“I’m a local guy making local wine. I grew up in New Suffolk, and my ancestors were farmers here. My grandmother’s father was Leslie Wells, who I’m named after. And his family got the land we farmed from a King’s grant—I always wanted to get into something in my profession that had some connection with the land.”
And connected he is. In 2010, Howard stepped into the spot long held by Rich Olsen-Harbich (now at Bedell Cellars) to become the winemaker for Raphael, the grand, Italianate villa of a winery started in 1996 in Cutchogue by the Petrocelli family, but he’d had quite a career before that, starting as an assistant winemaker to Roman Roth at Wölffer and then for Kip Bedell at his namesake winery. In 2005, he went on as full-fledged winemaker in charge at Jamesport Vineyards, where he remained until 2007. After that was Pindar, where he raised the bar with some stellar reds at one of the North Fork’s oldest wineries.
But it turns out all that shuffling wasn’t so much a case of itchy feet; it was about learning from great mentors, connecting with his family’s farming heritage and finding his own style along the way. “I have deep roots here, and winemaking really brings me to that place,” he says matter-of-factly. And while he doesn’t bill as total noninterventionist, he does believe that each plot and set of vines expresses itself in its own way.
The reds from his first vintage at Raphael are still resting in barrel, but he’s now on his second round of whites, and the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc shows a bit of what he means when he says he likes the fruit to find its way. It’s a gentle sauvignon blanc—not super grassy or smelling of just-snapped green beans; not exotically tropical from extra time on the vine. It’s a little floral and citrusy on the nose, and soft and elegant in your mouth, with flavors of pink grapefruit and yellow apples, and a zingy finish that lingers on a bit. If by chance someone were to offer you a soft-shell crab sandwich or some lightly sautéed sea scallops alongside it, you would be a very happy sipper, indeed. It’s the kind of wine that plays well at the table, which is why you’ll find it on several menus, like Love Lane Kitchen’s, where they pour it by the glass.
While sauvignon blanc might not be the very first grape you associate with Long Island, where merlot and chardonnay still reign supreme in plantings, and grapes like cabernet franc are gaining more and more attention, crisp, refreshing white wines have become a bit of a bass-line beat that may be getting ready for a lot more spotlight solos. Consider the success of white-grape troubadours like winemaker Christopher Tracy or the success of chenin blanc from Paumanok. For Howard, the opportunity to exploit that refreshing expressiveness has everything to do with our very own L.I. terroir.
“That character that you are seeing in that sauvignon blanc is the vineyard where it comes from—those grapes in that part of our winery. It’s more gravelly and sandy, so the vines have to struggle a little bit. Also, it’s the vintage.”
One would assume it was a challenge for only the second vintage at the helm of Raphael for Howard. To that, he tips his hat to longtime vineyard manager, Steve Mudd. “He’s one of the pioneering grape growers out here. He planted Raphael and has been involved since day one. He’s way more of a preventive farmer—he stops bad things before they happen.” Last year, that meant avoiding rot. “We had solid fruit. I didn’t have to do anything extreme to make those flavors appear—they were there in the juice, and I guided them to become the wine in the bottle.”
Which is true, of course, but undersells his talents entirely. Maybe Howard’s humility comes from this family’s 300 years of farming in unpredictable Northeastern weather, and maybe, too, the pleasing little miracle that is wine in a glass. But on approaching his 16th vintage, we would like to give him quite a bit more credit than that.
“I’m not a really big fan of over-oaking or pushing extreme styles in the wines. I like the fruit in my wines,” says Howard. “I want them to be harmonious, and you get this from the vineyard.”