Sonoma County winemaker Katy Wilson talks hiring challenges, favorite wine style, industry stigmas, new motherhood

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

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.

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.

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.

We have a business that is doing well and we don’t need it to be huge. If we were to grow, I would be spending more and more time on sales and other aspects of the business, which would take me away from the winemaking.

I am always an optimist when it comes to our economy and its ability to bounce back. I started my business in 2009 when many people were telling me that I was crazy to do so. It was a tough time, but through hard work and perseverance I was able to succeed.

With being so small, I am also able to spend my time focusing on my consulting business. I currently work with four wineries and over 50 different vineyards. I would love to continue to grow with my current clients and take on new clients as well.

I love making wine for other people and exploring different styles of winemaking with different varieties. I make over 20 different grape varieties and I am constantly learning something new. It keeps everything very fresh and exciting and I think that I am a better winemaker because of it. I think that it makes LaRue better as well.

Does making wine for Sonoma County artisanal wineries Anaba Wines, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars take away from being able to expand LaRue?

I love that I have consciously designed my career in such a way that allows me to get to do what I love and work with a diverse range of vineyards, varietals and people.

My decision to keep LaRue at 500 cases is not reactionary to my consulting work, but rather an intentional decision from the very beginning that allows me to ensure that each LaRue wine I produce gets the personalized attention that I intended when I founded LaRue more than 10 years ago.

Between the four wineries you make 60 wines using 18 varietals sourced from more than 50 vineyards across Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Which is your favorite to make and which is your favorite to drink?

That’s like having to pick your favorite kid!

Generally speaking, I am drawn toward wines that beautifully articulate an unmistakable expression of where they come from, which is why I’m particularly fond of chardonnay and pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast. This region constantly has fog rolling in and out of the vineyards, which allows for slower ripening and also allows the grapes to better retain acid through the ripening. The result is bright and crisp wines with great aroma and freshness.

I would say that of all of the varieties that I work with, pinot noir is the most difficult to make and it is also what I am most known for. Pinot is such a finicky variety and requires a lot of attention.

What are you doing to attract employees? How has recruitment changed since the start of the pandemic?

For LaRue, I do not hire employees.

For my client Anaba Wines, I am a part of the hiring for our cellar staff. This is where I make LaRue and wine for some of my other clients as well.

We have worked very hard to create a great working environment at our winery. We had a post-harvest meeting this past year where we got some feedback about what we could be doing better.

One of the biggest things that we heard from our employees is that they want to learn more and be more involved with the details of what we are doing in the cellar and why, as well as what is coming down the pipeline. I thought that was great feedback.

We are now doing monthly production meetings where we are talking about what is coming up and where people can ask questions about why we are doing certain things. We are also doing quarterly field trips that are premised on learning; it could be a visit to our vineyards or to our label printer.

We have also added comparative tastings every other month. I think that keeping everyone engaged and making sure that they don’t feel like a cog in the wheel does make a difference for the staff and the retention.

Since the pandemic, the biggest impact that we have had is during harvest. We typically hire three to five people from out of the country for harvest. The past few years there have not been visas available and it has been very difficult for us to find the staff for harvest. We even had my dad driving forklift for us for three weeks this past harvest because we were so short staffed.

Are wages the answer to recruiting great talent?

After working in this industry for more than 20 years, I can confidently say that most don’t get into the business of wine growing, wine making and wine business for the money.

So, in speaking specifically about the wine industry, I don’t think that increased wages is the silver bullet answer to recruiting great talent. I think that on a macro-level, our industry needs to work to improve and champion diversity inclusion on all levels - gender, race, and ethnicity.

If you could change one government regulation, what would it be and why?

I would get rid of the three-tier system for alcohol. It is a result of the end of Prohibition, and it does not serve the industry at all. It makes it very difficult to be a small business. It is basically like dealing with 50 different countries when it comes to selling wine across the country.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to being located in the North Bay and doing business here?

I love being in the North Bay. It is such a great climate and it is an area that people travel to from all over the world to go on vacation! As I mentioned above, the main drawback is the cost of living and being able to have a staff that can afford to live here.

What is your approach to making tough/important business decisions?

In all my business decisions, the No. 1 priority that I assess first is the affect the decision will have on wine quality. The quality of the wines that I am making is always the most important thing. I analyze all aspects of the decision and take my time in pondering what makes the most sense. I do not like to rush into anything or make quick decisions.

What qualities in other executives do you try to emulate?

The qualities that I most admire in other executives are strong leadership with the ability to have people want to follow them. I think that integrity is very admirable as well. It is so easy to just do what is best for you, but when you see a leader who does what is right, but might be at a cost to themselves, it shows a lot of character.

How have your mentors impacted your career?

I have had so many amazing winemakers in my life that I have learned from and who have helped me out along the way.

I have also had a few wonderful people in my life who are not winemakers, but who I really look up to and who have taught be so much about moving forward in my career and running a business.

They have helped to guide me along the way and I don’t think that I would be where I am today without them.

What was the hardest lesson you learned early in your career that you now recognize as an important one?

I think that it would be not standing up for or advocating for myself as much as I could have earlier on in my career, particularly in matters of compensation and promotions.

While I try to live my life without any regrets, in hindsight, me not being more assertive and asking for what I deserved — for what my male counterparts were earning without even asking — I was letting the cycle continue.

I recognize that now and I hope that by sharing my lessons along the way, I can in some small way help encourage future women in wine to always know their worth.

What advice would you give someone just starting his or her career in the wine industry?

My advice to someone just starting a career in this industry is to become an expert in your craft. Take the time to learn as much as you can early on and never lose that spirit of continuing to grow and learn. I think that our culture makes us feel like we need to rush through experiences, but winemaking is a process that can’t be rushed. I’ve spent my fair share of harvests shoveling tanks and even time pouring in tasting rooms.

I think it is important to spend time doing each step in order to have a full understanding of the business and to effectively manage and communicate to your teams, partners and colleagues across all levels, from the vineyard to the boardroom.

What would you re-do in your career if you could?

I don’t typically look back with regret. It is not my style! I am sure there were things that I could have done differently, but then I might not have ended up where I am now. Sometimes the hard experiences shape you into who you are as well. You may have wished they didn’t happen, but you might not be who you are then.

What was your first job? What was your first career job?

My first job in the industry was working on a 1,000-acre vineyard in the Central Valley the summer after my freshman year at (California Polytechnic State University) in 2002. I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for minimum wage with no overtime — which was legal for farmworkers.

It was definitely a tough job, especially in the 100-plus degree heat of the Central Valley. I have huge respect and admiration for all of the farmworkers that we depend on in California, not only in the wine industry, but also throughout all areas of agriculture.

When I finished working the season, I knew I was on the right path. Even with the hard work, I was just as passionate as ever about wine and excited for my next step.

When you were a child, teenager, even in college, is this the job you thought you would have one day? What from your childhood was a clear sign you would one day have an executive leadership position?

Growing up my family owned a hay-hauling business as well as a walnut orchard. From an early age I witnessed firsthand the hard work and gratification that comes with owning your own business.

My parents constantly encouraged me to follow my dreams and that I could accomplish most anything if I set my mind to it. I felt empowered from an early age that one day, I, too, could work for myself and own my own business.

At the time I didn’t know what that business would look like, but I knew that I wanted something I could call my own one day. In college, as I set my sights on a career in winemaking, it was only natural for me to center my senior project around writing a business plan for starting my own winery. Just four years later, I started LaRue Wines using that very same business plan.

The name of your winery, LaRue Wines, comes from your great-grandmother Veona LaRue. Tell us a little about her and memories you have of her.

My great-grandmother was strong, bold, and independent and lived to be 98 years old. She always told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life and not to let anyone tell me otherwise.

I have kept her spirit of hard work and determination with me in every step of my career.

CEO Spotlight

In this monthly series, the Business Journal talks with who occupy the lofty spot in a local organization, asking about their professional and personal opportunities and challenges.

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