Each week, as regular readers know, Terroirist poses 16 questions to a winemaker. This week’s featured winemaker is Kathleen Inman, who produces acid-driven, balanced wines in the heart of the Russian River Valley. While her focus is Pinot Noir, Kathleen also produces some incredible Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.
Kathleen’s label, Inman Family Wines, was established in 2000 with the planting of the Olivet Grange Vineyard — where she just built a brand-new winery.
Her wines are produced exclusively with grapes from the Russian River Valley, and they’re wonderfully unique. When I visited Kathleen in December and tasted her lineup, I was impressed that each and every wine conveyed a sense of where it was grown. This is undoubtedly attributable to her non-interventionist approach to winemaking — she harvests fruit weeks before many of her neighbors, relies almost entirely on naturally occurring yeasts, and “as a rule, no other water or acid is added, and enzymes or tannin preparations are never added.”
Check out the interview below the fold!
Terroirist: What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Kathleen: It’s a constantly changing selection. Last night it was Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Sparkling, a bottle of Holdredge 2007 Bucher Vineyard RRV Pinot Noir (I will be buying fruit from the Buchers this year for the first time), and a bottle of 2009 Inman Family RRV Pinot Gris.
How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?
You could say I was suffering from temporary insanity — which has persisted, but in truth I fell in love with wine when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, and since I was born and raised in the Napa Valley, I got my first winery job one summer holiday. I grew up in a family that did not drink alcohol; I didn’t really know much about the wine industry (which was experiencing a rebirth in the Napa Valley in early 80’s) when I was at university. Back then, it did not occur to me that one could have a “career” in wine. I thought of it more as either farming (where you needed to inherit the land) or cellar work which was manual labor.
How did you learn to make wine?
I learned from listening, watching and helping others in their cellars as well as by taking classes at UC Davis and reading a number of trade publications and the research presented at UC Davis as part of their continuing education programs and by reading the papers published in the Journal of the American Society of Viticulture and Enology. When it came to making my first few vintages, I was very fortunate to have my friend, winemaker Kevin Hamel, by my side as a mentor.
How do you spend your days off?
What days off? Since building the new Inman Family Winery at our Olivet Grange Vineyard, I have been working 7 days a week. The last two days off had to be planned very carefully. The most recent was on Martin Luther King Day — we went into San Francisco for lunch at RN74, then walked to SF MOMA for the “How Wine Became Modern” exhibit, and then went to the movies to see the Women of Dagenham.
The time before was last October, when my husband and I squeezed several “dates” into one day — lunch at our biggest account the Slanted Door, followed by the Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the DeYoung Museum, and then Marriage of Figaro at San Francisco Opera. I am fortunate that gardening, one of my favorite pastimes, is actually part of my job. So although it is work in the vineyard and the vegetable garden at Olivet Grange, it is something I really enjoy.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history?
Dom Perignon — I love sparkling wine.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
No names come to mind in terms of new brands, but what I do think is very exciting is how so many younger people in the industry are excited about wines with a real sense of place, wines with natural acidity and elegance. For some time I have felt that the new winemakers gaining the most attention were those making big extracted “in your face” wines, but there seems to be renewed interest in terroir driven wines not made for scores but made for food and to age. It is an exciting time for my own wines because of this subtle shift.
What mailing lists, if any, do you purchase from?
The Wine Society in England is the only one I regularly buy futures of Rhone, Burgundy and Bordeaux. I tend to trade with my colleagues for the domestic wines we consume.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
I have had so many incredible wines in my life — many of the old, well-cellared wines I imbibed when I lived in England. There I belonged to a tasting group led by Conal Gregory, MW, who always secured the most interesting wines for our themed tastings. “Best” and “most interesting” are really tough to answer. I am a hedonist, and I enjoy every wine moment while it is here; but I tend to not dwell on past interesting experiences, as I am always looking for the next great wine experience!
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
A 1934 Madiera is probably the oldest, followed by Ports from Taylor and Croft from the 60s and 70s. Most expensive? I don’t value them once I have bought them and since I often buy futures, it can be a little surprising to find out how much some of the wines are worth — e.g. the vertical of Opus from 1987-1995 vintages — I have sold a lot of those since we don’t drink a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. The biggest shock was just how much the 1998 Cheval Blanc had appreciated. I hesitated to uncork one for Christmas, thinking it was probably infanticide to open one so young, and when I searched for tasting notes online I discovered they were going for more than $550 each. I put it back in the cellar!
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
I would drink Champagne with every meal – does that count since it is usually made with both red and white grapes? At the risk of it sounding self-serving, I could drink my own Chardonnay and Pinot Noir every day because I make them to my own taste and I think they are very easy to pair with everything we might eat at home or in a restaurant.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Overall, selling my wine is the most difficult aspect. I have been a one-woman operation, and as a result winemaking is just one of them many hats I wear. Selling requires a tenacity and commitment that I can’t always achieve when it has to compete with the demands in the cellar and the vineyard. Purely in a winemaking sense, choosing when to pick a vineyard to ensure that I can capture the essence of the vineyard and make the wine with the minimum amount of intervention is the biggest challenge. You have only one chance to get it right each year!
What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?
The Côte de Nuits, which is an area I know quite well from various visits to friends who live in Nuits St Georges (but I do love Rieslings from Nahe and Mosel and those are the areas I would like to explore).
Is beer ever better than wine?
You bet! Winemakers say it takes a lot of beer to make great wine. I became a huge fan of beer during my 15+ years in Yorkshire. I’m never one to refuse a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I used to build and fly model airplanes. My Dad and I belonged to a club. I have lots of trophies hidden away.
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing.
How do you define success?
Owning and running a business which is so closely aligned with my passion for my family, for the land I farm and for wine makes it difficult for me to define success. It certainly isn’t solely based on money or meeting my business plan, but if I didn’t increase the value of my investment when all was said and done, I would feel that I failed. However if I achieve financial success by not compromising my integrity, by doing everything I can to leave the environment in no worse condition than when I found it, and ideally in better shape; if I could leave the people I come in contact with happier for having enjoyed my product or learned something from me, I would feel successful.