Old Sugar Mill Hits Critical Mass

Former processing plant houses 10 California wineries and growing

by Paul Franson
old sugar mill
About 125,000 square feet of the 300,000-square-foot Old Sugar Mill have been renovated for winery and tasting room occupancy.
Clarksburg, Calif.—Many wineries occupy repurposed facilities, but few of them are as ambitious as the Old Sugar Mill in Clarksburg, 15 minutes south of Sacramento and three miles from Interstate 5.

The huge 300,000-square-foot brick complex just added its 10th winery, and it continues to build out space for perhaps as many more. Most tenants are small producers or tasting rooms, but the custom crush Clarksburg Wine Co., which shares ownership with the overall property, produces about 175,000 case equivalents of wine annually.

As the name suggests, the facility next to the Sacramento River once produced sugar (from sugar beets grown in the area.) Amalgamated Sugar Co. moved to Clarksburg from Utah in 1933 and processed the beets until 1993.

Transforming the facility
So far about 125,000 square feet have been improved and are in use or soon will be. This space includes two large buildings that contain tasting rooms (and production facilities) for most of the current wineries plus a “barrel room” for events (the barrels are empty.) The two buildings are connected by an impressive gallery used for events.

Some of the wineries have their own crush and press equipment, while others use the Clarksburg Wine Co. facilities in another large building; some take a hybrid approach, letting Clarksburg crush and press but handling other processes themselves. A few of the wineries make their wine elsewhere.

Clarksburg Wine Co. started selling wines under its own brand in 2010 and has its own tasting room.

A large former boiler room has been renovated and will be used for barrel storage and other operations of Clarksburg, which is growing out of its cramped space.

Making room for new tenants
An outlying building is being prepared for the tenth winery, Draconis, while five slabs await modern 5,000-square-foot metal buildings for future tenants. The old administration building houses offices and conference rooms that are often rented.

That leaves the large, four-story central building and another large two-story wing that wait for restoration. General manager John Beckman, who spent many years at DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County, admits that the big building is a “work in progress” that needs significant structural work, while the wing is targeted for a future restaurant, café and catering facility; the complex hosts many weddings and other events.

The area is not considered seismically active, but steel reinforcement has nevertheless been added to the updated buildings. “With all those tall, unreinforced brick walls around, we considered that prudent.”

Beckman is part of a group that acquired the property in 2009 from a previous owner who initiated the present use. Beckman said that the complex was pretty run down when they took over, but now the renovated buildings and the campus are pristine, with attractive plantings, modern signage and immaculately landscaped grounds. That’s little surprise as Beckman bent over to pick up minute scraps of paper as he led a tour through the facility.

They’ve also doubled the number of wineries:

The two most recent are Due Vigne di Famiglia and The Dragon & Chicken, home of Draconis Vineyards by Matt Powell.

The others are Carvalho Family Winery, Clarksburg Wine Co., Elevation Ten, Heringer Estates, Merlo Family Vineyards, Rendezvous Winery, Three Wine Co. and Todd Taylor Wines.

People behind the wineries
Due Vigne di Famiglia wines are produced by two area families: the Mussos, with a generation of growing Italian cultivars in El Dorado County, and the Houle family, which uses Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, plus Malbec for classic Cabernet and Meritage bottlings. Musso family wines include the rare Dolcetto and Nebbiolo varieties as well as Primitivo, Barbera and Petite Sirah, a Clarksburg area specialty.

Draconis by Matt Powell has its first public sales site at the Mill. According to Powell, Draconis has been an “underground winery known only to its mailing list and for its crafted, handmade wines in the old style” by its Burgundian-trained winemaker. Known for intense and silky smoothness, the wines are made in the “reductionist” style, specializing in 100% Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Syrah.

With its proximity to Sacramento’s 1.5 million population as well as many others in Davis and nearby cities, the winery hosts many events. The Old Sugar Mill sits on a 100-acre plot that includes tailored lawns and patios for weddings and other events. Functions such as wine and food events and concerts are held almost every weekend. They’ve attracted up to 2,800 visitors, and while there’s plenty of room inside for crowds; all-weather parking could be an issue during the wet winter.

The winemaking facility
All tasting areas are in climate-controlled buildings, though the massive buildings moderate the heat of local summers to some degree.

The site could also include vineyards for estate wines and demonstration. Beckman plans to plant the northern 15-20 acres to vineyards. “It would certainly be an attractive addition, while also providing us with the basis for an estate wine program, which would be excellent.”

The complex has two wells with substantial output, and it even has grandfathered rights to Sacramento River water, though it doesn’t exercise them.

Clarksburg Wine Co.
The largest tenant of the Old Sugar Mill, Clarksburg Wine Co., processes wine for large users including using grapes from the surrounding appellation. The Clarksburg AVA has about 20,000 acres of grapes, but perhaps 80% of the grapes and juice are shipped out of the area. The Chardonnay, for example, is used by Napa and Sonoma wineries such as Domaine Chandon and Korbel. The area has a lot of water, something that may become a real issue in the future.

The area was once best known for Chenin Blanc, a grape seemingly making a comeback. Beckman, who is also the president of Clarksburg Wine Co., said, “We’re hanging our hat on Chenin Blanc.”

Clarksburg Wine produces a dry and off-dry Chenin Blanc and a Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend, the latter inspired by Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa; Stacy Clark, the long-time winemaker at Pine Ridge, served as a consultant to Clarksburg until lured to Charles Krug earlier this year.

Beckman says the area, cooled by breezes from San Francisco Bay, can grow many varieties well. Bogle Vineyards is by far the area’s largest producer and is famous for its Petite Sirah, for example.

Winemaker Clark long worked with local Chenin Blanc, which she blended with a little Viognier to make a very popular wine for Pine Ridge. She only consulted with Clarksburg for a year, 2010, which was a cooler year. “We made great Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc,” she said, “and were able to make a nice Cabernet by making a few changes in the way the grapes were farmed.”

The winery acquired its equipment and tanks from the previous owner, and some is far larger than needed by small wineries.

Clarksburg Wine Co. produces 5,000 cases under its own name, all from the local AVA. (It also makes two wines under the Old Sugar Mill brand, which use other nearby grapes.)

Joining the community
Aside from adding more wineries to the complex, Clarksburg intends to create a program for individuals, small restaurants and other businesses to develop their own brands by blending wines from its stock and creating labels. “We see a lot of demand for lots under 1,000 cases,” Beckman said.

At present, Clarksburg Wine Co. has about 25-30 clients, but 80% of its business is with two companies, and Beckman would like to grow it to be more balanced with a “myriad” of small to medium-size wine companies. He noted that after years of subcontracting much of its wine, Bogle is building a 20,000-ton facility to make its wine. “Those other custom crushers are going to want to fill that void,” Beckman said.

Beckman also anticipates that an increasing number of wineries in the area—not just at the Old Sugar Mill—will attract even more visitors. Fortunately, Yolo County is very supportive of new wineries.

“I think the project is very promising,” winemaker Clark said. “It could really turn into a destination for people from Sacramento and Davis.”

The Old Sugar Mill is at 35265 Willow Ave. in the historic town of Clarksburg, 15 minutes southwest of the Capitol building in Sacramento. Details at oldsugarmill.com.

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