Detour Before Dark: Tipping glasses at Old Sugar Mill
By Scott Thomas Anderson — originally published in the Roseville Press Tribune
When the Delta Breeze is gently moving over the state capitol it’s rushing fast down the banks of the Sacramento River, and 13 miles from the city’s skyline the top of an aged megalith of industry peaks over cottonwood, black walnuts and wild grape along the waterway: It’s dubbed the Old Sugar Mill, and it was built in the Great Depression as a stone and steel tribute to economic hope along California’s port channels. Today, the once dormant relic has been sparked to life by a consortium of boutique wineries using vineyards fed by river wind. Whether sipping Barberas or swirling Chardonnay in a glass, visitors to the spot experience Clarksburg’s best creativity within a factory’s rising dimensions. This month the site is celebrating its ten-year anniversary of being “The Galleria Divina” — or the gallery of the vines.
It’s just before 5 p.m. and the former husk of the American Crystal Sugar Company is filled with people. One of the winemakers moving busily between the wood barrels and crowded bodies is John Carvalho, the man who was first struck with the vision of creating the Old Sugar Mill. Carvahlo grew up in the Pocket neighborhood of Sacramento and understood that a vault of broken glass and web-swept bricks was sitting empty along the edge of the river.
“The building was constructed in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression,” Carvahlo explains. “The American Crystal Sugar Company moved here along the Delta from Utah. With everything that was happening at the time, California was really the place to be.”
Carvahlo believed the abandoned factory’s location — and the fertile fields surrounding it — could be the catalyst for an agro-based endeavor. With his family roots in winemaking going back four generations to Portugal, Carvahlo also knew that vino pioneer Clark Bogle had been proving since the 1960s that Clarksburg soil could yield magnificent grapes. Carvahlo purchased the property. Renovations on the Old Sugar Mill started in 2003, with its doors opening two years later. Several other winemakers saw the potential and joined in the venture.
“It was about making the place a destination,” Carvahlo recalls. “Here you have this huge sight of steel columns and bricks that look like something you’d see in San Francisco — something that’s reminiscent of an era of the past. And it’s standing here, just a ten-minute drive outside of Sacramento.”
With the Old Sugar Mill drawing wine connoisseurs from as far away as Massachusetts, Carvahlo has focused on the on the finer points of being a vintner. His brand, Carvahlo Family Wines, was among the first to champion harvesting the Tempranillo grape in Clarksburg: That accomplishment shows in its award-winning 2012 Tempranillo, a red flavor whirl of Aronia, chased by pings of cool custard and stirring clove notes in its body. And Carvahlo also enjoys producing white wines like his slim-bottled “Bootleg Blanc,” a personalized hybrid of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc: This blend hits with a clean crispness stirred with touches of tea leaf and the essence of honeycomb, its perennial lightness glazed with a calm nectar finish.
Next door to Carvahlo’s operation winemaker Todd Taylor is pouring glasses of his signature creations for the people who remain. Taylor has a reputation of mastering the nuances of individual grapes, as well as cooking mouth-watering food for his wine release parties. In particular, his 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is considered a premium pairing choice for barbecued steaks: When Taylor released this bottle to club members, he ordered 65 pounds of filet mignon to cook and serve for them, topped with chunks of aged blue cheese. The event was a hit. On this late afternoon, customers are getting a taste for the muscle in Taylor’s Cabernet, with its vibrant vanilla vibe swirled over oak hues and a deep, simmering coco base. It’s not hard for admirers of the thick-skinned Cab grape to see how Taylor’s handling of it offers a warm reflection for savoring red meat.
High heels continue to clank through the Old Sugar Mill’s central chamber. Near the doors to its back courtyard the Three Wine Company is keeping at atmosphere that is more like a party than a tasting room. Devotees to this particular winery are absolute in their commitment; and the sommelier lifting the bottles during the shift knows how contagious the energy is.
“I personally love what’s being made here,” says Denise Mantero, carefully filling a patron’s glass. “I was a wine club member for a while, and I liked it so much I ended up on the other side of the counter.”
Vintner Matt Cline does the steering at Three Wine Company. While some winemakers at the Old Sugar Mill are using Delta-soil grapes from Clarksburg, Cline has opted to get a bulk of his from vineyards on the southern waterways of Contra Costa County. One flavorful achievement from this tactic is the Evangelho Zinfandel, harvested from a 130-year-old vine in Oakley near Bethal Island. The Evangelho Zinfandel is sharply singular, with an open, grape-apricot front riding light acid tints and the faintest traces of sweet peppers. Even with the mill’s array of wine stops, few zinfandels here are as unique or popular as the Evangelho.
It’ now 5 p.m. and the doors at the Old Sugar Mill are getting ready to close. A handful of people who want to end the afternoon with a more electrified touch on their tongues ask for dessert wines. Most vintners at the site make port and muscatel-style after dinner bottles, though the rumor is that the dessert wines of all desert wines is found at Rendez-vous: It’s called the Late Harvest Petite Syrah, and it tastes like winemaker Larry Dizmang somehow melted a raspberry fudge truffle into pure sugar molasses and them imbued each crimson drip with a glowing flourish on the palate. Numerous bottles of it are being carried out the doors.
The lights are starting to dim in the tasting rooms. Visitors walk by the other wine hubs; Heringer Estates, Elevation Ten, Perry Creek, Draconis, Due Vigne di Famiglia, Clarksburg Wine Company and Merlo Family Vineyards. The sun is still high over the outside lot, beating west on long rows of vines and east to the grassy berm of the river bank. People exit the mill, some heading to the bars of Freeport, some heading to restaurants like Broderick in West Sacramento, some heading for much longer drives along the area’s deep water channel. Most have an uncorked energy to keep the evening going: As the great writer Eduardo Galeano once observed, “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”
Most vintners would love a piece of Napa County’s international fame, but Larry Dizmang is the proverbial one who got away — the successful winemaker who closed Folie`a Deux in St. Helena in the face of soaring demands from local officials. A psychiatrist and U.C. Davis-trained wine master, Dizmang’s Chenin Blanc from Napa was rated one of the best anywhere by Wine Spectator Magazine. When he walked away from Folie`a Deux it started him on the path to opening Rendez-vous Winery in The Old Sugar Mill. I sat down with Dizmang to discuss the lauded structure and his decision to create all of his varietals from grapes in the fields beyond it.
Scott: In the wake of Napa, how did you decide on the Clarksburg soil?
Larry: I love making Chenin Blanc. What I’ve discovered is that the Clarksburg is one of the best places for Chenin Blanc. The heat gets mild early in the evening, and it’s a few degrees cooler even in the hottest part of the daytime because of the Delta. It’s just a magnificent climate.
Scott: What’s the biggest challenge to the art of winemaking?
Larry: Technically the most important part of the process is getting the grapes picked at the correct ripeness. You’ve got to keep your eye on the sugars (in the harvest). I’m a winemaker who’s really involved in the picking of the grapes, and I prefer to have them handpicked. It’s crucial. We can’t control the weather and a lot of other things, but we can control when the grapes are picked, and that masters the acids, the flavors, the sugars, and ultimately, the alcohol content.
Scott: What makes The Old Sugar Mill a special place for wine lovers?
Larry: It has a lot of variety with 11 different wineries that all have different strengths. Each winemaker has their own style, so this place gives people a chance to explore various approaches and find out what they truly like. And they can do it without having to drive all over a countryside.
Scott: Your Late Harvest Petite Syrah is a desert wine that’s so amazing that it tastes like drinking sin. Is it not defined as a Port because of the marketing pressures coming from Portugal?
Larry: (Smiles). Well, it’s really made from a late harvest in the sense that I left petite syrah on the vine several weeks longer than it should have been, on purpose, which gave it that specific high-sugar, jammy taste that’s been so well-received. Look, we can’t call it a port anyway because of the marketing issues, but the name shows the timing of how it was made. That’s what the bottle really is.