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One woman’s path from crunching numbers to making wine

February 20, 2015, 6:04 PM UTC
Inman Family Vineyards

As a fourth-generation Napa Valley native, Kathleen Inman may have seemed marked for a career in vinology, but her path to helming Inman Family Vineyards was much more circuitous.

Her family didn’t drink and her own interests leaned toward international finance and consulting. A job with Napa Creek Winery in St. Helena the summer before her junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara sparked her curiosity, but it would be nearly two decades before her vintner dreams rekindled.

After 15 years in England, Inman returned home with her husband and two daughters to combine her business skills with her passion for grapes. They bought a 10.5-acre plot in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley in 1999 and packaged their first vintage—70 bottles of Pinot Gris—three years later.

The brand has since grown to include three varietals distributed in 27 states. “I always wanted to have my own business,” she said, “but I never imagined it would be a wine business.”

Fortune talked with Inman about her career and what she’s up to today.

You’ve had a successful career in finance at companies such as Price Waterhouse, Coopers & Lybrand and GKR Group. How did your experience in the corporate world set you up for your career as a winemaker?

Wine was one of my interests, but gardening was my passion. That was my release from the corporate work I was doing in consulting. I was originally going to study engineering and did a lot of advanced math, so the technical side of winemaking was something I felt comfortable with. Having trained as an accountant, my goal was to create a business that was as cost-effective as possible, making use of contract labor in the vineyard and web-based accounting and ecommerce, well before the majority of wineries had ecommerce. This is a notoriously capital-intensive business, and I didn’t come to it with a massive amount of cash, so I did a lot of the work myself. The joke is: how do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune.

I would have told my clients do not touch this industry with a barge pole because it’s so regulated and capital intensive and difficult to get your product to market, but the training I had taught me to look at those risks and find ways to mitigate them. After starting in my garage, I eventually rented an industrial unit by the airport and leased a space in a larger winery where I made my wines. I really started from a grass-roots level. About 80 of my business is through my mailing list and my website.

Do you have many female counterparts in Sonoma and Napa Valley?

What’s interesting is about 10% of California wineries have lead female winemakers, but recent research shows that a much greater percentage of the most-lauded wines are by women. So women are making more of the best wines and as a result, more people are talking about women winemakers. Over 50 percent of the graduates from vinology schools are women, yet you still don’t see as many women in the cellar or in charge of the winemaking. It’s more typical for women to go into sales and marketing, even though they started out thinking they would be on the production side. They’re still involved in the winemaking process, but they aren’t always the final arbiters of what the blends are going to be. But I don’t want to be known as a woman winemaker, really. I want to be known as a winemaker making important and delicious wine with a soul.

What challenges do women winemakers face?

It’s a very physical job. The hoses are heavy; you’re dealing with tons of grapes. You better have done your training and worked out before harvest time starts because it really is very intense. We only have one time a year to make our product. All of the decisions you’re making are condensed into one brief period. There are no do-overs. You pick through the night and process through the day on just a couple hours of sleep, and it can go on for weeks. The production side can be grueling. I remember seeing one of my friends, about eight months pregnant, operating a forklift, unloading bins of fruit off the truck.

You have more than a half-dozen roles at the vineyard: grape grower, winemaker, general manager, sales person, accountant, operations manager and forklift driver. What drives you to wear so many hats?

I like variety. That’s one of the things I enjoyed about consulting. You do one project and then you have another one in a different industry. There was always something. In the wine industry, it’s very cyclical. It’s February, so we just finished pruning and tying the vines. When we move into growing season, it’s all about the vineyard. As soon as that finishes, we’re making the wine. After the harvest comes, we’re thinking about labels and all the packaging and marketing and then the release. From November to March, we’re working on the product and bottling, and then next thing we know, we’re back to focusing on the vineyard and growing.

Let’s talk about the wine. You are known for your passion for Pinot Noir and for screw caps instead of corks. Why?

Riesling was the first grape I fell in love with. But I love the way Pinot Noir can be paired with so many foods. It’s versatile and very transparent. It’s complex and elegant, and it can be ethereal. But I wanted all of my wines to be screw cap for the sake of consistency. Anywhere from 7 to 12 percent of wines are tainted by corking. Each cork allows a different amount of oxygen in, which means you have a lot of variation. I didn’t want that variation.

This #FoodWineWomen series highlighting powerful women working in the wine industry is in partnership with Food & Wine and A Woman’s Palate.