassador and sommelier. He credits his identity and personality as his reason for thriving.

“I bring my whole self to work,” he says, “offering a level of humanity and approachability.” 

After the pandemic temporarily shuttered District Winery, Stewart-Woodruff found himself interviewing at Cranes, enamored with Moncayo’s “creative vision,” he says – and was sold. He began in late summer of 2021.

Through his work in hospitality, Stewart-Woodruff notes that the industry can be hetero-male dominated. He has been able to break through by not holding back on his identity.

“I tend to play with expectations of what a sommelier may look or act like,” he says. “I move away from what one may stereotypically look like, but still present like one.”

For him, that means talking about wine and wine education “as if it were gossip,” he says. “I like to view wine like we are at brunch. Wine has personality, it’s performative, and it has stereotypes.” He is seeking to break molds of specific likes and dislikes, exploring the depth that wine has to offer, in the context of the Spanish-Japanese Cranes menu. In fact, he says, Moncayo is supportive of his innovative, certification-less angle. “I become more relatable,” he says.

He also presents original events. He paired with local guest sommelier Andrew Stover (also a gay man) on Tuesday, March 29 for a springtime showcase of specialty rosé wines paired with Moncayo’s dishes. The duo poured tastes of specialty, small-batch wines from Brazil, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Maryland.

Leaning into the innovative spirit, the wine-by-glass list is not split by color. Instead, it is divided into evocative categories. For example, both a chardonnay and a pinot noir fall into the “Elegant, round, and mellow” category.

As a Spanish-Japanese restaurant, Cranes not only possesses an extensive wine cellar, but has consistently expanded its sake program. Sakes by the glass are split into the same exact categories. The very same “Elegant, round, and mellow” list includes Ginjo Nama Genshu and junmai daiginjo.

Stewart-Woodruff explains that wine and sake should be attended to similarly. “Sake is something you can think about like a beer in terms of production but treat like a wine,” he says. Sake is a fermented polished-rice beverage, dating back more than two millennia in Japan.

“Sake has aromatics, texture, body, and finish.” He takes pride in discussing customers’ palate preferences, and turning them onto a specific sake, for their qualities of earthiness, acidity, or others.

“Many people don’t experience sake outside of college or bars. Now, I can be a sommelier for sake, and for the marriage of Eastern and Western cuisine and beverage.” He expresses excitement at being innovative in his sake beverage pairings, occupying a niche space. When discussing both wine and sake, he aims to bring an artistic flair and tour-guide enthusiasm to the table.

Woodruff credits his identity and background for his success. He aims to bring a level of humanity and approachability to what has been a formal, stuffy area. He has high ambitions to portray sake as sophisticated as wine in the customer’s mind, “but it pairs well with Moncayo’s conceptually ambitious menu,” he says.

“Wine and sake are as eclectic as humanity. I want people to accept experiencing wine like the world has accepted me.”

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