When a power outage left Kathleen Inman with unfermented wine, the Sonoma County winemaker had an unconventional idea
While Kathleen Inman’s reputation was built on her crushable rosés, sparkling wines and nuanced pinot noirs, the Sonoma County winemaker has always had a soft spot for cocktails — especially the Negroni.
So, when a power outage during the 2017 Tubbs Fire left her with three barrels of mildly sweet pinot noir that hadn’t finished fermentation, she had an interesting idea.
“I’d been keeping the juice warm with aquarium heaters to encourage fermentation, but with no electricity, the wine became ice cold and fermentation stopped,” said Inman, founder of Inman Family Wines in Santa Rosa. “I thought, well, I have sweet red wine and I love a Negroni — why not make vermouth?”
What is vermouth?
Imbued with aromatic botanicals like herbs, spices and roots, vermouth is a fortified wine made with white or red grapes. It can be sweet or dry and is nearly always distinctly bitter.
While archaeological evidence in China suggests aromatized wines have been around at least as early as the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (1250-2000 BC), modern vermouth was developed in 18th century Italy, where it was often used as a health tonic.
But it wasn’t until the late 1880s that vermouth became a popular ingredient in cocktails, eventually making its way into classics like the martini, Negroni, Manhattan, boulevardier and Americano.
In the Negroni — one of Inman’s favorite tipples — red vermouth is combined with equal parts gin and Campari (a bitter liqueur), then served on the rocks with an orange twist for the perfect aperitif.
After researching some of her favorite vermouths, Inman sourced a variety of organic seeds, herbs and other aromatics from Rosemary’s Garden, a popular herb shop in Sebastopol.
Experimenting with various botanical combinations, Inman presented some test samples to her friends Laura Sanfilippo and Tara Heffernon, owners of Lo & Behold cocktail bar and restaurant in Healdsburg.
“I brought them the samples and said, ‘you ladies need to tell me what you think about each one of these,’” Inman said. “After they gave some critiques, I went away and combined all their feedback to make the ultimate vermouth.”
In the end, 12 botanicals made the final cut for Inman’s vermouth, including star anise, cinnamon, Seville orange peels, coriander seeds, turkey rhubarb root, rose petals, gentian and artemisia absinthium (wormwood), among others.
After adding the aromatics to the pinot noir, she allowed the wine to macerate for three months before straining out the solids, then fortifying the resulting wine with eau de vie (colorless brandy) from Griffo Distillery in Petaluma.
After five years of aging in stainless steel, the vermouth was bottled last October. Released in December, the fortified wine already has proven popular with customers who are eager to get their hands on one of the 675 bottles and one of Sonoma County’s only homegrown vermouths.
“You never know what people are going to like, so the positive feedback has been great,” Inman said. “For me, the flavors and aromas of the rose petals, cloves and cinnamon mirror those in the pinot noir base wine. Then you have the boldness of the spice and bitterness of the absinthe, gentian and Seville orange peel. Those really perk up your palate and whet your appetite.”
Fortunately for vermouth fans, Inman has two additional batches undergoing aging, including a white vermouth made with the excess juice from the winery’s sparkling wine program.
“Besides the Negroni, my other favorite cocktail is the Corpse Reviver II, which uses white vermouth,” Inman said. “So I thought, why not give that a go?”
As for whether Inman plans to trade in wine for cocktails, that’s a definite no.
“To be honest, I’m just an equal opportunity imbiber,” she said.
To purchase Inman Family’s vermouth ($36), visit inmanfamilywines.com
You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or email@example.com. On X (Twitter) and Instagram @whiskymuse.