When Katy Wilson was just twenty-six years old she founded LaRue Wines, a Sonoma, California-based winery. In the decade since she started her business Wilson has learned about the reality of what it means to be a woman in wine. Most winemakers are men, and as a result Wilson has had to confront sexism within the industry head on – both in everyday incidences as within larger structural issues. Today she is helping to level the playing field and to elevate the products of other female winemakers through her work with WOW (Woman-Owned Wineries) Sonoma, while also continuing to produce over 60 different wines a year that are, “complex and vibrant” and of course, delicious.
Wilson’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
Named in honor of my great grandmother, Veona LaRue who always told me anything is possible, I started LaRue Wines to share my passion for making wines from the Sonoma Coast that are complex and vibrant with elegant acidity – and to inspire other up and coming female winemakers in the industry.
For me, success is more than simply achieving a goal that you set for yourself. It’s the cumulative journey of highs and lows, sacrifices and victories, lessons learned. Success for me is all the little things that had to happen to reach a goal – because that is where the true feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment is really rooted.
2019 marked the 10th anniversary of LaRue Wines, which I started when I was only 26 years old. To celebrate, I hosted a big party with all of my longtime customers, friends and family where we opened every bottle of LaRue I have ever produced. To see everyone together in one place and have the opportunity to literally experience a decade’s worth of blood, sweat and tears was priceless. It was one of those evenings that I wished would never end and it was a moment that truly encapsulated my idea of achieving “success” in my career journey.
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As a female in a largely male dominated industry, one of my biggest challenges has been navigating this dynamic and finding my own voice and confidence to stand up for myself when necessary. In many situations, female winemakers have to work twice as hard to even be considered for the same promotion as their male counterpart.
Change doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with initiating a dialogue and recognizing the issues. And it gains momentum when small changes are consistently and consciously made across the collective industry. I feel like we’re on an upward trajectory. While we haven’t overcome all the issues yet, I feel confident in the progress that we’ve made and empowered to continue as an example and advocate for change.
The great news is that there are now more women in leading winemaker roles than ever before. We need to continue to normalize this within the industry. By talking about the disparities in compensation, visibility, and leadership in this industry, we can work to make a change. Supporting our female winemaking peers and using our platform, we can create awareness, action, and change.
I am proud to advocate for women in wine and help level the playing field for future female winemakers by confronting the underlying biases and double standards that are all-too-often swept under the rug. I serve on the Advisory Board of WOW (Woman-Owned Wineries) Sonoma, 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.
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While many industries – including many factions of the wine industry – embrace, encourage and champion working mothers, the unique nature of the winemaking profession manifests an underlying sense of doom for female winemakers considering starting a family. The assumption that a woman winemaker cannot successfully juggle the often-grueling hours inherent to this career with the responsibilities of birthing and raising a child continues to permeate the industry mindset. It is a stigma that women winemakers must contend with, and in many instances, it involves deciding whether or not to choose to have kids at all.
For me, I am currently pregnant and due in June 2021. The decision to start a family was not without reservations about how this might affect my career and others’ perceptions of my ability to manage both. As a successful winemaker and business owner, I make wine for three artisan wineries based in Sonoma – Anaba Wines, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars – as well as for my own boutique label, LaRue Wines. Annually, I make more than 60 different wines, across 18 varietals, sourced from more than 50 vineyards across Sonoma and Mendocino counties. I am used to effectively managing my time and juggling multiple balls in the air at the same time. But I couldn’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of trepidation about telling my clients the news of my pregnancy.
I had heard countless cautionary tales. The double standard that if a male winemaker is having a baby, it is something to be celebrated. There are no assumptions or question marks surrounding the efficacy of his abilities to make wine. But, if a female winemaker is having a baby, it is something to be questioned. Suddenly, her capabilities and her commitment to her career are brought into question.
When I shared the news of my pregnancy with my clients earlier this year, I was met with an overwhelming show of support. Flooded with relief, it was as if a giant weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. But, it shouldn’t have to be that way. As established female winemakers, we shouldn’t feel ashamed, worried or nervous to a.) start a family and b.) confidently share the good news without the underlying fear of what others’ reactions might be.
As the industry continues to advocate for women in wine and more women are promoted into lead winemaking roles, I want to acknowledge the stigma that exists and work to normalize 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 am committed to shifting the narrative for the future of female leaders in wine. I currently serve on the Advisory Board of WOW (Woman-Owned Wineries) Sonoma, a collective founded in 2017 to help foster greater equity in the wine industry.
I have had so many great people in my life who have been inspirational and encouraging to me in my career. My most important role model has been my great grandmother who was such a great influence in my life that I named LaRue Wines after her. Veona LaRue lived to be 98 years old, so I knew her very well. 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.