Sonoma County Winemaker Katy Wilson Talks Hiring Challenges, Favorite Wine Style, Industry Stigma, New Motherhood

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If you could change one government regulation, what would it be and why?

I would abolish the three-tier system for alcohol. This is the result of the end of Prohibition, and it does not serve the industry at all. It’s very difficult to be a small business. It’s like dealing with 50 different countries when it comes to selling wine nationwide.

What are the pros and cons of being located in North Bay and doing business here?

I love being in North Bay. It’s such a good climate and it’s an area where people travel from all over the world to go on vacation! As I mentioned above, the main downside is the cost of living and being able to have staff who can afford to live here.

What is your approach to making difficult/important business decisions?

In all my business decisions, the number 1 priority that I evaluate first is the effect the decision will have on the quality of the wine. The quality of the wines I make is always the most important thing. I analyze all aspects of the decision and take my time to think about what makes the most sense. I don’t like to rush into anything or make quick decisions.

What are the qualities of other executives that you try to emulate?

The qualities I admire most in other executives are strong leadership with the ability to have people who want to follow them. I think integrity is also very admirable. It’s so easy to do what’s best for you, but when you see a leader doing what’s right, but can come at a cost, it shows a lot of character.

How have your mentors influenced your career?

I’ve had so many amazing winemakers in my life that I’ve learned from and helped me along the way.

I’ve also had a few wonderful people in my life who aren’t winemakers, but who I really admire and who taught me a lot about advancing my career and running a business.

They helped guide me along the way and I don’t think I would be where I am today without them.

What was the hardest lesson you learned early in your career that you now recognize as important?

I think it wouldn’t be about defending myself or defending myself as much as I could have done earlier in my career, especially when it came to compensation and promotions.

As I try to live my life with no regrets, in hindsight I wasn’t more assertive and didn’t ask for what I deserved – for what my male counterparts earned without even asking – I let the cycle continue.

I recognize this now and hope that by sharing my lessons along the way, I can in some way help encourage future women in wine to always know their worth.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in the wine industry?

My advice to someone who is just starting a career in this industry is to become an expert in your craft. Take the time to learn as early as possible and never lose that spirit of continuing to grow and learn. I think our culture makes us feel like we have to rush into experiences, but winemaking is a process that cannot be rushed. I’ve spent my fair share of harvest shoveling tanks and even time pouring into tasting rooms.

I think it’s important to spend time at each stage in order to have a complete understanding of the business and to manage and communicate effectively with your teams, partners and colleagues at all levels, from the vineyard to the meeting.

What would you do in your career if you could?

I don’t usually look back with regret. Its not my style ! I’m sure there were things I could have done differently, but I might not have ended up where I am now. Sometimes difficult experiences also shape who you are. You may have wished they hadn’t happened, but you may not be who you are then.

What was your first job? What was your first professional job?

My first job in the industry was working on a 1,000 acre vineyard in the Central Valley the summer after my freshman year at (California Polytechnic State University) in 2002. I worked 10 hour days, six days a week for minimum wage without overtime — which was legal for agricultural workers.

It was really hard work, especially in the over 100 degree heat of the Central Valley. I have enormous respect and admiration for all of the agricultural workers we depend on in California, not only in the wine industry, but in all areas of agriculture.

When I finished working the season, I knew I was on the right track. Even with the hard work, I was still so passionate about wine and excited for my next step.

When you were a child, teenager, even in college, was this the job you thought you would one day have? What has been a clear sign since childhood that you would one day have a leadership position?

Growing up, my family owned a hay hauling business as well as a walnut orchard. From a young age, I witnessed the hard work and gratification that comes with owning your own business.

My parents constantly encouraged me to follow my dreams and said that I could accomplish almost anything if I set my mind to it. From an early age, I felt empowered that one day I too could work for myself and own my own business.

At the time, I had no idea what this business would look like, but I knew I wanted something I could call my own one day. In college, when I was aiming for a career in winemaking, it was only natural for me to focus my senior project on writing a business plan to start my own winery. Just four years later, I started LaRue Wines using that same business plan.

The name of your winery, LaRue Wines, comes from your great-grandmother Veona LaRue. Tell us a bit about her and your memories of her.

My great-grandmother was strong, bold and independent and lived to be 98. She always told me that I could do what I wanted in life and not let anyone tell me otherwise.

I carried his hard-working spirit and determination with me through every step of my career.

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