In honor of Women's History Month, we're recognizing several of the women leading the Foley Family Wines organization.
To kick things off, we sat down with Alicia Sylvester, Assistant Winemaker at Lancaster Estate to hear more about her experience and what led her to her current role.
Q: What drew you to the winemaking profession?
I grew up surrounded by agriculture and hard work in the Central Valley; my father farms almonds and we also had a 20-acre Zinfandel vineyard. When I started university at Cal Poly, I knew I wanted to do something in the agriculture industry but wasn’t exactly sure what direction. After taking a few wine classes I was hooked and decided this was the industry I was meant to be in. From then on out, I spent my studies in school focused on wine business while my summers were full of viticulture and enology internships.
In 2011 I had my first cellar internship – from there, winemaking stole my heart and I've never looked back!
Q: How did all of your experiences help you in your current role at Lancaster?
After my first harvest, I hopped arond the globe chasing the northern and southern hemisphere harvests. Working harvests in five different countries not only opened my eyes to how wine is made differently all around the world but also humbled me as a person – winemaking is not as glamourous as people think in general, but wineries around the world also don't have as many safety regulations as we do in the US and it sadly feels like there is a lower value of life.
While I traveled, I made it a priority to taste and tour at as many wineries as possible; tasting wines we could never get in California has made me a better and more valuable winemaker. I also look back at a lot of the experiences I've had, both domestic and international, to help guide my problem-solving here at Lancaster.
"Wine is art, wine is agriculture, wine is business, wine is science, wine is love, wine is life."
Q: What does your typical day look like as a winemaker at Lancaster? How does it vary by season?
I get this question all the time: “but what do you do, like every day?” But the reality is that the days change dramatically day-to-day; some days we're in the cellar all day, racking barrels, blending, and (most of all) cleaning. Other days, I’ll be in the lab running analysis, making trial blends, composing work orders, and insuring our wine tracking system is up to date. You may also find me and David in the warehouse moving cases around for wholesale and tasting room orders. On top of all of that, I'm also the site safety and sustainability manager so a large portion of a few of my months is dedicated to our annual audits.
Once harvest approaches, everything changes. Mine usually start out sampling in the vineyard and then I'll process samples, run analysis, and consult on picking decisions for the upcoming days. We still spend a lot of time in the cellar helping with processing, pumpovers – and more cleaning! – until the day is complete.
Q: That's a lot of different projects throughout a day! What's a common misconception about your role?
Exactly – no job is too small, and that's probably the biggest misconception. Just because we're winemakers doesn't mean you won't find us cleaning drains and taking out the compost. We're a two-person winemaking/production team here at Lancaster, so we really must do it all; the winery is ours to take care of in all aspects.
"Winemaking isn’t just caring for the wine; it’s about the little details. One of my favorite quotes is 'working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.'”
Q: What is your favorite part about working at Lancaster Estate?
We have our own slice of heaven here – the first couple hours at the winery are my favorite because there's a wonderful calmness and peace. I also love being able to see my work pay off directly through our wine club members and guests who come out to taste.
Q: Do you have a favorite of the wines that Lancaster currently has available?
I'm loving the 2013 Cabernet – but I'm also a sucker for our newly-released 2016 Sophia's Hillside Cuvée. The 2013 melts in your mouth and is drinking so nicely right now with whatever you prefer to pair with it – for me, it’s a steak dinner! The 2016 Cuvée has my heart and soul in it because anything from 2015 vintage I’ve had my hands on. Its more rustic notes excite my palate and I find myself continuously exploring the wine.
Q: Which wine varietal do you think is underrated?
Right now, I'm rooting for Merlot. It’s been kicked to the curb since the movie Sideways. Visiting France’s right bank confirmed Merlot had been a diamond in the rough for my palate. Lancaster always has all five Bordeaux varietals in our Cabernet but I am hoping we’ll do a small production 2018 100% Merlot; we barrel-fermented some and it’s tasting promising. We’ll see!