The Old Sugar Mill looms from the flatlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta like one more grim California penal colony to startle unsuspecting motorists as they wind their way through some quiet, remote and sparsely settled stretch of the state.
But once again, looks deceive. As its name suggests, the Old Sugar Mill long has been a spot more sweet than sour. Just south of Clarksburg and just west of the Sacramento River, the sturdy old structure has been home to a series of agricultural alchemists who transform raw material into something refined to whet and satisfy the appetite.
Where once it was sugar, today it's wine. The walls of the place must consist of a billion red bricks, all the more amazing because the structure once stood in Utah, where it housed a branch of the Amalgamated Sugar Co. In 1933, however, Amalgamated closed the plant and over the next two years dismantled the facility and shipped it, piece by piece, to California to be reassembled on the banks of the Sacramento River, according to research gathered by the Friends of the Clarksburg Library.
It changed hands a couple of times in subsequent years and finally stopped processing sugar altogether in 1993. About a decade ago, it was resuscitated as a venue to house artisan vintners winemakers who make relatively small batches of commercial wine.
Over the years, wine- makers have come and gone, with five to eight of them at any given time generally occupying the main hall, their tasting rooms emanating from a high and airy central corridor.
Todd Taylor has been a steady presence since the summer of 2006. That's when his eponymous winery outgrew the three-car garage of his Rancho Murieta residence, and he moved into a somewhat larger space at the Old Sugar Mill.
Up until that time, he'd made his living selling industrial packaging. In the early 1980s he and his buddies began to brew beer, and at one point he toyed with the notion of becoming a commercial brewer. As he and his pals matured, however, their beverage of choice shifted from beer to wine, so Taylor switched from taking an occasional class in brewing at the University of California, Davis, to an occasional class in winemaking.
One of his first wines as a home winemaker was a zinfandel with grapes from Frank and Kathy Alviso's Clockspring Vineyard in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley. He started with just a thousand pounds or so, and when he got up to buying 12 tons per vintage, he figured it was time to go commercial and relocate into more accommodating quarters.
"It started as a hobby, but it got out of control. At first, I was just making wine for friends, family and business clients," recalls Taylor.
Today, Taylor is the full-time proprietor of Todd Taylor Wines. He crushes around 70 tons of grapes at each harvest, from which he produces about 3,500 cases a year under his own brand. Though his tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill is open just 10 hours a week, that's where he sells all of his wine.
He's a rarity in the wine trade, a vintner who doesn't need distributors, who doesn't have to court gatekeepers at restaurants and wine shops. Most amazingly, he's established his following at the higher end of the price spectrum. His wines sell in the $30-to-$50 range.
His winemaking philosophy is straightforward: He makes the kind of wine he likes to drink, which is to say substantial, fruit-driven, single-vineyard, unblended varietals with an under- pinning of generous oak.
"That's where I tend to gravitate with my own collection. Those are the kinds of wines I enjoy personally. They have focused fruit flavor, and I like oak in wines, American or French," Taylor says.
He scouts the state for vineyards that yield grapes that produce the sorts of wines he enjoys, though he rarely travels beyond the north state. He gets cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, pinot noir from Suisun Valley, tempranillo from the Delta. In all, he makes around a dozen varietal wines each vintage.
Among them is zinfandel he continues to buy from Clockspring Vineyard. The Alvisos sell their zinfandel to more than a dozen wineries each year, and each winemaker leaves his own distinct fingerprint on the resulting wine.
"When we were around tastings, the question asked frequently was why different customers (vintners) produced distinctive wines from the same vineyard. We grew fond of saying that it was analogous to giving the same palette of paint and an empty canvas to various artists. The results vary," says Frank Alviso.
True to his own palate preference, Taylor uses Clockspring grapes to produce a large and lush take on zinfandel. The Todd Taylor Wines 2009 Amador County Clockspring Vineyard Zinfandel is veined with the black-pepper spice for which the vineyard is celebrated, but the overall impression is mostly of ripe juicy blackberries hanging on a broad-beamed trellis of American oak. It's a hefty wine, but agile.
When I stopped by the Old Sugar Mill, Taylor also was pouring his 2009 17 Acre zinfandel. This side-by-side comparison spoke precisely to the variability of which Alviso spoke.
The "17 Acre" is also from Clockspring Vineyard, but a different block. Though the grapes for the two zinfandels were from the same vineyard, and were harvested the same day, Taylor kept them separate and then fermented each with a different strain of yeast, thus the two names.
The yeast he used for the Clockspring Vineyard zinfandel was chosen to emphasize fruit flavors and to enhance the wine's texture, while the yeast for the 17 Acre is the same used to make hefeweizen beer, which he selected to enhance the suggestion of cloves in the wine's finish. It's got that, all right, but for overall impact and grace I prefer the Clockspring.
Todd Taylor Wines
2009 Amador County Clockspring Vineyard Zinfandel
By the numbers: 14.3 percent alcohol, 335 cases, $30
Context: Taylor is a big advocate of pouring the Clockspring zinfandel with just about anything off the grill, from substantial cuts of beef to seasonal vegetables. Grilled pork loin with a cherry-and-wine reduction is a particularly favorite dish of his with the wine, regardless of vintage.
Availability: The wine is sold only at his Old Sugar Mill tasting room, 35265 Willow Ave., Clarksburg, open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.