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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.