SUNOL, Calif. (KGO) -- Wedding season is winding down - or it would be if these were normal times. After the pandemic hit, thousands of weddings had to be canceled. It meant broken hearts, marriages on hold, elaborate plans blown away.
On top of everything, couples paid big money up front. Now, some can't get it back.
Among them are couples who planned dream weddings at two idyllic Bay Area hideaways. They'd been captivated by the venues' natural splendor and rustic charm.
Just as wedding season was rolling out, so did the coronavirus and shelter-in-place rules -- making such gatherings impossible, illegal, not to mention a health risk for hundreds of guests.
Now couples who fell in love with those magical venues are bitterly fighting them, unable to get some of their payments back.
"Our money is gone," said Cathleene DeGuzman of Milpitas, wiping tears as she recalled how her wedding day quietly passed by. "They're keeping it. I can't even look forward to another time it can happen."
Careful, elaborate planning began a year ago, or more -- certainly before anyone could have predicted a pandemic could stop everything. They had toured the venues, Nella Terra Cellars - a boutique winery in the rolling hills of Sunol, and Nestldown, a lush retreat set amid towering redwoods on 30-plus acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Los Gatos.
Five couples who signed contracts with the venues told their stories of heartbreak to ABC7.
DeGuzman and her fiancé Brian Nicolas had fallen in love with Nella Terra Cellars during a tour nearly 18 months ago.
"The gardens were very beautiful and luscious," DeGuzman recalled. "They had a grand staircase going down the vineyard. I could already imagine myself walking down it."
Cynthia Severn of Hayward and her fiancé Matt Van Derwerken also chose Nella Terra. "It was very beautiful... like in our backyard. Both our families are from Fremont... a couple exits down the freeway."
"It was very beautiful and very secluded," said Danielle Chess of San Francisco. She and her fiancé Josh Talley also were enamored with Nella Terra's quiet, natural beauty.
"We could totally picture our big day being there," Talley said.
For two other couples, the perfect place was Nestldown.
"The redwood cathedral is so incredibly gorgeous," said Tamar Pacheco-Theard of Oakland. She and her fiancé Long Phan signed a contract with Nestldown.
"Trees, flowers everywhere," said Deborah Yim of Sunnyvale, who planned to marry fiancé Charles Seo at Nestldown. "It had everything we wanted."
The couples were intrigued by the pristine natural beauty of Nestldown, a vast private estate owned by the Beck family in Los Gatos. The 35 acres strewn with orchards, ponds and horse pastures, set around a redwood forest. The vast acreage looks mostly unspoiled but for whimsical additions: a metal dragon flying in the trees, a fairytale playhouse, life-size chess set, fantastical creatures carved in the wood.
"I just fell in love with how enchanting and magical it was, just how it was so in tune with nature," Pacheco-Theard said.
"We knew right away that was the place we wanted to get married at," Seo said. "It was a little out of our budget but we said you know what, we're having a wedding, we may as well do it right."
"We had about 160 people coming," Chess said. "We had a band so lots of dancing... I was so excited about something I'd dreamed about since I was a girl, marrying my best friend here, so I wanted it to be as special as possible."
"Here's my guest list, all 250 people," DeGuzman said, flipping through a thick binder of lists, maps and drawings. "These are my bridesmaids, our groomsmen. Here's Brian's drawing of his suit."
"We'd have the dance in the barn, ride their miniature train to the cocktail hour," Pacheco-Theard said of her plans at Nestldown. "We had people coming from all over."
The couples signed contracts, paid thousands of dollars up front. And in March, the pandemic hit. Everything stopped.
"Early on, everyone was trying to figure out what this means," Talley said.
"The county started shutting everything down," Phan said. "Nestldown didn't respond when we asked what this means for our wedding. They said wait and see what happens. But, how can you plan?"
COVID-19 was spreading, the state locking down, large gatherings suddenly restricted.
"They said they could still have the wedding but practice social distancing," Yim said of Nestldown's initial response. "Everyone six feet apart. That isn't what we envisioned for our day."
"Nella Terra hasn't told us anything," Severn said of the venue's initial response. "Except they've ordered more hand washing stations."
"It's unfair to ask guests okay, thanks for coming, please sit six feet apart," she added. " ... And please don't hug us."
"We didn't like the idea of putting guests in jeopardy," Pacheco-Theard said. "Like if they come, would they be exposed, and what are they bringing in to the venue?"
"Would people all have to have their temperature taken, wear masks, six feet apart, how would everyone eat?" she added.
"You started to realize this wasn't going to happen," Talley said.
"We don't even think Alameda County would allow a gathering of 100-plus people," Severn said.
"Finally when this day was supposed to come... it couldn't happen," DeGuzman said.
The pandemic made their events impossible to hold -- and yet, the venues were still holding their money.
"Totaling about $21,000," DeGuzman said.
She and Nicolas had already paid the $8,500 deposit, plus $13,000 in second payments ahead of their planned May 23 wedding at Nella Terra.
"Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money," Seo said of the deposit he and Yim paid to Nestldown.
And to the shock of the couples, both venues refused to return those deposits, pointing to "no refund" clauses in their contracts.
The venues said they are small businesses and needed to pay their 2020 expenses, and be ready to roll in new clients next year. One email from Nella Terra to DeGuzman and other couples said:
"We know this is not ideal but as a small business we would not be able to stay in operation without it. We understand this may feel like a penalty but 2020 revenue goes towards 2020 operational costs, insurance, taxes, payroll, etc. We need to have 2021 revenue to be able to account for those forecasted costs in 2021. All of your 2nd payment will roll over toward the new booking. "
"They kept saying they needed our money to keep their business afloat," DeGuzman said. "They have our money and we got nothing in return."
"We're not in the business of donating money to a winery," Severn said.
The venues offered instead small, socially-distanced weddings or future week-day weddings, even Zoom weddings, but all at the same basic price as the full-fledged events called for in the contract. Nella Terra added they could have a future weekend, but only in the mornings, with a "luncheon" after.
"That's not what we paid for," Severn said. "I don't want a morning wedding."
"We'd have to get up at 5 a.m. to get ready," Van Derwerken said.
"And then be out by 2 p.m. with another wedding coming behind us," Severn said. "That's not what we wanted."
"We don't want a Monday to Thursday wedding," Talley said. "It isn't what we paid for. People can't travel in the middle of the week."
"We paid a significant amount of money to have a Friday wedding" at Nestldown, Phan said. "Now we're only being offered a Monday to Wednesday wedding which doesn't work for us."
"We said 'okay then, we'd like a refund,'" Chess said, of her negotiations with Nella Terra.
"They said absolutely not, they're not going to give us a penny back," Talley said.
"They said just consider your 2020 deposit as vanished," Severn said of the Nella Terra response. "They have our savings. Our wedding savings."
"We could cancel, yes, but if we did that we couldn't get our deposit back," Pacheco-Theard said of Nestldown.
The couples asked to move their weddings to another weekend next year. But both venues said they would charge the couples thousands of dollars more on top of this year's fees. Both venues said they planned to book new clients on those prime dates next year and could not just give them "free" to this year's couples.
Nestldown said it would charge the couples 40 percent more on top of this year's fees for a weekend next year.
Nella Terra would charge up to $9,000 more for a weekend date next year.
"They're asking for $9,000 more to rebook next year," DeGuzman said. "I don't know where to get $9,000."
"What's wild to me is they're asking for ten grand," Pacheco-Theard said of Nestldown.
"It was hurtful to see they were taking new customers before they took care of this year's couples," Severn said.
"We thought they'd be understanding, like yeah it's a pandemic, let's just void the contract and go our separate ways," Seo said. "They were unwilling."
"It's to the point where we can't exchange our vows there (Nella Terra) anymore," Talley said wistfully. "We just want our refund and to go our separate ways."
The couples all filed complaints with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office, which asked the venues to respond, but took no further action. In its reply to couples, Becerra's office said it would retain the complaints in case of future legal action.
The couples also contacted 7 On Your Side.
"They have your money and you have to come and get it," said consumer attorney Robert Tauler, who said he has represented brides and grooms in Southern California, but is not involved in these cases.
He said he believes couples whose weddings could not happen due to the pandemic are entitled to full refunds since the venues could not lawfully carry out the contracts. He cites legal doctrines of "impossibility of performance" and "frustration of purpose."
"The venues themselves are incapable legally of hosting the events," Tauler said. "That's one mechanism we've been able to use to allow couples really to get their money back."
He believes brides and grooms are not required to accept the limited alternatives offered by the venues which he says tend to serve the interests of the businesses.
Nella Terra and Nestldown don't see it that way. Though neither agreed to an on-camera interview, both say couples could have accepted other options without further costs, such as the weekday weddings, the morning weddings, smaller events, or Zoom weddings. Both said they negotiated new terms with other clients and the vast majority of couples were pleased with the alternative arrangements.
Nella Terra said: "Unfortunately, there is no refund for a cancellation of an event per clause 5 in the contract.""We are in discussions and partnering on potential resolutions with a small percentage of clients who have yet to confirm a new date for their celebrations..."Here at Nella Terra Cellars we pride ourselves on customer service and it is our focus to make sure our clients are happy for their special celebrations."Nella Terra Cellars is excited to reopen our doors and get back to business. It is not impossible for us to service our clients and perform contractual obligations forever. We have a phased reopening plan in place that will allow us to deliver on all contractual obligations, at a later date..."
Nella Terra did agree to give back the couples' second payments, but is keeping their deposits of $8,500 for Saturday weddings, and $6,000 for the Friday weddings.
Nestldown owners Barbara and Mark Beck said their family-owned venue only makes enough to break even -- although the business did obtain a PPP loan up to $350,000 to cover expenses and payroll as part of the taxpayer-funded pandemic relief effort to help small businesses.
The owners said in an email:
"Our small operation has been hit hard by this pandemic. We are one of many small businesses struggling to pay our employees and to keep our business open."
The Becks also wanted to emphasize that the unique Nestldown property has been in the family for decades and has become a beloved venue for local nonprofits to visit -- in particular for children's events. In addition to weddings, they rent Nestldown for corporate retreats.
The Becks said:
"We purchased what is now Nestldown over 30 years ago to raise our family. During the years we lived there, we developed the gardens, cleared under the redwood forests, and added all the whimsical features it now has. When we moved to town, our children asked us not to sell the property. We had four requirements (including)... Ensure that the revenue allows us to break even."
However it meant couples are out thousands of dollars, as their wedding days slipped by.
"I've been waiting for this day for my whole life," DeGuzman said.
She and Nicolas would have been married on May 23. Instead, the sounds of horns and cheers erupted outside their Milpitas home.
It was a drive-by.
"Happy coronavirus wedding day," a friend sang out the window as the stereo played the sounds of wedding bells.
Dozens of friends and family members in cars festooned with balloons and streamers drove steadily past as the couple stood linked on the sidewalk.
"We love you!" came the shouts from slowly passing cars.
"It was a beautiful day... it made us feel better," DeGuzman said.
A neighbor asked what the fuss was about.
"We were supposed to be married today!" Nicolas shouted.
"June 6th will always be a difficult day for us," Chess said of the date she and Talley would have been married. "We spent it together... and just kept thinking of what we'd be doing at each moment. Oh, I'd be walking down the aisle with my father at my side, my best friend waiting at the other end... We'd taken dance lessons. So we did our dance."
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.