Uncorked: Banshee winemaker ready to make her own impact

Alicia Sylvester wanted something new to shovel.

As the winemaker heads into her second year at Banshee, she reminisced about her time growing up on an almond farm in Modesto, California, where the nuts would be shaken from the trees and collected. That same farm had 20 acres of zinfandel, not enough to do anything serious with, but satisfied her mother’s curiosity about wine.

Because farming is embedded in her family’s culture, Sylvester was in the 4-H club, worked a shovel on her grandfather’s dairy farm, and in college at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, studied dairy science and winemaking.

Although less than 2% of Americans are farmers, Sylvester knew she “had to do something in agriculture,” but had spent enough time doing the dirty work of a dairy farm. As Women’s History Month winds down, Sylvester is part of the next generation of female winemakers. She’s treading a path forged by trailblazing pioneers, and is ready to make her own impact.

“I think it came down to being ready to shovel grapes,” said Sylvester with a laugh in a Zoom call last week. “Women had always been in roles that were less hands-on. We had some [tough] women that were willing to roll up their sleeves. We found we had something to say and could talk the talk and walk the walk. Women got mad because they were assistants doing all the work and getting none of the credit. As the industry shifted, it’s opened doors. I knew I wanted to be in agriculture and would have no problem getting my hands dirty.”

At Banshee, Sylvester makes small- and large-volume wines. There are the everyday wines that retail for less than $30, and the direct-to-consumer wines that feature a limited release and premium prices between $50 and $70.

Like a classroom teacher attending to the various learning styles of each student, Sylvester has to reach an audience with each bottling. While she might be more hands-off with a single-vineyard wine, an appellation blend could take more coaxing and individualized attention.

“I like to explain larger-volume wines like students in a classroom – as a whole, they can be great,” Sylvester said. “But if you pick apart the class, some students get straight As and some don’t. But, as a whole, it comes together nicely. The small-production, direct-to-consumer wines are all straight-A students. It’s easier for me to be hands-off and let the wine become what it’s supposed to be. With larger-volume wines, my goal is to create that harmony and make sure everyone comes together.”

The Banshee Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2019 ($28) has a wide release and excellent quality. It had a nose that was vibrant, as tobacco and baking spice jumped from the glass. There were black cherry, juicy blackberry and forest floor flavors.

When she poured Banshee wines earlier this month at the World of Pinot Noir, a fest celebrating the varietal in Santa Barbara, Sylvester received overwhelmingly positive responses for the Sonoma County pinot noir. With more than 200 wines being poured, she was pleased with the recognition, but also teased people with the promise of the Banshee single-vineyard pinot, “Wait until you get to the next wine,” she said.

Next up for Banshee is a sparkling wine. Sylvester said she’s made a “fun, clean, crisp, lemony wine with creaminess and some weight.”

There’s been a soft launch of the sparkling wine, and it will hit store shelves in April. She’s fallen for the beauty of Sonoma, and said she could see herself there long-term.

“I’m going onto year two with Banshee, and have been part of the Foley Family Wines,” Sylvester said. “I’m happy to take this brand over, and am excited to take care of it.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.

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