The first thing Kathleen Inman would like you to know about her wines is that they are not from Russia (a common comment she hears in her travels). Inman Family Wines produce wines from pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay grapes grown in the Russian River Valley, located squarely in the heart of California’s Sonoma County.
The second thing the effervescent, former corporate headhunter would like you to know is that her Russian River pinot noirs—which in many quarters is shorthand for rich, jammy, alcoholic wines—are not what you might expect.
“They don’t need to be,” Inman says regarding the rich, slightly sweet, full-bodied pinot noirs that the Russian River has become famous for. “The fruit-forward, luscious pinots are what people seek out. A lot of wineries focus on these types of wines to stay in business.”
Inman, a ferocious advocate for her wines who fights mightily for broader distribution, wants more than anything to be a success…well, almost more than anything. (Inman wines will soon be available in Georgia.) Her primary goal is to show consumers that Russian River wines taste like none other.
“You can get hints of that lusciousness in a balanced wine, too,” says Inman, who does as little as possible after her grapes are picked. An avid gardener, who planted her 10.5-acre Olivet Grange Vineyard in 2000, Inman focuses her energies on growing the grapes. Her number one worry is deciding the perfect time to pick, when the grapes best express the ups and downs of the vintage and the location of the vineyard.
Inman and her husband, Simon, looked at properties to the north of Sonoma in Anderson Valley and to the south along the Sonoma Coast and Carneros regions. For her, the Russian River is the place for grape cultivation. A well regarded home cook, Inman looks at the Russian River Valley wine region as a 27-mile-long spice rack.
“To the north, near Sebastopol, those wines have black tea on the nose and a more savory quality. Then you get down to Westside Road and you get a lot of cherry, cherry-cola fruit profiles….The best thing about the Russian River is the diversity,” says Inman, noting that there are more soil types in Sonoma County—from the ancient sea beds in the west, to the gravely soils in the middle, to the volcanic remnants in the east—than in all of France. The Russian River cuts a swath through the midst of this geologic jumble.
Most wine drinkers could care less about the uniquely Sonoma dirt and the powerful Pacific Ocean that sits at the doorstep of the Russian River. Inman knows this, so to explain the benefits of her hands-off methods, she uses the example of a garden-fresh, vine-ripened tomato—which even the most uncouth Barbarian will admit is far superior to its supermarket cousin.
“You can see the tomato ripening on the vine and you can wait and wait and wait. If you pick it when it is overripe, it loses its texture. It will be very sweet and you can make sauce with it, but you would have to do something to the tomato to make it ‘right.’ But, oh, when you pick it when it is just ripe, what more would you want to do with it?”
She gets two kinds of reactions to her pinot noirs. From the folks who like the big, juicy style, they say her wines are light. But from those who have never had a more delicate, expressive pinot noir, she gets quite a different reaction:
“Oh my gosh, I don’t usually like pinot, but I love this!” says Inman recalling their reactions.
Interventionist winemakers derisively refer to Inman’s technique as benign neglect, when one considers all the technology available today that allows winemakers to siphon off alcohol, increase a wine’s intensity, adjust a wine’s acidity and alter its tannic structure.
Inman, notorious for her frank opinions, surprisingly does not have an unkind word to say about those who manipulate wines to fit a certain taste profile. She, however, appreciates the differences of wines from different vineyards and the variations that each vintage brings. At some point, she says, jammy pinot noirs start tasting alike, year in and year out.
“I can make wines that are jammy and high in alcohol,” says Inman, who has experimented with interventionist techniques. “I know I could sell more wines, faster, but I want to make wines that I like to drink.”
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.