Sonoma County winemaker Katy Wilson talks hiring challenges, favorite wine style, industry stigmas, new motherhood
Even after being in the wine industry for 20 years, Katy Wilson still finds herself working in a world where people are surprised to discover she is the boss.
Mostly it’s her gender, while part of the reaction is also to her age — 39.
Wilson started the boutique winery LaRue Wines in Sebastopol in 2009. In addition to being LaRue’s winemaker, she is also the winemaker at three other wineries.
In the last year she added the role of mother to her list of jobs. She is still adjusting to being a working mom, admitting she feeling the internal and external pressures to be a great mom and winemaker.
Not only does Wilson have a college degree in wine and viticulture, but she also has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.
“They are surprised when I know how to do cost accounting,” Wilson said. “They are surprised I know about the financial side as well as the wine.”
“They” are the men in the world of wine who she says still aren’t accustomed to the owner and winemaker being a woman of power who can talk all things wine and business.
“It’s important to make men around you to be aware of what they are saying and doing to help make the change,” Wilson said in how she tries to abolish the negative stereotypes that are still inherent in winemaking.
Excerpts below are from questions asked of Wilson via email and in an interview.
What are the main challenges of working in a male-dominated industry?
I have experienced challenges along the way as a female in a largely male-dominated industry and I have also been championed and supported by many male counterparts within the industry as well.
When I was starting out in the industry as a harvest intern, I had to work harder than any man who had my same experience level and knowledge. And even today as an established winemaker — and now mother — I still feel as though I have got something to prove.
As the industry continues to advocate for women in wine and more women are promoted into lead winemaking roles, I want to inspire open and honest conversations about the stigmas that still weigh down women in winemaking and work toward normalizing the notion that a woman can be an exceptional winemaker and a present working mother. It is an issue that is rarely addressed in industry conversations or media coverage, but one that many female winemakers privately wrestle with.
What trends that affect the wine industry keep you up at night?
I often find myself thinking about sustainability in our industry. Not only the sustainability of our vineyards and lands, but also of all of the inputs that go into making wine — glass, corks, etc. With climate change, we are seeing more extremes in our area. Wildfires and drought are now things that we deal with regularly.
Between climate change and the increase in the cost of everything, it is concerning if we will be able to keep going on as we have.
Will we be able to get supplies such as glass and corks in the future?
Will we be able to have a workforce in the vineyards that can afford to live in the area?
Will we be able to continue to do all of the hand work in our vineyards to keep quality or will there be continued pressure to move to machine work?
We are seeing a rise in the cost of living in our area, so I also think about the sustainability of the people who work in the winery and in our vineyards. I want the people working with us to be able to live in the area that they work and have a good quality of life.
That is becoming more and more difficult. I think about what we can do to work through all of these changes while still maintaining quality.
I think we need to continue to be accepting of affordable housing, of putting up apartment complexes instead of single-family homes. It is hard, too, because Sonoma County is a vacation spot, but this is also where people have their second or third home, or rent their homes as an Airbnb. It’s harder and harder for the everyday person to live in our county.
Where will your business and industry be in the next five years?
For LaRue Wines, I want to keep it around 500 cases, which is where production is currently. At this level, my husband (David Meneses) and I are able to do most of the work ourselves.
And if we were to grow, then we would need to hire more people and we would not be able to do everything that we love to do that makes LaRue what it is — a wine that comes from our hearts.