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Winemaker Interview – Kathleen Inman of Inman Family Wines

Winemaking as Art

This interview introduced me to a different approach to winemaking.  During this series, there have been interviews with wine industry professionals having extensive formal training and degrees in Chemistry, Biology, Oenology, etc.  These professionals focused on the technical approach to development of structure in wine.  The discussion quite notably lacked an emphasis on nuance and balance.  Maybe… it takes a Burgundy style Pinot Noir producer to truly do the topic justice?  Here, you will find a winemaking philosophy that is less about the science and more about a “feel” for the process.  If you want to believe winemaking can be “art”… join me in meeting Kathleen Inman.

Early Years

Kathleen grew up in a family of teetotalers and was not introduced to wine until her college years at UC-Santa Barbara.  She took a few wine appreciation classes there and spent the Summers working at Napa Creek Winery.  At the time, it never occurred to her that it could become a career.  It was during this time she met Simon Inman, married and made the move to England.  She found her love of gardening during the years in England.  On a small estate there, she experimented with organic growing methods and raised a few cattle in a small pasture.  Kathleen and Simon spent these years pursuing professional careers, while nurturing a love of fine wine and cuisine.  The dream of making great Pinot Noir eventually drew her back to California.

Establishing an Estate Winery

In 1998, Kathleen and Simon moved back to Northern California and she began the search for an appropriate vineyard site for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  While the search went on, she began volunteering at local wineries and attending Oenology classes at UC-Davis.  She eventually found an old farm in the midst of Pinot Noir country in the Russian River Valley and by 2000 had planted the vineyard and begun a renovation of the old farmhouse.  In 2002, Inman Family Wines released its first vintage.  The vineyards are organically farmed and the winery uses sustainable practices in its operation. Kathleen handled the vineyards and winery by herself, with no full-time employees until 2010.  She truly built the business from the ground-up.  Today, Inman Family Wines produces roughly 5000 cases of which 80% is sold direct-to-consumer and the other 20% is distributed by Broadbent Selections to the restaurant trade.

On the Balance

In Napa Valley, you don’t hear much talk about the topics of low-alcohol, nuanced flavors, or balance.  Napa offers a predominance of big, alcoholic fruit-bombs.  If the wine can strike a balance, these can be truly amazing wines.  Although, driving big fruit, big acid and big tannins in equal parts, can be a significant challenge, especially during difficult vintages .  When these wines miss the mark, they can be difficult to appreciate – drink now, OR aged.  It would be interesting to see a few more winemakers with Kathleen’s type of approach in Napa.

Wine as Art

When I first started drinking wine, I was introduced to Napa producers first.  It was all I knew and I loved premium Napa wines.  When I started sampling more French and Italian reds, less manipulation and more focus on structure and balance started to build in importance.  Many Burgundy style producers often take this even a step further, looking to add elegance and nuance to the final product.  These kind of goals are not the result of an exclusively technical approach, but more from the “art” of building a fine wine.  This is Kathleen’s focus.

Kathleen loves growing vegetables and fruits, cooking farm-to-table and ultimately sharing the result with friends and family.  If you add organic and sustainable practices to the mix, it is easier to see the motivation behind focusing on the natural flavors and discouraging manipulation.  She uses only milder French oak (no American oak), never more than 25% new barrels, with a preference for a subtle oak influence. She believes manipulation destroys aging potential and is a big fan of the nuances age can bring to a well-made wine.  The fermentation is done with only naturally occurring yeast at her location, which as it turns out, was not easily identifiable when the lees were sent out for analysis.  Another added natural complexity to the wine.

This fascination with producing complex wine, while expressing the location AND limiting manipulation of the fruit has led to to a few unorthodox ideas.  Kathleen blends wines produced from individual blocks of vines with a special end-goal in mind.  She selects three to five blocks to harvest on a range of dates, ferments and makes the individual block designate wines separately.  The wine from the first early pick is always very acidic, low in alcohol and floral.  As you would imagine, the final late season pick is very fruity, high in alcohol and more textured.  This kind of winemaking and blending can only be done with estate vineyards.  Purchased fruit is always harvested on a single pass, but this Olivet Grange Vineyard is Kathleen’s baby.  She never picks for optimum brix (sugar level) like most growers.  She is looking for optimum acidity (pH), appropriate phenolic development, skin and pip texture… Kathleen often decides to harvest on a “feel” for the proper maturity.

Whole Cluster Fermentation

Kathleen has become a fan of whole cluster fermentation in making Pinot Noir, stems and all.  She feels stem inclusion in full clusters actually increases the availability of carbon dioxide in the must and pushes the ferment naturally towards carbonic maceration.  There is a delicate balance at play here.  These processes can make it difficult to express tannins in the wine, removing one of the primary components of a structured red.  While Pinot Noir is not high in tannins, some is necessary to provide the appropriate mouth-feel.  These are not traditional Pinot Noir ideas, but for me, it makes sense.  The early harvest strategy sets the perfect stage for these techniques to help retain the fruity flavor components.  She has gradually increased the amount of whole cluster fermentation in the mix, to a full 100% in the 2013 vintage.

Terroir and Flavors

Kathleen feels the estate OGV site produces floral aromatics in both the Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grown there, with the Pinot Gris in particular picking up the iron minerality from the soil. Personally, I can taste the minerality in the Pinot Noir, but it is not tomato, or blood flavors typical of iron components as can show in Ribiero del Duero Tempranillo (for example).  It is a “wet rock” character to me.  She also feels the Pinot Noir from this vineyard consistently produces tart cherry and rhubarb flavors, unlike the candied, or fresh, sweet cherry typical of Carneros Pinot Noir (for example).

Next Up?

Kathleen has been experimenting with a small quantity of Zinfandel fruit the last few years.  She is looking to achieve the perfect pizza wine, with lower alcohol, a black fruit profile, higher acidity in a more restrained style.  She has a soft spot for Ridge Zinfandel.  The hope is to hit on just the right style using fruit from a Sonoma County vineyard location.  One day she would like to try her hand at Grenache in this style too!

Conclusion

The first Inman Family Pinot Noir I tasted was at a Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner four years ago.  It was a beautifully paired combination.  That 2006 vintage was arguably one of the most balanced wines I have ever tasted.  The Inman Family wines would seem best suited to a specific group of wine enthusiasts.  Not meant to be drunk as an aperitif, but always with food.  Not as a daily drinker, but when you can focus on and appreciate the structure… and especially not when the audience is seeking a fruity, cherry concoction. This is a classic version of New World Pinot Noir, made with restraint and artistic flair and is a tremendous value.

 A Inman Family Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:

 

 

218848

2007 Inman Family Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard

California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

The 2006 was a prettier vintage.  It was a touch more fruit forward and a little more balanced, but this is still a wonderful effort.  The nose has aromas of sour red and black cherries, dark chocolate, minerality and a floral note.  The color has picked up a brownish tinge showing some age and the freshness is not all there, but the palate is still showing strong acidity making the wine very lively in the mouth.  The tannins are subdued and the alcohol is very well integrated.  The texture is gorgeous – very soft and pleasant.  This is old world style wine, focusing on balance and complexity.  The fruit is in front but subtle, moving to a mid-palate with vanilla, oak, leather and mineral aspects with a medium-long finish of bitter chocolate.  This is more of a food wine, than a patio sipper.  I enjoyed this California Pinot Noir expressing a less typical point of view.

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Filed under California, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, Winemaker Interview