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Label Honors Consultant's Role in Developing California Chardonnay

December 14, 1989|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

ST. HELENA, Calif. — The label on the Chardonnay made by Freemark Abbey Winery hasn't changed in two decades. Neither has the wine, and starting with the 1986 vintage, the reason for that is now on the bottle.

It is the name Brad Webb. When Freemark Abbey released its 20th Chardonnay a year ago, from the 1986 vintage, the bottle had a back label for the first time since the winery's founding in 1967. It pays homage to Webb.

It was a rare and special tribute to the man known by so few wine lovers but a man so respected and loved within the industry.

"And don't you forget to say he's the nicest man who ever lived," said Michele Hunter, president of a Santa Rosa public relations firm, who worked with Webb in her early years in the wine business.

The winery's acknowledgement of Webb was unusual in that he is not an employee of the winery, but a consultant. (Of course, he is also a partner in the place, so he is not some one-day-a-month guy.)

Webb's contribution to the wine industry spans three decades with Chardonnay. He's made other wines, such as Pinot Noir and Cabernet and even late-harvest Rieslings that would make a German swoon, but it's his touch with Chardonnay that will ever leave a grace mark on the California wine industry.

You don't hear much about Freemark Abbey Chardonnay these days in the wine press. Perhaps some of the commentators don't understand the wine, especially in the face of the massive brutes being fashioned these days partly from grape and partly from wood. Sometimes clumsiness is more engaging than craftsmanship.

The fact is, Freemark Abbey Chardonnay may be one of the last holdouts from an era (the 1960s) when Californians made Chardonnay that respected the grape and not the method. It was a time when wine was made that required a tad of patience as well an iota of introspection.

This is no wine to make a judgment about off one sniff and a fast, healthy slug; this is wine to ponder.

"You don't mess around with Classic Coke, and we don't mess around with Chardonnay," said Ted Edwards, another Webb protege.

I met with Edwards and winery partner Chuck Carpy recently to chat about Chardonnay and Webb's contribution to history. I mentioned, perhaps a bit bluntly, that Freemark's Chardonnay gets so little press these days. Edwards just nodded and said, "They tend to be austere early on. It takes a year in the bottle for anyone to see what they're gonna be."

Carpy noted, "When they're young, they're compartmentalized. It takes four or five years for them to come around."

The 1987 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay ($15) is that sort of wine. There is fruit, but it's muted, a citrus-leaning kind. The oak too is restrained, and the dominant character is not overt fruit as much as delicacy and finesse. It's a small wine with potential to grow in the bottle.

It is wine to pair with grilled fish or simple chicken dishes with no cream sauces or heavy spices. It is one of this state's best attempts to make a wine that will go with oysters.

This reticence is no accident, and though Webb has thought about making the wine more fleshy and broad when it is young, he says that to do so would destroy the delicate qualities it needs for aging.

Webb is not alone in this belief. Others also make wine like this, but they too take a bit of heat when their wines are released by the crowd that wants an easy hit of sweetness, oak, alcohol, or all of the above.

Among the other wines made in this style, which if you haven't guessed yet I prefer, are those from Keenan, Chappellet, Trefethen, St. Clement, Brander, Dry Creek, Merlion, Vichon, Iron Horse and Domaine Laurier, to name just 10. There are widely differing growing regions here, of course, but these properties are peopled by wine makers who hew to a leaner style that I go for.

Their wines are not easy to understand, even for experienced tasters. I realized this last week when chatting with Mary Ann Graf, one of the state's top enologists and co-owner of Vinquiry, a wine analysis laboratory in Healdsburg.

Graf said she was home alone one recent evening and pulled a bottle of 1981 Keenan Chardonnay from her cellar, expecting a simple, tasty wine to quaff. "It was great," she exclaimed, "and I had no one to share it with."

She said that when the wine was younger, it was good but she never got the idea it was so sublime until just the other night. I told her I was writing about Webb and Freemark Abbey Chardonnay. She nodded with a grin.

Ralph Bradford Webb, 67, is the younger brother of A. Dinsmoor Webb, former chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, who is still active at the school at age 71.

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