Eleven years ago, Les Howard had a summer job at Pindar Vineyards on the bottling line, spending most of his time packing cases with just-labeled bottles. A month ago, he was named head winemaker at Jamesport Vineyards. He’s come a long way.
“Les has seen 11 vintages of Long Island wine. He knows the region and its climate. He knows the grapes,” said Ron Goerler Jr., Jamesport Vineyards’ owner and vineyard manager. “He’s seen it all. And, his talent and experience are things we can continue build Jamesport Vineyards on.”
Goerler’s father, Ron Goerler Sr., was only the fourth person to plant vines on Long Island, starting the vineyard in 1981. But now with Howard on board, Jamesport Vineyards’ lineage goes back even further – all the way to the 1600s, in fact, when his ancestors were granted large plots on the North Fork by the King of England.
And when Howard’s great grandfather passed away and the family sold his potato farm, they sold it to cousins. The North Fork is truly in Howard’s blood.
Even so, Howard “never thought of being a winemaker” when he first started at Pindar Vineyards. It was only when Pindar’s winemaker at the time, Mark Friszolowski, told him that he’d make a good winemaker that Howard considered it as a career option. Friszolowski has since moved on to Childress Vineyards in Lexington, North Carolina, but Howard will never forget working with him.
“I owe Mark a lot. He’s the one that really got me started in this business.”
me.After five years in various roles at Pindar, Howard moved on to Osprey’s Dominion Vineyards for a time before heading to Wölffer Estate Vineyards on the South Fork in Sagaponack. While at Wölffer, Howard had an opportunity to work closely with winemaker Roman Roth.
Roth describes Howard as very detail oriented. “He enjoys his work and takes great pride in it.” Howard’s time at Wölffer was apparently well spent.
“Working at Wölffer, with Roman, was the turning point in my career,” Howard said.
Before landing at Jamesport Vineyards, Howard also had the opportunity to work under Kip Bedell’s tutelage at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, gaining further experience with yet another one of the region’s top winemakers.
When asked why he decided to come to Jamesport Vineyards, Howard responded quickly.
“Everyone in the region knows that Ron grows great fruit. His vines are healthy and the quality is there. I know I’ll have great fruit to work with.”
Over the last couple of years, Jamesport Vineyards has garnered a reputation for wines that match that fruit’s quality. The 2001 Cabernet Franc was even named the “Best Red Wine in New York” at the 2004 New York Wine & Food Classic, considered by many to be the “Oscars” of New York wine. Other wines winning awards include the 2001 Merlot, 2001 Reserve Merlot, 2002 Chardonnay Cox Lane and 2001 Pinot Noir.
Goerler doesn’t want his wines to just win awards, though. He wants his customers to love them, too.
“Nine out of ten customers I talk to are looking for wines to drink with their dinner. We want to offer wines with great balance that will complement food well.”
Howard describes his winemaking style simply.
“Bordeaux. I try to make Bordeaux-style wines. Anyone who thinks we can make California-style wines here on Long Island is wrong. I like to make wines with long sensation on the palate. Spikes of oak or acidity numb your taste buds, shortening the finish. Balanced wines offer the longest finish.”
Long Island can be a tough place to grow grapes, but both Goerler and Howard understand how that influences the job of producing quality wine.
“2003 wasn’t a good year for our Cabernet Franc, so we didn’t make Cabernet Franc that year. If we don’t have the fruit, we’re not going to make the wine,” Goerler said. Howard added “You make the best wines you can every year, but you can’t try to go too far with the grapes.”
This commitment to quality is obvious in the all of Jamesport Vineyards’ current releases. The 2003 Sauvignon Blanc ($13) is a crisp Chardonnay alternative with inviting floral aromas, crisp herb-accented citrus flavors and a layer of gingery spice. Part of the final blend was aged in oak, adding a richness not found in most New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. “It’s a natural with our local shellfish and produce,” noted Goerler.
The 2003 Cox Lane Chardonnay ($15) offers pear aromas and subtle vanilla and butterscotch notes. Nice acidity also results in the style and the food friendliness Goerler wants. “I don’t think our (Chardonnay) grapes can handle excess oak.”
Jamesport’s 2002 Pinot Noir ($20) is one of only a handful made on the Island and it offers red cherry and cranberry flavors with smoky vanilla nuances. “I love this with grilled fish,” Goerler smiled.
While the award-winning 2001 Cabernet Franc is long sold out, the 2002 ($24) is still available for purchase. Well-structured with smooth tannins, this berry-filled pour is rounded out by cedar and spice.
Despite Jamesport Vineyards’ dedication to offering great Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Goerler still agrees with many that, “Merlot exemplifies our region. It’s consistently good.” Jamesport Vineyards’ 2002 Merlot ($18) is a rich, well-extracted purple and delivers smoky vanilla and blackberry flavors. Smooth tannins and a long vanilla finish add to its elegance.
Roasted pineapple flavors and aromas dominate the 2001 Semi-Glace, a dessert wine made with frozen Semillon grapes. Goerler has decided not to make this wine anymore, so this is the last vintage.
Looking forward to the 2004 vintage, Goerler feels that his Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon did exceptionally well, but “all of our fruit was nice this year, even if we never got over 90 degrees. September was a great month and that really helped.” Howard has only worked with the 2004 wines for a few weeks, but thinks they are all doing very well, noting that the reds are “all very dark and have beautiful color.”
Goerler has high hopes for his new winemaker and his winery, planning to increase production from 5,000 cases to 10,000 in the next few years.
“I think it will take another 15 years or so to really see what Long Island can really do (with wine). Les is a big part of what we think we can do here. His dedication and commitment to the industry are why we brought him in. I think we’re going to work very well together.”
For more information on Jamesport Vineyards, visit www.jamesport-vinyeards.com or call 631-722-5256.