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MAL goes big for 2020

D.C. tradition expected to draw thousands for queer kinkster fun

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MAL, Mid-Atlantic Leather, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Centaur Motorcycle Club takes over D.C. for its 44th annual Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend Friday through Sunday into the wee hours from its host venue the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill (400 New Jersey Ave., N.W.). This MAL also marks the 50th anniversary of Centaur MC.

Patrick Grady, a gay leather enthusiast who has watched his “tribe” grow over the years, is Centaur MC’s chairman for the events. He was introduced to the Centaurs back in the 1990s while he was the director of catering at the Washington Plaza Hotel. 

That chance encounter with Centaur members was life-changing for the still mild-mannered and soft-spoken gentleman who describes leather as a wearable art that invites others to touch and engage it.

“When I came into leather, it awoke some inner feeling,” Grady says. “But you don’t have to own leather to come to MAL. You just go there to have a good time.”

MAL is a three-day party for leather, kink and fetish enthusiasts that continues to grow in popularity with scores of packed venues across the district. It began in 1976 when Glenn Pitcher of the Links Motorcycle Club in New York booked a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and threw an intimate cocktail party for a few friends visiting from the west coast. 

The Leather Cocktails tradition, still a core feature of the current MAL event, began when one of the members dropped his metal cock ring in the hotel bathroom. The sound became a humorous signal opening the festivities. 

The Centaurs took over Leather Cocktails in 1984 to keep the tradition alive and added the Sunday brunch, a Leather Exhibit hall and the Mr. MAL contest. 

“It’s great to see everybody and welcome new people,” Grady says, excitement filling his voice. “I’m a Pisces, so, I’m always emotional. People take bets to see how long it takes me to cry at Leather Cocktails.” 

He says the reason behind MAL and the Centaur’s longevity is despite this year’s expected 3,000-5,000 attendees it still feels like a group of friends getting together for the weekend.

“I think it’s a testament to the members themselves,” he says. “We have 31 current, all volunteers. We all enjoy each other. We enjoy hosting MAL for the masses.”

Most of the events take place at the host hotel and a schedule is available at leatherweekend.com. However, bars and clubs across the district such as Uproar, the Green Lantern and the D.C. Eagle will be hosting special MAL edition events as well.

“We are honored to be a part of such an exciting weekend,” says Miguel Ayala, marketing manager for the D.C. Eagle. “Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend has grown leaps and bounds over the years thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Centaur MC.” 

Staff there is anticipating their largest crowds ever and will have additional food trucks on hand as well as a shuttle running from the host hotel to the bar Thursday through Sunday. 

The Red Bear is relatively new to D.C., with only a few years of experience working MAL weekend. Cameron Raspet, the founder and director of operations, says he and his staff are expecting big crowds throughout D.C. and hope to have a significant turn out at their events which includes a leather-themed drag show. 

Two groups adding diversity to the festivities this year are the People of Color Kink and Leather Experience (POCKLE) and Sadie V, a PoC leather community. Both groups are hosting MAL queer/transgender people of color kinky queer events Friday and Saturday at the Hampton Inn.

Tyesha Best, curator and owner of the POCKLE Project and social media coordinator for International Mr. Leather Inc., is looking forward to this year’s events as well. 

“I think leather opens doors,” Grady says of the event’s expansion. “Because you find people with a common enjoyment and a common feel. I’ve always felt with leather communities everyone is easy to talk with, approachable, supportive and they look after each other as well.”

Each year MAL continues to grow, culminating in last year’s $100,000 donation to D.C. charities including HIPS and Casa Ruby. But Grady says Centaur members hope to maintain the warm feel of a small gathering of friends. 

“We don’t want to become another IMF,” he says of the larger leather organization MAL supports. “We want everyone to have a good time instead of getting lost in the crowd.”

Though Grady currently doesn’t have a partner to share the weekend with, he is looking forward to the arrival of an English friend he met at an Irish event as well as meeting thousands of friends new and old. 

Weekend jam-packed with piggybacking parties

Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Denis Largeron)

The Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend presented by the Centaur Motorcycle Club kicks off today at 4 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency (400 New Jersey Ave., N.W.). A full-weekend pass for this three-day event is $30. Friday only and Sunday only passes are $15 and passes for Saturday only are $20.

Most of the weekend’s official events take place at the Hyatt; however, other events and parties are also held at other venues around the city. Official events include Saturday evening Leather Cocktails, Sunday brunch, a Mr. MAL contest, a Leather Exhibit Hall and the Sunday night closing party. 

For a complete schedule and other details, visit leatherweekend.com.

Friday, Jan. 17

The Bear Happy Hour’s Leather Bear Party presented by D.C. Bear Crue is tonight from 5-10 p.m. at Uproar (639 Florida Ave., N.W.). Bears, otters and their furry friends are celebrated at this MAL weekend event. There is no cover charge, select drinks are $5 and free appetizers are handed out all night. Drink specials end at 10 p.m. Visit uproarlounge.com and Facebook events for details.

MIR at MAL: A Rubber Meet and Greet hosted by Mr. International Rubber is tonight from 7-10 p.m. at the MAL host hotel, Hyatt Regency (400 New Jersey Ave., N.W.). This cocktail party is an opportunity for rubber enthusiasts to meet, socialize and start the weekend off right. Part of the space will be black lit to show off colorized rubber wear. For more information, visit mirubber.com.

The Green Lantern (1335 Green Ct., N.W.) hosts Rough House: Leather Edition tonight at 9 p.m. This lights off, hands-on dance party features DJS offAxis, Lemz, Sean Morris and The Barber Streisand. Cover is $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 after with a free clothes check. More information is available at greenlanterndc.com.

Impact: Sauvage is a Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend kick-off party hosted by The Highwaymen TNT in the MAL host hotel at 10 p.m. TWiN spins the music until 3 a.m. for this MAL opening night event. Visit Facebook events for more information. 

Pervert: The Pleasure of Darkness is tonight at 10 p.m. at Karma D.C. (2221 Adams Place, N.W.). Tickets are $42 for this party featuring entertainment by DJ Cindel and Flavio Zarza. Hosts La Fantasy, Hilton Wolman Events and Matinee Group team up for this MAL weekend production. Visit seetickets.us/pervertdc for more information.

Furball D.C. hosted by the D.C. Eagle (3701 Benning Rd., N.E.) is tonight at 11:30 p.m. This MAL weekend kick off party offers a bus shuttle all night to the MAL host hotel as well as music by Dan De Leon. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. VIP tickets are $30. For more information, visit furballnyc.ticketleap.com.

Saturday, Jan. 18

Deviant (1348 H St., N.E.) hosts a circuit party and celebration for queer people of color in time for MLK and MAL weekend. This event sets things off tonight at 10 p.m. and features performances by Tryfe with special guest Mr. Maryland Leather 2020 “Sir Oya.” General admission is $30 and tickets are available at deviantevents.eventbrite.com.  

Spank, a hard-hitting all-night party presented by The Needle Exchange and Sequence, is tonight at 10 p.m. This event celebrates both the D.C. Leather weekend and the third anniversary of the D.C. Women’s March and features sets from DJ Lisa Frank, Juliana, Ash Lauryn and Juana with sounds by Grand Ancestor. The venue location will be sent to ticket holders on the day of the event. Visit bit.ly/SPANKDC for details.

Brut takes over the D.C. Eagle (3701 Benning Rd., N.E.) tonight at 10 p.m. DJs Dan Darlington and Morabito are set to spin NYC underground house music during this leather weekend party. Tickets start at $30 and are available at tickets.hedonicproductions.com. Find more information on this and other events at dceagle.com.

Sunday, Jan. 19

Harder, a hard tea dance party, is today from 3-9 p.m. at the U Street Music Hall (1115 U St., N.W.). This event recreates New York’s gay underground night scene with house music by Keenan Orr and Shaun J. Wright, an intimate space and a hardcore party crowd. Tickets start at $10 on bigneon.com. More information is available at ustreetmusichall.com.

Uproar’s (639 Florida Ave., N.W.) Sunday Beer Bust MAL edition kicks off today at 3 p.m. There is no cover for this event which includes a complimentary dinner buffet from 3-6 and the Beer Bust with DJ Mike Babbitt from 4-9. For more information on the venue and on Uproar’s first Daddy Night event, visit uproarlounge.com.

Sungay, an outdoor day party with leather aficionados, muscle boys, bears and more, runs today from 4-10 p.m. at Eden D.C. (1716 I St., N.W.). This party takes place at a multilevel nightclub to include three floors and an outdoor space equipped with patio heaters. DJs Jerac and Paulo Fagroso spin the music at this MAL weekend event. Visit seetickets.us for tickets and details.

JOX returns to the Green Lantern (1335 Green Ct., N.W.) tonight at 9 p.m. for a special MAL edition. This event features all-night drink specials, a $10 cover, music by DJ UltraPup and performances by the JOX boys. For details visit greenlanterndc.com.

Flashy Leather Edition hosted by Flashy Sundays (645 Florida Ave., N.W.) starts tonight at 10 p.m. The cover charge is $30 for this first Flashy event of 2020, celebrating both the MLK holiday and MAL weekend. Doors open at 10 p.m. with an extended bar until 4 a.m. TWiN and DJ Sean Morris will be spinning tunes on the main floor while DJ Mike Babbitt will be running the roof top all night long. Visit facebook.com/flashydc for details.

MAL Reaction Dance: The Official Closing Party of MAL is tonight at 8 p.m. at the 9:30 Club (815 V St., N.W.). Tickets are $35 in advance and $45 at the door. This intimate venue which launched hit makers like Lizzo plays host to the MAL weekend finale. For tickets and information, visit 930.com.

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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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