It was a cold, rainy weekend in October when the cabin fever started to take effect. We didn’t feel like going to the movies, and posting up at a restaurant for the afternoon didn’t sound appealing either. My boyfriend and I wanted to go outside, move around, and enjoy each other’s company—but the weather was clearly saying not a chance.
On a never-ending mission to explore Sacramento in rain or shine, I turned to Google for the answer: What to do in Sacramento on a rainy day. An article mentioned a place called Old Sugar Mill and it immediately caught my attention with its description of “affordable wine tasting.” Sold!
We didn’t exactly know what to expect before we arrived, especially with the rain pouring down. Aside from a considerably flooded parking lot, there were no issues with the weather. Old Sugar Mill is mostly indoors despite its open atmosphere, and the individual wineries are a little warmer to easily get comfortable with a glass (or two) of wine. You could hear the soft pitter-patter of rain on the roof, which I always love in any setting. I look forward to going back in the summer to enjoy the outside space and attend a few events; however, this is truly a great destination for a rainy afternoon.
Old Sugar Mill hosts thirteen wineries for wine tasting and events, and it was originally built in 1934 as an operating beet sugar refinery—so it is, quite literally, an old sugar mill. Each winery has its own “room,” a space decorated for its personal aesthetic and complete with a bar, staff, merchandise, barrels of wine, and (in most cases) tables.
Your experience and how you want to spend your time at Old Sugar Mill is widely up to you. You can wander from winery to winery and order wine tastings to find your favorite. If you’re curious to learn about the wine, every winery’s staff is knowledgeable and eager to talk with you. You can even bring your own food, buy a bottle of wine from one of the wineries, and sit down at a table to enjoy a picnic. The wineries host their own events that you can partake in, such as Painting with Wine. You may even want to consider joining a wine club and attend one of their private parties.
Bottom line: If you like wine, you’ll absolutely love visiting Old Sugar Mill. I had never been somewhere like it! We automatically think of Napa when Northern California wine comes up; however, you don’t want to overlook smaller wine country areas such as Lodi and Clarksburg, which are equally high quality (and, for the most part, less expensive). Honestly, I overheard two different conversations while at Old Sugar Mill about how crowded and expensive Napa has become, and locals are turning to nearby, less known wine country for more personable, affordable, and enjoyable wine experiences.
We didn’t have a chance to visit every winery during our first visit (are you kidding, someone would have needed to carry me out if that was the case!), and we primarily attended a private wine club party for our second trip (it sounds so pinky-up, but it really just meant free wine, cheese, and chocolate). So with that said, I cannot attest to about half the Old Sugar Mill wineries. We asked one of the bar managers which were her favorite spots and she responded that the best wineries are more in the center of the building. She said you’ll notice that the wineries located around the perimeter are more expensive, crowded, and the wine isn’t as great. We followed her advice and, while I can’t say she was right about the perimeter wineries (except that they were more crowded with Baby Boomers), we loved every winery we checked out. Our highlights included the following:
- All of Due Vigne’s wine, especially the Nebbiolo and Barbera. We loved all five wines we tasted so much that we joined their wine club membership, and I brought the Nebbiolo to Southern California for Thanksgiving dinner (it wasn’t easy to share!). I highly recommend visiting this winery and buying a glass of your favorite from the tasting to take to the back lounge where there’s comfortable chairs and end tables.
- The service at Merlo Family Vineyards. I wish I could remember the staff member’s name, because she was amazing. While all the wineries’ employees were extremely knowledgable, she had such spunk and provided complex wine information with storytelling talent.
- Three Wine’s red blends. The winery’s speciality is its blends—its signature three-wine blend, in fact, inspired the name of the winery. They also serve a free chocolate pairing with the wine tasting, which is always a plus!
- Perry Creek offers fresh-sliced cheese with the wine tasting. It’s a little difficult to find this winery because it is located in the second building, so you’ll need to walk outside about 100 feet. Sharing the building with one other winery, it was the most spacious of all the spots. Since there is no door for the building (think open garage door), it feels refreshing to smell, see, and hear the rain outside without getting wet.
- We saw a group come into a winery with a cooler, purchase three bottles of wine, sit down at a table, and proceed to have a beautiful picnic. They brought all types of cheese, crackers, meats—quite the charcuterie board! It was one of those moments where you saw what they were doing and thought, Why didn’t I think of that? Note: Old Sugar Mill’s website states no coolers are allowed inside, though this group definitely had one. So if you bring a picnic… that’s your call. (Or bring a nifty cooler bag!)
- Look online for events ahead of time. The parking lot can fill up quickly if it’s a wine club pick-up weekend, or the venue may be rented out for a wedding. Then again, you might discover one of the wineries has a fun event that day, or they may all be participating in a special event (especially if it’s around a holiday!).
- Bring layers if it is cold outside. It’s a gigantic warehouse and can get a little chilly, but once you’re tucked in at a winery it will get warm. If it’s rainy, bring a small umbrella. There are several great wineries in the second building, which require a little walking outside, but it’ll be hard to safely store a bulky, big umbrella at the bar.
- Eat before you arrive, or bring sustainable food to munch on while you’re there. Aside from the occasional crackers, cheese, and chocolate served with the wine tastings, and a few of the wineries’ overpriced cheese and meat platters, there is no food at Old Sugar Mill. I believe there are sometimes food trucks when the weather is nice or there’s a special event going on, but don’t assume you’ll get a meal at this venue. I recommend bringing your own food and doing exactly what that one group mentioned above did–buy a bottle of wine and enjoy yourselves at a table.
- Taste wine you wouldn’t otherwise try. After all, that’s part of the experience! If you don’t like it, luckily you’re only tossing out an ounce. (If you really love a wine, the staff is pretty awesome about pouring you another taste.)
- Go on a weekday to avoid the crowds, if you’re able to. It was moderately busy when we went on a rainy weekend, though had no issues of ever finding a decent spot at the bar or receiving excellent service. I can imagine it gets packed on sunny weekends though, so be mindful.
- If there is a wine that you really loved, treat yourself to a bottle. Most of the wineries will waive the wine tasting cost if you buy a bottle (or a wine club membership), and it’s great to bring home for a special occasion.
- It’s important not to forget that these wine tastings add up. Be well aware of your alcohol consumption and always have a designated driver.
No matter what you end up doing, Old Sugar Mill is a fun atmosphere and you’re bound to have an enjoyable afternoon with out-of-town family, group of friends, or that special someone. Have fun!
Have you visited Old Sugar Mill? Please share your insights in the comments below!