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June 21, 2013

Dishing With...Winemaker Kathleen Inman

Kathleen_72Since yesterday, Burlington has been quietly filling with prominent winemakers who are in town for this weekend's waterfront Burlington Wine & Food Festival.

Among them is Kathleen Inman, the winemaker at Inman Family Wines in California's Sonoma County, who arrived in BTV yesterday for her first-ever visit, starting with a dinner at Pistou where her wines were featured.

Inman has been making wine since 2002, three years after she and her husband purchased a Russian River Valley farm and planted thousands of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines. At her Olivet Grange Vineyards, she resolved to make the "lower-alcohol, higher-acid wines," that she grew fond of while living and traveling in Europe over the previous 15 years.

Even before that long spell across the pond, winemaking was perhaps always lurking in Inman's blood; she was born in Napa Valley, albeit to a teetotaling family of Seventh-Day Adventists. After college, she pursued a career in finance in Yorkshire, where she lived and raised a family with her British husband, Simon.

Inman was a passionate gardener with a long-smoldering dream to make food-friendly, terroir-driven wines. Since she and her family returned to northern California, she's gained a reputation as a solo winemaking force — she only hired her first employees recently — as well as a non-interventionist winemaker who relies on organic grapes and native yeasts for her line: two silky Pinot Noirs, a Pinot Gris, a taut, citrusy Chardonnay, a juicy (limited-release) rosé and a brut rosé sparkling wine.

Inman's wines have only recently made it into Vermont, via Vermont Wine Merchants. Last night, we sat down for an impromptu talk on the terrace at Logan's of Vermont.

SEVEN DAYS: How did you first get interested in wine?

KI: As a student at university, I took a wine-tasting class, then a class on wine appreciation. The two classes made me decide that I'd like to get a job at a winery. My family didn't drink at all, so it had never occurred to me before that I could have a career in wine. I got a job in the tasting room at Napa Creek Winery, and on my very first day, an Englishman came in with his sister and her new husband. He eventually sent me a letter, and we became pen pals. When I went to England as an exchange student, we began dating, and we eventually got married! I moved to England for 15 and a half years, and I didn't think I'd ever come back. 

SD: Describe the place where you grow and make wine.

KI: It was originally a family farm known as Olivet Grange, and as early as 1883 there were vines here. The land itself is former sea bed that has raised up over time. A lot of the soil is sand and loam, with a huge deposit of gravel. When we dug our well over 15 years ago, we were down about 90 feet when we hit 22 feet of solid redwood trees, buried through volcanic activity. It took a while to realize how unusual this was. All of my neighbors have clay [soils].

7D: How is this reflected in the wines?

KI: Pinot and Gamay were my first love, and I wanted to see if I could make elegant, sophisticated Pinots. The land produces very floral Pinots with a lot of minerality. 

7D: What do you most love about making wine?

KI:  I like the idea of growing something, that I make a product from the land that I can then sell. Also, that my wines become part of other people's lives. I get pictures sent to me all of the time — "We had an anniversary, and your wine was on the table." It's like being a part of other people's families.

7D: How did you evolve into a mostly natural winemaker?

KI: I've always been committed to farming organically, and though I did add [commercial] yeasts the first few years, by 2005 I started to experiment with natural yeasts. In 2007, I discovered that my fermentation took off, usually on day four, without my doing anything. I also experimented with battonage [stirring of the lees] on my reds very early on. I never rack my wines, I just stir them. It makes the floral aromatics seem much rounder and brighter. These wines really represent the place where they're from.

Taste Kathleen Inman's wines this Saturday evening at 6:20 p.m. at the Burlington Wine & Food Festival.

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