By Laurie Wachter
When the pandemic was looming in February 2020, Kathleen Inman shared the concerns of winery owners around the globe that tasting room visitors and wine sales could fall. As the founder, owner and winemaker of Inman Family Wines, she recognized early warning signs like the cancellation of events she has participated in for years. With a 100% direct-to-consumer winery, having to close the brick & mortar tasting room that has been in Healdsburg for 22 years could be devastating.
She realized she had to pivot and pivot fast. Her solution was to become one of the first wineries to introduce a virtual wine tasting experience. She turned to her digital communications consultant for help. That just happened to be her daughter Ashley Zanchelli, who had just started her company that month after a career in educational consulting.
“Mom said, ‘I’m going to do virtual tastings – a Meet the Maker kind of thing,’” says Ashley. “She trusted me to figure out the technology, and we hit the ground running. It has been impressive to see how quickly her mind works.”
Although other wineries had the same idea, Inman Family Wines moved early, and the press picked up her story. The articles boosted awareness, and she had soon built a thriving business despite the pandemic.
“People decided to do these tastings with their companies,” Kathleen explains. “These are big corporations, so I began to get repeat business. I’m #1 for corporate virtual tastings on Google, so my calendar is full, and I’ve had to turn away business in December. I just hit my 200th virtual tasting. It was a good pivot.”
Kathleen credits her team for helping her sales increase exponentially in 2020. But Ashley points out that much of her success is due to her loyal customer base, built over the years by Kathleen’s ability to make strong personal connections.
“I joined the first six virtual tastings,” says Ashley, “and found that each one was different because of her personal relationship with those who attended. They turn into happy hang-out sessions where you learn about wines, too. In one session, someone picked up their Maine Coon cat, and Mom exclaimed, “Oh! Is that a Maine Coon? Ashley has one, too.’ So I got mine, and then someone went and got their cat, and pretty soon everyone was laughing and talking about cats. She has this magic ability to find the connections between people and then facilitate the conversation so that they discover them.”
One such relationship is with Regine Rousseau, owner of Shall We Wine, who first met Kathleen eight years ago while planning her first trip to Napa and Sonoma. Introduced by a mutual friend, she planned to visit Inman Family Wines for a tasting and write about the experience. But it became so much more than that. Regine ended up staying at Kathleen’s guest house and including her wine in her book, Searching for Cloves and Lilies: The Wine Edition. Since then, they’ve maintained their friendship and worked events together professionally.
“It was love at first sound!” laughs Regine. “Kathleen is such an amazing person. She brings her entire self into her business. I love watching her work with both sides of herself – a successful business person and a creative. She’s also hands-on —a winemaker whom you discover cleaning the bins when you visit. I feel that this world forces us to be one thing, to show only one side of who we are. It’s wonderful when someone like Kathleen finds a way to merge all of her sides.”
Jim Pratt, the owner of Cornerstone Certified Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, has taken care of Kathleen’s Olivet Grange vineyard for 20 years and knows well how deeply engaged she is in her business.
“She’s very dedicated and passionate about what she does,” he says. “She’s a winemaker but is also very hands-on in the vineyard. We farm it for her but create the annual farming plan together and stay in close communication throughout the year. I think that adds a lot to her winemaking skills.”
Kathleen acquires grapes from Jim and other growers and brings out the characteristics of each vineyard’s grapes while still delivering her unique style. One example is her direct-to-press Endless Crush Rosé, which she started making before Rosés were popular.
“I’d forgotten it was my anniversary and when I got up to harvest in the wee hours of the morning, my husband surprised me with a card and gift,” she laughs. “Since I had nothing for him, I thought fast and told him I was making wine just for him that day. That was the first Endless Crush. In 2004, winemakers would often take some of the juice out before it was totally colored by the skin to get a more concentrated red. Then, they would make a Rosé out of that extra juice. But their intention was to make a red wine. What I did was pick the Pinot Noir with the intent to make a Rosé and press the grapes like a white wine to get everything out of them, which makes a much more complex Rosé.”
Jim emphasizes that Kathleen not only honors the grapes, but she also celebrates the growers. This is consistent with the holistic way she thinks about everything she does. She considers everyone who enters her circle, and all aspects of every project, bringing them together into a whole that reflects her style.
“She’s very community- and environmentally-oriented,” Jim adds. “She has us farm her vineyards organically. Kathleen wants to keep the world safe as much as she can. It’s more costly, but she believes it’s the right thing to do. And we’re happy to do it for her.”
“Originally, I thought that I would just grow grapes and sell them,” Kathleen says, “but the property was too small to do that, so I decided to make wine and sell them directly to consumers only. Even though you could only ship to ten states, I was sure I could do it!”
That was in 1999. When her wine was ready in 2003, Inman Family Wines was the first small winery to offer a proper shopping cart on their website. She was also the first California luxury winery to bottle using screw caps, even though market research indicated no one would buy wine over $20 with a screw cap. But she did it anyway, and people bought them, and some of the best restaurants in the country carried them. After a few years, producers were calling Kathleen to ask her advice on switching to screw caps.
Ashley says that her Mom always wanted them to work together, but she wanted to pave her own way. She thought working with her mother would be a “safety net” job. But then she realized being her own boss would offer a better work/life balance and found that working with her mother “doesn’t feel like a safety net at all. It feels like a challenging, fun, super exciting job!”
Kathleen’s business success, first as a high-powered headhunter in the London finance world and now as an innovative winemaker and winery owner, is inspiring in and of itself. But her special magic is inspiring people by reaching into their hearts to find a personal connection and making them part of her extended family.
Continue Reading: Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2021