Katy Wilson is a winemaker to watch out for. From the age of 18, Katy knew she wanted to make wine. Young, passionate, and determined, she obtained her degree in Wine & Viticulture from Cal-Poly and went on to become owner and winemaker for LaRue Wines.
Her love for winemaking has taken her around the globe, working harvests in Australia and New Zealand, and finally settling in Sonoma. Today Katy makes LaRue Wines, small lots of cool climate single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast. Katy strives, ” to showcase maximum vineyard expression, allowing for the unique nuances of each vintage to shine through, while simultaneously allowing for my style to shine through.” Determined and hard-working, Katy is also the consulting winemaker for Anaba Wines, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines, and Smith Story Wine Cellars.
Katy’s story is inspiring, continue reading for my exclusive interview.
Katy Wilson – LaRue Wines
Winemaker + Consultant
You started making wine at an impressively young age. What inspired you to get into winemaking? When did you realize that you wanted to become a winemaker?
I was raised in a small agricultural town in California where my parents owned a hay-hauling business, as well as a walnut orchard. I grew up immersed in the world of agriculture and was never afraid to get my hands dirty, whether it be driving tractors or pruning walnut trees. It was no surprise when I set my sights on a degree in Agricultural Business at Cal-Poly. During my freshman year, in my Agricultural Business 101 class, the professor was speaking about different areas of agriculture. When she started talking about wine, I knew right then and there that making wine was the path I wanted to pursue. It was the perfect combination of farming, science, and creativity. So at 18 years old, I took on Wine & Viticulture as a second major and set on the path to making wine my career.
What is your background in winemaking?
Prior to launching LaRue and my consulting business, I graduated from Cal-Poly with a degree in Wine & Viticulture, as well as Agricultural Business. Following college, I worked in various positions at Joseph Phelps, Flowers, and Kamen, in addition to working a few international harvests in New Zealand and Australia. Prior to Kamen, I spent several years at Flowers where I worked my way up from harvest enologist to assistant winemaker. It was during this time that I fell in love with the Sonoma Coast and developed a passion for making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Tell us how LaRue Wines was founded.
While working as the associate winemaker at Kamen Wines in Sonoma, I was presented with not only an amazing opportunity to work with a small amount of Pinot Noir from a few exceptional Sonoma Coast vineyards that I adored, I also had a really supportive group of industry friends, including leadership at Kamen who helped give me the nudge I needed to launch my own label. Consequently, in 2009 at only 26-years old I took the leap and I started LaRue Wines – a small, 500-case portfolio of ultra-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.
Would you say the wine industry was hard to break into? What were some of the obstacles you faced?
Yes and no. Just like any industry you are looking to “break into,” you have to be willing to start at the bottom. And that is really what I did. I worked in tasting rooms, shoveled tanks, and learned the business from the bottom up. With each new experience, not only did my knowledge and experience grow, but so did my network within the industry, which has undoubtedly helped me along the way.
I have definitely experienced challenges along the way as a female in a largely male-dominated industry at least on the winemaking and viticulture side. 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 the same experience level and knowledge. While I feel like women are making a lot of strides to improve the gender gap in wine, there’s still a long way to go.
How did the transition from making your wine – to consulting for other brands come into play?
In 2012, three years after launching LaRue, I was presented with an opportunity to make wine in a consulting role for two small Sonoma-based wineries. I just couldn’t pass it up. So at this point, here I was still getting LaRue off the ground, consulting for two winery clients AND still working full-time at Kamen all the while! To say I was busy would certainly be an understatement. By 2014, the consulting business had begun to take off and I was fortunate enough to add an additional two clients to my roster.
Is there a particular style of wine you favor? Do you have a signature style when you are making wine for yourself?
For wines that I am drinking, I am a fan of a range of styles, but similarly to my winemaking style, I am drawn towards wines that are a clear expression of the regions and vineyards where they come from.
I like to let the vineyards speak for themselves, so my intention is to be as hands-off as possible. I do this in a thoughtful way. I am very careful about when and how much I expose my wines to oxygen through aging. I also top off my barrels often and pay close attention to how the wines are tasting through the aging process. I love that no vintage is the same. I strive to showcase maximum vineyard expression, allowing for the unique nuances of each vintage to shine through, while simultaneously allowing for my style to shine through as well.
You work very long hours. Many days are 15-hour workdays. How do you manage work/life balance?
It’s a small price to pay for getting to do something you love every day! But truth be told, managing work/life balance can be difficult. There are a lot of times when I am working that it does not feel like work, which is another sign that I am doing what I love. I do have to force myself to schedule time to do non-wine industry-related activities. During the quarantine, it has been easier to tune out unnecessary distractions and I have actually been able to spend more time exercising (even if it just in my living room) as well as spending more time in video chats with friends who I haven’t been able to catch up with in ages.
Is there a community of female winemakers in Sonoma County? How do you work together to promote the region and uplift other women in the industry??
Absolutely! I am proud to advocate for women in wine with leaders like Amy Bess Cook, who founded WOW (Woman-Owned Wineries) Sonoma in 2017, which advocates for the wine industry’s most talented and tenacious women and continues to help shift the narrative for the future of female leaders. In addition to events that bring together female winemakers like me, WOW Sonoma includes a nationwide winery directory with more than 550 female-identifying wine entrepreneurs, as well as a wine club and storytelling platform uniting like-minded winemakers and drinkers.
I am also very excited to support Batonnage, which is a forum whose motto is “stirring up the conversation on women in wine.” This is a one-day event with seminars followed by a walk around tasting. This year, LaRue Wines will be pouring in the walk around the tasting portion of the event (assuming that the event is not canceled due to the quarantine).
What is in the future for you in the next 5-7 years??
Honestly, I hope to be in a similar place to where I am now. I do not plan to grow the production of LaRue. I want to keep it around 500 cases, which is where production is currently. At this level, I am able to do most of the work myself and if I were to grow, then I would need to hire more people and I would not be able to do everything that I love to do that makes LaRue what it is – a wine that comes from my heart. I also really enjoy making wines as a consulting winemaker and helping my clients to achieve their vision.
What wines are you drinking when you are not drinking LaRue Wines? Which wines in your cellar are you most excited by?
I love Champagne! For me, I think that drinking a style of wine that I do not make is really interesting. I love thinking about how different the process is to make Champagne, but that it is still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
I have to be honest that my cellar is not as big as I would like it to be! I do have some older Rhone and Burgundy wines that I am looking forward to opening as well as some bottles from my time working at Joseph Phelps, Kamen, and Torbreck.
Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for someone looking to get into winemaking?
I think that the best advice I could give is to 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 often hear young people focused on only becoming a winemaker as fast as they can rather than taking time to work in every position that leads to becoming a winemaker. 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.