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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.”

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.