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With Crew Club closing, what’s the future of the gay bathhouse in D.C. and beyond?

Handful of major U.S. cities lack private sex clubs

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Even in 2020, no one the Blade contacted would go on the record to talk about their experiences at the Crew Club, the Washington gay gym and bathhouse that will end its 25-year run next month.

It wasn’t hard finding folks who went — the club near Logan Circle has always been popular. But attribution was hard to pin down.

“I would go occasionally. It was very hit or miss,” one Washington gay man said. “Going on a Saturday night around 2 a.m. could be insane on some nights though. Cute, tipsy out-of-town gays who were cute and fun. I had some crazy times in the sauna and steam room.”

It’s fair to say many gay and bi men in the region will miss the club. Owner DC Allen sold the building mid-2016 to a real estate developer, a deal that’s estimated to have netted them more than twice what they paid for it in 2003, according to city tax records. The 8,000-square-foot, two-story building was assessed at a value of more than $5 million for 2020, according to previous Blade reports. He cited the health of his partner and his own health (they’re 70 and 63 respectively) as the main reason they opted not to seek another location.

“We would not, at this point in time, be able to make our money back and I don’t know how we could retire if we had another business,” he said.

Allen, circumspect in a brief phone interview this week, declined to make any of his 15 employees available for comment.

He said hook-up apps like Scruff and Grindr did impact the business for “the next couple of years” after they took off, but things subsequently improved.

“Some of the more marginalized [gay bathhouses] went out of business, but the rest of us saw a regular amount of business after three-five years,” he said. “There was a correction.”

He said he kept no records on how many of his clientele were locals vs. out-of-towners. Upholding a “very strict policy for our clientele,” was of utmost importance, Allen said.

Skyrocketing real estate costs in major cities are threatening gay bathhouse culture as developers pounce on hot, valuable properties. (iStock photo by fotostorm)

So is the Crew Club’s closing a one-off or is the industry — which has been around in various forms since the Roman Empire — slowly becoming a thing of the past? A Guardian article from 2014 painted a picture of dwindling businesses and an industry that had its heyday in the ’70s. It claimed about 70 were in business at the time, down from about 200 in the disco era, figures current industry insiders say are roughly accurate.

And how likely is it that some other entrepreneur will eventually open another gay bathhouse here with Washington’s astronomical real estate prices and ongoing gentrification? Not to mention the lack of a Council member such as the late Jim Graham (who was gay) to help work through the red tape much as he did by gay businesses, such as Ziegfeld’s/Secrets, that were displaced more than a decade ago by Nationals Stadium?

Glorious Health Club (2120 West Virginia Ave., N.E.) survived the stadium invasion but was shuttered last March by the city for multiple building code violations. Its owners are hoping to open this month pending another inspection.

But it’s not the apps, overall gay mainstreaming or waning Millennial (or Gen Z) interest that is the biggest threat to U.S. gay bathhouses. The biggest issue, one long-time veteran of the industry says, is escalating real estate prices in metro areas that have enough gay population to sustain them.

Dennis Holding came out in 1971 and met Jack Campbell, who he says “pretty much was the founder” of The Club gay bathhouse chain, in 1972 in Cleveland. Holding became an investor that year in a gay bathhouse in Indianapolis (Club Indianapolis), which is still open, and has been in business for 47 years as an investor/partner. Today, he and others are behind gay bathhouses in three cities — Houston (Club Houston), Orlando (Club Orlando) and Miami (Club Aqua Miami). He’s also friendly with many others in the industry and says the situation in Washington, sadly, is not unusual.

“The greatest threat to the business is the cost of real estate and the old age of the owners,” he said by phone this week from his second home in Palm Springs. “What happened in D.C. is they couldn’t find a clear way for the operation to continue without them physically being involved and their capital, the bulk of their net worth was tied up in real estate. … I know of two or three other groups that have closed or seen their operations dwindle in the last five-seven years I guess in which the senior partner passes away and the shares end up sometimes in the hands of non-gay relatives — a sister, a brother, maybe a boyfriend, a boyfriend’s family, whatever, and they don’t quite know how to handle all of it. Their succession plans are very weak.”

Holding (who has his own succession plan in place) says in some cases a straight relative has continued a gay bathhouse business — he mentions a straight owner who formerly had clubs in Dallas, Austin and Milwaukee, who ran them for years but eventually decided to sell to hungry real estate developers rather than modernize or update the clubs.

“Sometimes it’s the right thing to do business wise,” Holding says. “He probably made about $6 million, they built an apartment house or two, and he moves to his hometown in California and has a nice, comfortable life. His kids had no interest in it and his father was about 95. There have been several situations like that where the real estate has just become so valuable.”

Holding says other clubs will likely see the same fate in time.

“I know of an operator who turned down $8 million for his real estate a month ago,” Holding says. “That’s the evil side of it, and it has nothing to do with the business.”

At the height of the app scare about seven years ago, gay bathhouse owners united to form the Men’s Sauna Association (gaybathhousesauna.com) aka the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA). The preferred industry word now, members say, is sauna. Bathhouse sounds seedy and dated, some say.

About 90 percent of gay bathhouses/saunas in the U.S. are members. They joined forces for several reasons — joint bargaining power with suppliers, to provide aid to new businesses getting the run-around from various municipalities not interested in “adult” businesses, to brainstorm how to make the apps work to their advantage and other matters of joint interest.

The industry, overall, is quite strong, says Tom Gatz-Nibbio, NABA executive director. All the major U.S. chains — Clubs (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Dallas, Columbus), Steamworks (Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle) and Midtowne Spa (Los Angeles, Denver) are members. He says the businesses that are doing the best are the ones whose owners have invested in serious remodeling.

“They’re really the industry leaders,” Gatz-Nibbio says. “The ones who have really stepped up and remodeled to provide a clean, safe environment.”

Holding agrees. He estimates annual U.S. revenue industry wide to be approaching $100 million. Club Houston just finished a major renovation a few months ago.

“Our slogan is ‘good clean fun,’” he says. Cleanliness is critical to the success of the business. And having what I call attractions in the play areas, the dark room — you need to have clever places to play but dirty, dank, smelly — that doesn’t work.”

Gatz-Nibbio scrolls mentally over the country, mentioning markets not yet referenced here. He knows of two in New York City (East Side Club, West Side Club) and says it’s odd there aren’t more in that market. He says private sex parties are more “a thing” there. One closed in Chicago, but another remains. There are two each in Detroit and Las Vegas. Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and San Diego each have one. Seattle has a Steamworks. One closed in Honolulu. There are none in San Francisco proper (the city outlawed them at the height of the AIDS crisis) but there is one nearby in Berkeley (Steamworks Berkeley) and another in San Jose (The Watergarden). Some exist in unexpected markets — Grand Rapids, Mich., (The Diplomat Club) and Colorado Springs, Colo. (Buddies Private Club).

Washington could soon join Boston and New Orleans as major U.S. cities lacking one. Prohibitive real estate costs, especially anywhere near the French Quarter, have prevented anything from blossoming there, Gatz-Nibbio says.

Holding says the apps turned out to be more of a hiccup than any serious disruption.

“We felt it at first until people started realizing going into a stranger’s home or having a stranger into your home isn’t always the smartest thing to do,” he says. “And people started to wake up to the false advertising. You’re expecting a 6 foot, 2 blonde hunk but the real thing at the door is not that.”

Gatz-Nibbio says some apps are working with the saunas in joint partnerships. Squirt, for example, was at the last NABA convention and is partnering on an initiative.

Gay bathhouse industry professionals at the NABA 2019 National Convention in Orlando last September. (Photo courtesy NABA)

December was a record month for Holding in Houston and Miami. He’s friendly with the owner of Club Dallas, which he says is also booming.

“It might have slowed growth a little, but we never lost money,” he says.
A much bigger scare years ago, of course, was AIDS.

“The day Rock Hudson died, our business fell off about 40, 50 percent,” Holding says.

Working with area health departments, offering testing in the clubs and, of course, later the advances of protease inhibitors helped things rebound.

“We never stopped being profitable,” he says. “We just cut a lot of expenses. We ran with less labor, which was a big factor, we just tightened our belts. I remember the first meeting after we realized we’d just been really walloped, but we just tightened our belts. We had limited profitability, then good profitability within four to five years, I guess.”

Escorting and prostitution were never big problems, Holding says. Most members reported them to staff if they were propositioned. Police usually were happy to work with them.

He says a police squad in Dallas was known to be overzealous in previous years.

“They thought we were just a den of iniquity,” he says with a chuckle. “But it was mainly about drugs. They liked to break down doors and have mass arrests but eventually we convinced them not to be stupid about it and we’d work with them.”

Drugs, he says, are a constant issue. A list of barred patrons is kept for those who violate the policy. Too rigorous a bag or body check at the door deters customers, he says.

In other ways, police liked having the businesses there, he says.

“They like it because if they catch somebody in a park or public place, they can say, ‘Get out of here you asshole, you know there’s a place you can go for that.’ That’s basically been their attitude. It’s not warm and friendly, but they like it that there’s a place in town you can go for that and that’s fine by us. That’s the way it should be.”

Holding never kept records of how many of his clients were semi-local to each business vs. out of town. If local is a 40-mile radius, he guesses the majority are local if for no other reason than the business tends to do well with repeat consumers. It’s an older crowd in the daytime, and owners cater to them.

Not everyone is there for sex, he says. The music and lighting changes after 6 p.m., when the working-age crowd tends to come. Get them in once — for an open house, a guest visit or whatever — and if the club is clean and well run, they’ll be back, he says.

Holding knows of no horror stories of anti-gay city bureaucracies holding up entrepreneurs. He’s never heard of a citizen petition movement against a pending gay bathhouse. A business association his Orlando property was seeking to join many years ago was headed by two lesbians who took issue with the no women policy, but that eventually blew over. He can recall no major pushback from LGBT activist organizations that have sometimes painted heteronormative pictures of gay life to conservative constituents.

Allen says one change he noticed over the years was how credit card use spiked from roughly 20 percent in his early years in business to about 70-80 percent today.

“What that means is people no longer have a fear of being gay, they don’t really care,” Allen says. “That confidence and that freedom is from 40 years of activism.”

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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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