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Breaking Into The Boy's Club: How Katy Wilson Became A Winemaker To Watch

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Six miles from the Sonoma Coast, LaRue grapes are just starting to sweeten. In one week, Katy Wilson will carefully choose the grapes that will eventually become her world-class Pinot Noir.


“It is one of the most finicky grapes to grow and make wine with, because it’s very temperamental,” says Wilson. “With picking decisions, one day can make a difference. It is a very versatile grape, it has so many expressions and it is such a challenge.”

Only 10% of the more than 4,000 wineries in California have a woman as lead winemaker, and of those wineries only 4% boast a female as its owner. Wilson is a standout in that regard. Not only does she hold the title of lead winemaker for Anaba Wines, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars, she owns every aspect of LaRue.

SWAAY got a chance to speak with Wilson about her journey, her wine label, adjacent business ventures and the impact of being a female in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry.

The Road To Winemaker

Wilson has known that she wanted to work in the wine industry since she was 18 years old. Influenced by her childhood of working on her father’s small walnut orchard, Wilson attended Cal-Poly for Agricultural Business. During her freshman year, she attended a seminar on the breadth of the agriculture industry. Once wine was mentioned, everything clicked. “It is farming, but it’s a lot of chemistry and it’s creative,” says Wilson.

Katy Wilson

She then added a Viticulture major to her track, graduated and traveled for 2 and a half years working harvests all over the world. By working vineyards in California, New Zealand and Australia, she was able to learn and absorb her craft all while developing her passion.

In 2008, she became enologist at the remote Flowers Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast and began to fall in love not only with the land that would eventually bare her own grapes, but with the complexities of making Pinot Noir. “It was in the middle of nowhere, so in that time I really focused on learning and absorbing as much as I could,” says Wilson. “I learned everything, that’s all I did. I learned about the soil, the process of winemaking, I was trying to immerse myself completely.”

Her intensity paid off, and she soon became assistant winemaker at Flowers. Her rapport with Flower’s lead winemaker Ross Cobb greatly influenced her eventual brand - complex tastes with an intuitive, restrained approach.

Wilson left Flowers and began at Kamen in 2009 to diversify her winemaking portfolio. Working at Kamen was an absolute shift from the wineries she was coming from, “I wanted to expand my knowledge of winemaking and learn from a winemaker who was the opposite of me,” she says.

Building LaRue

This September will mark Wilson’s tenth harvest for LaRue, which she began when she was 26 and working full-time as associate winemaker at Kamen. Along with the job offer, proprietor Robert Kamen provided her the ability to make her own wine at his facility. Shortly after, Cobb offered to share the grapes from his vineyard.

“I thought, I’m 26, I’m not going to be doing that anytime soon. Then I was offered some amazing vineyards. [Cobb] told me, I think you should start your own winery. So, I had this fruit I knew was great, I had a place to make it and I already had a business plan that I wrote as my senior project,” says Wilson.

She made a few tweaks to the plan and quickly started looking for funding and investors. “I had no money, my parents had no money, and everybody I spoke with wanted 50% or 51% of the business,” Wilson remembers. “It just didn’t make any sense. I’m not planning on making a lot of wine, maybe 500 cases. At that point I had kind of given up.”

Then, a friend and fellow winemaker from Napa came to her. She told Wilson, “I’m going to loan you the money, and you’re going to pay me back when you can. If I give you this money, you can never give up ownership.”

Wilson found herself in a whirlwind. She had started at Kamen in early 2009, and by September of the same year she was harvesting grapes for her own label. In the first two years, she made 600 cases for LaRue all while balancing her full-time position at Kamen and a part-time gig at a wine bar to pick up extra cash.

“Any kind of success is a combination of a certain amount of talent and hard work,” says Wilson. “During that time, I worked so much. You miss out on maybe going out with your friends but its definitely rewarding to accomplish something like LaRue.”

In 2011, she hit a bump in her business plan due to low yields, but has since brought it back up. She currently makes around 500 cases for LaRue a year and sells through her website and distribution channels in New York, Texas and Minnesota. It is imperative for Wilson to stay at around 500 cases; she wants be involved in every part of the process, a quality she brings to her consulting gigs as well.

Consulting Ventures

“It wasn’t until a few years into selling the wine, maybe 2013 or 2014, where I looked back and thought I was in a good spot. I’m consulting for people, LaRue is successful. This could have been bad if it hadn’t come together,” Wilson says with a laugh.

Wilson left Kamen in 2014 and started working at Anaba wines as a consultant, which she still does to this day. She has since added three other wineries to the mix. Anaba and Reeves are the larger of the group. “They’re around 5,000 to 6,000 cases each year,” she explains. “There’s a lot of conflicting winemakers who are really hands-off. For me, I want to be at every bottling, run and pick up capsules for them when they need them, that sort of thing. It is a lot to do for everyone, but it happens.”

If that sounds like a lot to handle, that's because it is. Every day is different for Wilson, and it isn’t odd for her to work 15-16 hour days during the week, especially during harvest season. This week, she’s bottling. Some days she’ll drive around to different vineyards and check on the plants, which can take a whole day. Soon, she'll start preparing to harvest her grapes.

“In the next week or so, I’ll start sampling random clusters. I test the sugar, the pH and taste the juice,” she says. “Each year is different. I’ve played around with different amounts of new oak, or you think about putting whole cluster in your fermentation. It’s a risk. You’re kind of just experimenting. But you’re always learning, that’s a really cool part of the wine industry. You’ll never know anything – it’s impossible.”

Breaking Into the “Boys Club”

There is only one woman that Wilson has ever worked under as a winemaker in her career. In most of her internships, it was surprising to see another woman on the production side. “Early on in my career I had to prove myself,” she says “You have to be perfect and you have to work harder than any guy who has your same experience level and knowledge. That’s probably a reason why women get discouraged early on and don’t stay in the industry.”

As an intern, she remembers men taking credit for her contributions and not speaking up for fear of seeming too emotional. Even today with all her accolades, she is still confronted by people coming into her own winery and asking to speak with the lead winemaker.

“It’s the subtle things, and it’s not easy to say exactly what effect it’s had on me,” says Wilson, who is trying to disrupt the boy’s club of winemaking. “Men and women have been graduating with degrees in winemaking at equal numbers since the 1990s. It doesn’t show, especially when you get to the level of winemaker. We make a big effort to hire 50% men and 50% women.”

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Choosing the Right Corporate Structure: Which Business Entity Should You Go With?

Business entities can be defined as the corporate, tax and legal structures which an organization chooses to officially follow at the time of its official registration with the state authorities. In total, there are fifteen different types of business entities, which would be the following.


  • Sole Proprietorship
  • General Partnership
  • Limited Partnership or LP
  • Limited Liability Partnership or LLP
  • Limited Liability Limited Partnership or LLLP
  • Limited Liability Company or LLC
  • Professional LLC
  • Professional Corporation
  • B-Corporation
  • C-Corporation
  • S-Corporation
  • Nonprofit Organization
  • Estate
  • Cooperative Organization
  • Municipality

As estates, municipalities and nonprofits do not concern the main topic here, the following discussions will exclude the three.

Importance of the State: The Same Corporate Structure Will Vary from State to State

All organizations must register themselves as entities at the state level in United States, so the rules and regulations governing them differ quite a bit, based on the state in question.

What this means is that a Texas LLC for example will not operate under the same rules and regulations as an LLC registered in New York. Also, an LLC in Texas can have the same name as another company that is registered in a different state, but it's not advisable given how difficult it could become in the future while filing for patents.

To know more about such quirks and step-by-step instructions on how to start an LLC in Texas, visit howtostartanllc.com, and you could get started with the online process immediately. The information and services on the website are not just limited to Texas LLC organizations either, but they have a dedicated page for guiding fresh entrepreneurs through the corporate tax structures in every state.

Sole Proprietorship: Default for Freelancers and Consultants

There is only one owner or head in a sole proprietorship, and that's what makes it ideal for one-man businesses that deal with freelance work and consulting services. Single man sole proprietorships are automatic in nature, therefore, registration with the state is unnecessary.

Sole proprietorships are also suited to a degree for singular teams such as a small construction crew, a group of handymen, or even miniature establishments in retail. Also, this puts the owner's personal financial status at jeopardy.

Due to the fact that a sole proprietorship entity puts all responsibilities for paying taxes and returning loans, it directly jeopardizes the sole proprietor's personal belongings in case of a lawsuit, or even after a failed loan repayment.

This is the main reason why even the most miniature establishments find LLCs to be a better option, but this is not the only reason either. Sole proprietors also find it hard to start their business credit or even get significant business loans.

General Partnership: Equal Responsibilities

The only significant difference between a General Partnership and a Sole Proprietorship is the fact that two or more owners share responsibilities and liabilities equally in a General Partnership, as opposed to there being only one responsible and liable party in the latter. Other than that, they more or less share the same pros and cons.

Registration with the state is not necessary in most cases, and although it still puts the finances of the business owners at risk here, the partnership divides the liability, making it a slightly better option than sole proprietorship for small teams of skilled workers or even small restaurants and such.

Limited Partnership: Active and Investing Partners

A Limited Partnership (LP) has to be registered with a state and whether it has just two or more partners, there are two different types of partners in all LP establishments.

The active partner or the general partner is the one who is responsible and liable for operating the business in its entirety. The silent or investing partner, on the other hand, is the one who invests funds or other resources into the organization. The latter has very limited liability or control over the company's operations.

It's a perfect way for investors to put their money into a sector that they are personally not experienced with, but have access to people who do. From the perspective of the general partners, they have similar responsibilities and liabilities to those in a general partnership.

It's the default strategy for startups to find funding and as long as the idea is sound, it has made way for multiple successful entrepreneurial ventures in the recent past. However, personal liability still looms as a dangerous prospect for the active partners to consider.

Limited Liability Company and Professional LLC

Small businesses have no better entity structure to follow than the LLC, given that it takes multiple good ideas from various corporate structures, virtually eliminating most cons that are inherent to them. Any and all small businesses that are in a position to or are in requirement of signing up with their respective state, usually choose an LLC entity because of the following reasons:

  • It removes the dangerous aspect of personal liability if the business falls in debt or is sued for reparations
  • The state offers the choice of choosing between corporation and partnership tax slabs
  • The limited legalities and paperwork make it suited for small businesses

While more expensive than a general partnership or a sole proprietorship, a professional LLC is going to be a much safer choice for freelancers and consultants, especially if it involves risk of any kind. This makes it ideal for even single man businesses such a physician's practice or the consultancy services of an accountant.

B, C and S-Corporation

By definition, all corporation entities share most of the same attributes and as the term suggests, they're more suited for larger or at least medium sized businesses in any sector. The differences between the three are vast once you delve into the tax structures which govern each entity.

However, the basic differences can be observed by simply taking a look at each of their definitive descriptions, as stated below.

C-Corporation – This is the default corporate entity for large or medium-large businesses, complete with a board of directors, a CEO/CEOs, other executive officers and shareholders.

The shareholders or owners are not liable for debts or legal dispute settlements in a C-Corporation, and they may qualify for lower tax slabs than is possible in any other corporate structure. On becoming big enough, they also have the option to become a publicly traded company, which is ideal for generating growth investments.

B- Corporation – the same rules apply as a C-Corporation, but due to their registered and certified commitment to social and environmental standards maintenance, B-Corporations will have a more lenient tax structure to deal with.

S-Corporation – Almost identical to a C-Corporation, the difference is in scale, as S-Corporations are only meant for small businesses, general partnerships and even sole proprietors. The main difference here is that due to the creation of a pass-through entity, aka a S-Corporation, the owner/owners do not have liability for business debt and legal disputes. They also are not taxed on the corporate slab.

Cooperative: Limited Application

A cooperation structure in most cases is a voluntary partnership of limited responsibilities that binds people in mutual interest - it is an inefficient structure due to the voluntary nature of its legal bindings, which often makes it unsuitable for traditional business operations. Nevertheless, the limited liability clause exempts all members of a cooperative from having personal liability for paying debts and settling claims.

This should clear up most of the confusion surrounding the core concepts and their suitability. In case you are wondering why the Professional Corporation structure wasn't mentioned, then that's because it has very limited applications. Meant for self-employed, skilled professionals or small organizations founded by them, they have less appeal now in comparison to an LLC or an S-Corporation.