Getting to know Alicia Sylvester

Wednesday, 27 March, 2013
Shante Hutton,
I met Alicia Sylvester at a Zinfandel tasting held by Blaauwklippen; blonde, tanned and with a fantastic California drawl, she’s doing an internship at Blaauwklippen and I knew I had to interview her.

Oh, did I mention that she has Zinfandel tattooed on her foot?
Underneath a canopy of oak trees on a hot day at Blaauwklippen, I quizzed Alicia on her love of wine, tattoos and why South Africa is a leader in wine experiences.

“We’re finishing harvest pretty soon” says Alicia, removing heavy steel-toed boots, “this year the yield is down 40% because of wind damage and we have 3 interns so it’s actually been a pretty groovy harvest, smooth, getting off one hour later than usual. Rolf has been great explaining to us his reason for wine making and that is what we are here for.”

Graduating in 2011 from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo with a bachelors of science in agriculture business/marketing concentration and a wine & Viticulture minor, Alicia is no stranger to grapes having a family that grow Zinfandel in the Napa valley. “My family has 40 hectares of Zinfandel in the central valley of California but I had only been involved in the viticultural side, such as the farming and nurturing of the vines, not the wine making part.”

"In the central valley it is mostly bulk wines so there are a lot of farmers and a lot of grapes and then it goes into massive bulk production. It’s a completely different business to specialist, time-consuming wine making. The Bulk industry is a business in which we will make a consistent product and we will sell it so that we can get a profit whereas boutique and specialized wine making, it’s more intense and emotional which is where I need to be."

She began her journey into the wine making side of things by doing 7 months as an intern at Providence Hewit and that was her first cellar experience where she professes to have never worked harder before in her life. “I loved it. I knew from that experience that I need to be doing this permanently.”

From there she went to Australia and worked at Molly Dooker of which 75% of their wines are exported to the U.S.  Then, through the power of networking on LinkedIn, and a bit of creative pitching, she landed a job in Italy at a small winery in a town with a maximum of 80 people. Here she found her roles changing, becoming less the student and more the teacher.

Going from northern hemisphere to the southern because the seasons are opposite, she was aiming to do two harvests in a year, fetes which even the most dedicated of Iron man contestants might struggle with. “I haven’t seen spring in two years” she laughs, “I’m just chasing autumn.”

It was during her involvement in the Zaps festival (that is Zinfandel Advocates and Producers to you and me) in San Francisco that she was contemplating places to go and work. “My parents had been to South Africa before so that was a possibility and at ZAPS there was a South African booth which Rolf was working at. I introduced myself and gave them my credentials.”

The rest is wine making history.

She is 100% hands-on in the cellar and vineyards at Blaauwklippen and the clause to her internship was that she wanted her hands to be black, red and blue from hard grafting.

She recalls with amusement, the difficulty she first had in trying to tell her family where in South Africa she was going. “I would sort of hide behind my hand and mumble because I just couldn’t pronounce Blaauwklippen. As soon as I got here I was listening out for the pronunciation!”

Having only been here a month, she’s already gone to 25 wineries, “I wake up in the morning knowing that we’re going to do some wine tasting and I love it. How many people get to do that? I’ll never be able to get these wines in the States because South Africa doesn’t necessarily export its best produce. You have to look hard for it.”

Her experiences of South African wine and its wine farms have been very positive, “from a business perspective, South African wine farms are big on experiences. A lot of wine farms in America – we call them wineries – don’t have restaurants, you simply taste the wine and buy. Here, it’s big into keeping people at the wine farm. It’s a good practice because it gets non wine drinkers interested too.”

“But wineries have to be on the ball. Don’t just serve a wine; tell me about it because someone has put so much work into that wine to then have it fall away at the last hurdle. Fairview and Ernie Els have the ‘wine experience’ down to an art – we have to go back again!”

From her experience, she is growing as a winemaker and one day, hopes to be a good leader. “I will have done everything that goes into making a winery successful and I think that is important.” The different continents she has worked in have opened her eyes to new marketing ideas and wine making processes.

“If I’m going to be a head winemaker at a winery somewhere, I need to be business-minded. I need to have a structure in place, a sharp grasp on finances and dedication to the finishing because the selling and marketing of the wine after bottling, that is incredibly hard.”

She’ll be finishing at Blaauwklippen in the next month or two and the goal in mind is to do two more vintages before she has to take the plunge into working permanently; ideally working with two wineries because “at the end of the day I am in wine making. I’d qualify to be a winemaker though I don’t plan to open my own winery; there are so many wineries already and if I opened one there would be too much of an overhead cost. If I was to settle down in a region it would be the Napa or Sonoma region but I’m also interested in Santa Barbara where they work with pinot noir.”