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Wine Press: Meet winemaker Les Howard of Raphael

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Les Howard, winemaker at Raphael in Peconic.

Les Howard doesn’t see himself as a winemaker.

He considers himself a shepherd who guides grapes into wine.

He doesn’t push the grapes, and he doesn’t change them. In the cellar of Raphael in Peconic, he aims to turn the small red and white fruits into their highest potential.

“I’m not making,” he said. “I’m guiding. The more I learn, the less I try to change it.”

Mr. Howard, 37, has worked in Long Island Wine Country for his entire career, starting out as a cellar hand at Pindar Vineyards.

“I had no idea I was going to be a winemaker,” he said.

“I needed money,” he said with a laugh, “so I became a cellar hand.”

He soon learned he couldn’t deny his fascination with wine. He learned the art of winemaking quickly and became an assistant winemaker at Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards, Wolffer Estate Vineyards and Bedell Cellars.

He landed his first gig as head winemaker in 2005 at Jamesport Vineyards, migrated back to Pindar and then joined Raphael in 2010.

Along the way, he’s made good friends with other winemakers, a band of people he says genuinely care that their peers succeed.

“We feel like we all have to make good wine to bring our reputation up as a region,” he said. “We’re not afraid to share knowledge.”

Mr. Howard is hard-pressed to identify his single favorite wine.

“I love all the wines I make,” he said.

He admits that the red wines currently fermenting in Raphael’s oak barrels made with grapes harvested in the 2010 season just might be the highest quality he’s ever made.

He went to far as to say the 2010 red vintages will be some of the best wines ever to emerge from Long Island.

“These are some of the best wines I’ve ever worked with,” he said while strolling past rows of red-striped barrels in the dimly-lit cellar of Raphael. “No one’s tasted anything like this from Long Island.”

He said the 2010 growing season was certainly the best the Island had seen since the highly successful 2007 season — if not the best ever. He didn’t use many sulfites in his red wines since the tannin structures were so rich in many of them. He didn’t use any sulfites, which is quite rare, in his 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon.

He said winemaker peers in California who tasted the 2010 vintages were blown away by the quality of the wine.

“To me, all of these wines are remarkable,” he said.

Until those vintages are released, he’ll continue guiding, not making, what he believes is the best Long Island has to offer.

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