When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Here, we have a California celebration that feels very far away from our current moment of insulation. We spoke with Barbara Finnegan, a special-ed teacher, and James Endicott, a wine importer and founder of Vinocity Selections, who married in the wine community of Los Alamos. It was a circa-1880s gold-rush venue (which the bride possibly manifested through a visualization exercise). There were confetti cannons at the ceremony, strozzapreti served at dinner, and two separate guest mishaps with weed cookies throughout the night.
Barbara: We met on Tinder when we were both living in New York City, in 2015. But on our third date, he told me he was moving to Venice Beach and I was like, “Oh shit.”
James: I think I just said, “You’re going to move out here with me, right?” And that was the way we got engaged, too. We were sitting in the back of a U-Haul at Burning Man, and I was able to see my life from a very far distance, see previous lifetimes and future lifetimes, and I know it sounds crazy, but I saw Barbara with me for many of them. Like, “Oh yeah, we’ve done this before.”
Barbara: It was 105 degrees. He just looked at me and was like, “So do you want to get married and have kids?” I was like, “Wait, what?” And then I was like, “Yeah!” And then he started crying and then I started crying. That was it.
James: We struggled to find a venue. We looked at spaces online and in person, and nothing was resounding. I knew of this town, Los Alamos, a wine community, and I said, “Let’s go up and stay in this town and have brunch and not think about the wedding for a day.” And we saw 1880 Union Hotel — it only has eight rooms — and were like, oh. This is it.
Barbara: The Old West feel of it was just gorgeous. It was built in 1880, hence the name, and it used to be a hotel for the Wells Fargo transit line. It was really stunning in and of itself — the only décor we decided to add were a eucalyptus garland and some bouquets of red cockscomb, baby’s breath, and more eucalyptus on the tables, plus photos of our grandparents. Back on our first date, at Death and Co. in the East Village, we were sitting at the bar and I was telling him how close I was to my grandparents, that I have a necklace of my grandpa’s thumbprint. He didn’t say anything, just spun around in his chair and lifted up his shirt and …
James: I had recently gotten my grandfather’s thumbprint tattooed on my back, like six inches tall and four inches wide. It was that moment, a key in a lock. Check. “I hear you, universe.”
Barbara: Way before we even saw the 1880 Union Hotel, a friend led me through a visualization exercise where I closed my eyes and pictured what I wanted, and I’d pictured being high above everybody at the party — our 80 guests — while James and I said our vows.
James: And it turned out the hotel had a balcony.
Barbara: When we toured the 1880, I asked if anyone had done the ceremony up there — because they have a grassy area with a full gazebo where all of the ceremonies are usually held — and Aly at the 1880 said no but that we could make it work. She was awesome in planning it.
James: The idea that I didn’t have pants two days before the event could have stressed some people out. I understand that. I knew it was going to work out. I went to Etro, and all the guys were really helpful — they knew that I had a deadline, and they nailed it. They got me the jacket tailored two days before, or maybe it was the pants two days before, and then gave me a pocket square for the wedding. They were amazing to work with. The glasses, Barbara got me those on our fifth date or something. She still didn’t even know me that well! I’ve had them on ever since.
Barbara: For me, I liked the idea of a short wedding gown because of the Guns n’ Roses “November Rain” video. I found this two-piece dress by Dreamers & Lovers; I loved the buttons on it, and I’ve just always shown my midriff. I loved that it was traditional but not too traditional. And I wanted a side braid. I don’t know why I was stuck on that. There’s something magical about long braids. But I have curly hair that won’t grow past my shoulders, so I worked with a woman, Jasmine, at Spa Elan in Los Olivos to add hair pieces for fullness and length. I wanted mermaid hair. Meanwhile, James didn’t even have socks the day of the wedding — he borrowed my friend Ted’s socks.
James: One of my best friends, a guy named Aaron Von Rock, officiated. He’s taught me a lot about wine and life, and he’s been a very good friend for a very long time. We call him the Reverend Dr. Doctor because he’s an ordained minister in two or three different orthodoxies and has married so many people. He’s the go-to officiant for the group of friends, and he takes it incredibly seriously. We filled out a questionnaire.
Barbara: We wrote our own vows, and I wanted mine to be about growing together, not holding anybody to anything, and always maintaining the gratitude that we found each other. We started the ceremony during the cocktail hour — our wedding director came over and let me and my family, and James and his parents, know it was time. We went to the back of the yard and outside a gate while we waited for the music — the Beatles’ “Two of Us” — to cue. My dad walked me down and handed me off to James. I got so nervous! I don’t know, it became very symbolic. I’m really close to my family, and they were handing me off. It was like, “Shit’s getting real.” Then we went inside and ran upstairs. Tricky in that dress! Then Aaron announced us onto the balcony.
James: I was in tears from the minute Barbara started talking. I couldn’t read my vows anyway, because I was crying, so I just threw them away and tried to make some shit up. I don’t recommend that.
Barbara: Holy shit, he just crumpled up his vows and threw them. He was just speaking from the heart. I don’t know if he knew what he was saying, but it was amazing. Friends set off confetti cannons after we kissed, timed with the Flaming Lips song “Race for the Prize” starting to play. From there, it was back to happy hour in the shared hangout space, right under the balcony. There were also people inside, near another bar. Hors d’oeuvres were served.
James: It was drinks, cheese, and charcuterie, and then the passed hors d’oeuvres were pumpkin dumplings with a dashi ginger broth, like steamed dumplings in a pouch, Korean-style. Then mini lobster rolls, a tomato gazpacho, something with duck, even though Barbara is really against eating cute animals. The venue has a really talented chef. I was in the restaurant business the first half of my life, and I used to work at Per Se in New York, and I called up chefs I used to work with and then presented the 1880 catering chef with, “This is what I really like, can you do these things?” And she ponied up.
Barbara: My friend Ace Reider was the DJ. Wedding music is on a fine line, because you want the hits that get everybody to dance but we also didn’t want all the cheesy stuff. Ace had a range to keep people on the floor — he made the Sinatra happen for my dad — but also played funky stuff. Our first dance was to the Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize?”
James: For dinner, we tried to make sure that we had a little something for everybody. We had wild salmon, prime rib, and a strozzapreti with mushrooms. I chose the vendors and purveyors of the food for the reception and rehearsal dinner, which seems totally nitpicky: Morro Bay for still-dripping seawater oysters, Finley Farms for veggies, Motley Crew Ranch for duck. I said, “We’re only going to serve organic, we’re only going to serve from local farms.” Total pain in the ass, food-snob bougie.
Barbara: Dinner was served family-style, while James and I sat at a sweetheart table facing everybody. One of James’s main dudes ate a medicated cookie, and when he stood up to give the speech, it kicked in and he couldn’t talk and you could tell. It was pretty funny. At one point, one of my neighbors ate a pot cookie and went to the hospital because she thought she was having a heart attack.
James: Somebody came up and told me, and I said, “She’s going to be fine.” I went over to her and said, “Listen, you’re going to be fine.” She said: “But it’s my heart!” The paramedics showed up and were like, “We really … you really don’t … you’re going to be fine.” They were laughing about it, too, but she really wanted to go to the hospital. So they took her. I saw her over the holidays; we had a good laugh about it. I think that could also be the mark of a successful party.
Barbara: James got a saguaro cactus cake, because I’m from Arizona originally and have a saguaro tattoo. This was another thing he did last-minute — ordered a few days before! — and I was freaking out. I love him, but yeah, he does everything late. And there was a carrot cake, both really good.
James: There wasn’t a specific after-party, but —
Barbara: We all moved inside into a living room space and everyone just hung out around these beautiful couches. It’s so hard when you’re planning and you think, “Maybe we should have just eloped.” But at that moment, sitting with everybody — you’re marrying the person you love so much, and then you get everybody around you to dance and drink and party, and it’s just great. It was perfect.