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Brad Webb, Pioneer of California Chardonnay, Dies

James Laube
Posted: October 4, 1999

Brad Webb, an influential winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma and a founding partner of Freemark Abbey Winery in Napa Valley, died on Sept. 27 at his home in Sonoma. He was 77.

Although Webb had battled Parkinson's disease for nearly 20 years, he remained active as a winemaking consultant for several California wineries.

Webb was the founding winemaker at Hanzell, where he was among the first in California to focus on barrel-aged Chardonnay. "He was one of the pioneers of California Chardonnay," said Bob Sessions, current winemaker at Hanzell, who first worked with Webb in the 1960s. Webb was hired in 1957 by James Zellerbach, the owner of Hanzell, to make Burgundian-style Chardonnay. At the time, only a few California wineries -- such as Stony Hill and Martin Ray -- were experimenting with Chardonnay.

"He was one of the smartest people I've ever known, always thinking, always trying to figure out a better way to do something," said Sessions. "He had high standards, and he passed them on. He was one of the first winemakers in California to really get serious about Chardonnay."

A native of Victorville, Calif., Webb took an early interest in fermentation science, making home-brewed root beer with his brother, Dinsmoore Webb, who later became a professor at the University of California at Davis in the department of enology and viticulture. Brad Webb attended UC Berkeley as a pre-med student and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. He said that his fundamental education in winemaking began in the early 1950s when he worked for E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif.

Not only was Webb one of the first California winemakers to use small French oak barrels, he was also instrumental in developing techniques relating to controlled malolactic fermentations and oxidation reduction through the use of inert gases, as well as sterile bottling and glass-lined stainless steel fermentation tanks. Webb designed much of the equipment and many of the techniques that were pioneered at Hanzell.

In 1963, Zellerbach died and his widow closed the winery. Webb and his family were unwilling to move from Sonoma, and he took a research job at Sonoma State Hospital. While working at the hospital, he developed a part-time wine consulting business. In 1966, he returned to winemaking full-time when Doug and Mary Day purchased Hanzell and reopened it.

In 1967, Webb was part of the group that founded Freemark Abbey in St. Helena -- which focused on Napa Valley Cabernet, Petite Sirah and dessert wines -- and later helped with the partners' second winery, Rutherford Hill. (He remained affiliated with Hanzell through the 1970s as a consultant.) After he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, in 1977, he continued to work in a low-profile capacity, consulting for wineries such as Landmark, St. Francis, Sonoma-Cutrer, Quail Ridge and Hacienda.

A soft-spoken and introspective man, Webb received many accolades during his career. In 1982, his peers honored him with the American Society of Enologists Merit Award.

Webb is survived by his wife, Alice, his brother and his daughters Lynn Webb-Canillo, Gretchen Webb-Kummer and Valerie Webb-Hamilton.

Those who wish contributing to the Brad Webb Memorial Enology Scholarship Fund may make checks payable to the Regents of the University of California and send them to the University of California at Davis, Dept. of Enology, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, Calif. 95616.

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