On a single day in 1982, Kathleen Inman’s future lined up like a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event. Home from college for the summer, the Napa native (her maiden name was Kathleen McGowan) was working her first day at a startup winery near St. Helena. It was Inman’s first job in the wine industry.
The next would be two decades later when she started her own winery, Inman Family Wines, and began making her mark as a respected producer of Russian River pinot noir, chardonnay and other wines.
But Inman’s winemaking future was not the only thing foreshadowed on that day in 1982. Her first tasting room customer would, in two years, become her husband. He was Simon Inman, an Englishman visiting Napa Valley for his sister’s wedding.
“When Simon came into the winery, I had literally only been there for about an hour,” Inman remembered. She said that he was accompanied by his just-married sister and brother-in-law. “I thought what an odd fellow. He’s on his sister’s honeymoon in the Napa Valley.”
Inman mentioned to the visitors that she was hoping to visit London the following year as an exchange student.
“That was the extent of the conversation. They bought some wine and went away,” she said.
Shortly after the encounter, a letter arrived at the winery. Some 30 years later, Inman still quotes it verbatim: “Dear question mark. It’s not easy writing to a girl with no name. Forgive me if I appeared rude or offhand. I should have invited you to visit when you come to study.” Simon also invited her to correspond and the two became pen pals.
“We wrote to each other for about a year,” she said, “then I went to study in London, we dated, and now we’ve been married 29 years.”
Inman’s destined date with winemaking, however, would be postponed nearly 20 years. After their marriage, the Inmans settled in England where Simon worked as a solicitor. An art history major in college, Kathleen opted for a more practical career in accounting and corporate finance, earning an MBA and rising through the ranks of firms like Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand.
During the next 15 years, the couple and two daughters lived a comfortable English lifestyle in Yorkshire.
On a return trip to Napa in 1997, the Inmans were drawn by the beauty and relaxing vibe of Napa and Sonoma counties, a contrast to their busy and increasingly demanding life in England. Over a glass of wine in Mendocino, Simon suggested that they “throw it all in” and move to California. Kathleen was skeptical about such a big move. By sheer coincidence, however, the day after returning to Yorkshire the Inmans were approached by someone wanting to buy their home.
“It was like fate had a hand in it,” Inman said, “just like meeting Simon on my first day at the winery.”
A year later. the Inman family relocated to Sonoma County, bought a house in Healdsburg and Kathleen, with no formal training but possessing an insatiable interest in becoming a winemaker, started looking for a vineyard and a place to build a winery.
Born in Angwin, Kathleen Inman was raised in a family that had deep Napa Valley roots dating to the 1860s. As a girl, she spent summers gardening at her grandmother’s Monticello Road farm. She carried this love of gardening with her to Yorkshire, where the Inmans lived on 11 acres outside of York.
Although she grew up in Napa as the area’s modern-day wine industry was just beginning to blossom, Inman took little notice of wine until she left Napa to attend UC Santa Barbara. A friend suggested she enroll in a new wine tasting class at the school. The first night of the class, Inman recalled, was a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon.
“They took the bags off and three of the wines were from the Napa Valley,” she sad. “I said, ‘Wow, they make this where I’m from.’”
Inman was intrigued by the varied character of the different wines that she tasted that night.
“I got interested in how one variety could taste so different from different places in the world but also from the same place but made by different people,” she said.
Inman and her college friends began exploring wines and, by her junior year, she set her sights on working the summer of 1982 in a Napa Valley winery. Inman’s father mentioned his daughter’s plan to neighbor Jack Shulze, who had just started Napa Creek Winery in St. Helena. Inman met Shulze on a Saturday and went to work at the new winery on Sunday.
While her move to England took Inman far away from the wine-centric world of the Napa Valley, her newfound interest in the beverage flourished. She also held on to the dream of someday making her own wine.
Simon matched her enthusiasm, having once worked as cellar hand for winemaking friends in Burgundy. Wine, Inman said, became a shared enjoyment during the couple’s 15 years in England.
“I was always very proud of being from Napa, and would often be asked to do little talks about wine,” she said. “When we traveled around Europe wine was always one of our interests. We were very adventurous. I got really interested in all of the diversity (in wines), but through all of them, it was the high acid, balanced wines that I liked.”
After the move back to California, Inman's search for a suitable vineyard and winery site narrowed to the Sonoma coast and the Russian River Valley, two burgeoning winegrowing regions best suited for chardonnay and pinot noir.
“I was committed to pinot noir when we moved here in ’98,” Inman said. “I reckoned that if I was going to grow something and then make something that I should be doing what I liked best because what if no one else liked it? Worse-case scenario: Simon and Kathleen’s bank account is empty but the cellar is full.”
One day she spotted an old farmhouse on a former vineyard site on Olivet Road near Santa Rosa, an area that has become known as a premier pinot noir growing region.
“It sounds terrible,” she said, “but I remember thinking that you probably have to wait until someone dies to buy a place like that.”
In another twist of fate, a Realtor called Inman a few days later about a potential property. The farmhouse and former vineyard property Inman had spotted had just become available in a probate sale.
The Inmans purchased the 10.5-acre property and began planting a seven-acre organic vineyard with mostly pinot noir. Committed to sustainable farming and winemaking practices, Inman then set about building a small, fully solar-powered winery and tasting room incorporating eco-friendly design and building materials.
Essentially a self-taught vintner, Inman did complete a set of UC Davis extension classes in winemaking and grape growing. As with most artisans, however, Inman leans primarily on her experience and intuition in creating wines that reflect the place and time they were made.
Inman describes herself as a “natural” grower and winemaker who prefers a light touch in both the vineyard and the winery. Constantly working in the vineyard, she uses only organic fungicides and fertilizers, including “Four Course Compost” made of table scraps from high-end San Francisco restaurants.
Inman said her winemaking technique aims at preserving and emphasizing the natural characteristics of the fruit sourced from her own Olivet Grange Vineyard and other premium growers in the Russian River AVA.
At harvest, instead of precisely measuring for brix (sugar content in the grapes), she is a “grape groper, going by how they feel and taste.” Her pinot noirs and chardonnays are fermented using natural yeast and bacteria. She does not add water or acid to her wines.
“I’ve learned much more from doing,” she continued. “I think there is a lot to be said about learning in a sort of hands-on way. And I think it’s also important … not to be so fixed in ‘This is the way we always do it’ and ‘An ideal wine should have this pH…and if it’s not that we’re going to adjust it.’ I don’t do that.”
Now celebrating her 10th vintage, Inman’s deft touch and unfettered winemaking style have earned accolades. In 2012, she was given the Rising Star Award from Women for WineSense and her wines consistently draw praise from the usual informed sources.
Inman admits that her roundabout path to winemaking has been beneficial in the realization of her dream. Her time in England, she said, allowed her to slowly develop her personal sense of what wine should be. She said that her absence from the whirlwind growth of the California wine industry during those years provided a certain innocence that allowed her to do her own thing.
“I didn’t feel like I was trying to make wines that were competing with anything,” she said. “I just really was excited about making wines that represented the place. From the beginning I wanted to make wines as naturally as I could without manipulating them and what-not.”
The winery produces about 4,000 cases a year, a level that Inman said was arrived at slowly during the past decade.
“I’ve kept this pretty small and I’m making things that I believe in,” she said. “I feel really strongly about being as honest as I can about the wines.”
While small-lot pinot noir and chardonnay are the mainstay varietals of Inman Family Wines, the energetic winemaker also makes limited quantities of pinot gris. And then there is the rosé of pinot noir, made as both a still wine and a sparkling Brut. Named “Endless Crush,” the wine was born partly out of guilt surrounding a forgotten milestone in the Inman’s relationship.
“I originally made it for Simon on our 20th wedding anniversary,” she said, “I forgot that it was our anniversary because I was so busy in the vineyard.”