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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Napa’s Medieval Castle Winery

By Diana Russler and Bill Gent
Castello di Amorosa, Calistoga, California
Courtyard and well
            Turrets with pennants flying .... gargoyles on top of ancient stone walls .... a drawbridge and portcullis over a moat? You would be forgiven if you thought that you had fallen into a portal and been transported to Tuscany; but this is the Castello di Amorosa (Castle of Love) Winery, a few miles south of Calistoga in California’s Napa Valley!
            There are some who think that this is a medieval Italian castle that has been dismantled and transported to the US. In fact, it is an authentic Californian castle, built in Napa using construction methods and ancient materials that would have been used starting in the Middle Ages, a mixture of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The castle is the result of Dario Sattui’s passion and dream!  Dario, who also owns the Sattui vineyards across Highway 29, spent over 20 years studying the architecture of medieval castles, wandering around Europe collecting bricks, stones, wood and other ancient scraps. Then he built himself a castle to showcase his wines!
            As you turn off the Highway, an ancient brick wall with an enormous iron gate is hidden in the shade of the trees. A winding, cypress-lined driveway wends its way through vineyards, each marked precisely to indicate what type of grape is growing there. Half way up, just past a tiny medieval roadside chapel, the castle comes into sight, standing guard over the Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon!
            Under the watchful eye of two gargoyles, perched on stone columns, walk up the steps to the drawbridge spanning a tiny moat filled with cat tails and rushes. A thick wooden door and ominous-looking portcullis welcome you. Thick iron chains seem to hold the drawbridge in place.
Bell tower
            Depending on which tour, tasting or wine-food pairing you select, you will see different parts of the 121,000 square foot castle with its 107 rooms. There are four levels above ground and four more below. You will see courtyards, battlements, hidden stairways, arches, accented with antique wine presses and other artifacts that Dario Sattui has found in Europe, as well as the wine production and storage areas.

            Amongst the highlights, you can visit the tiny chapel, its walls punctuated with hand-painted frescoes. Straight-backed chairs line the brick cross-pattern on the floor; iron sconces accent the wall. In the back a confessional seems to beckon those who perhaps have indulged themselves with too much wine!
Outside, the 13th century courtyard, surrounded by walls of hand-hewn stone and brick, is the heart of the Castle. Loggias and breezeways decorated with red and pink geraniums overlook the courtyard. An old well, complete with dipping pot, stands in one corner. Amble up to the terrace or into the crenellated castle tower for breathtaking views of the Napa Valley
            One of the grandest rooms in the castle is the Great Hall where the nobles would have held elaborate banquets. Seventy-two feet long and thirty feet wide, the walls are intricately decorated with hand-painted frescoes that took over 18 months to complete. They detail daily life at the castle with knights in armor, ladies in waiting and other village scenes. Overhead, 22 feet above you, is an ornate wooden ceiling. The 500-year old Italian oak door is studded with over 2,000 hand-forged nails.
For even more luxury, opt for a wine-food pairing and you may be treated to a visit to the Royal Apartment with its stone fireplace and massive, old handcrafted wood table with images of the castle carved into the chairs.
The Great Hall
            If you opt for the more extensive tour of the castle, you will be treated to a visit to the Grand Barrel Room, 12,000 square feet, cross-vaulted with 40 Roman-style arches, handmade from ancient bricks. Barrels line the walls four high, and the musty aroma of wine permeates the air. The wine is stored in this room, left to absorb the flavors of the French oak barrels in which they age.
            There is also the Knights Chamber and Armory where weapons of war – battle axes, spikes, clubs --- are displayed along with the chain mail, armor and helmets. Next door is the Torture Chamber, complete with Iron Maiden, stretching rack and an Inquisition chair bristling with nails.  For those who become rowdy, there is always the oubliette or “pit of despair” where prisoners were dropped into the deep well and forgotten, condemned to starve to death.
            All this talk of torture makes you want a drink! You have to remember that the Castello is merely the stage for the wines produced from the 30 acres of vineyards. Only 15,000 cases are produced each year, and they are sold exclusively at the winery.
 In the main tasting room, Paolo and several of his colleagues wait for you behind the travertine bar. He hands you a wine list and asks you to check off the ones you would like to try. On a general admission ticket you can select a flight of five, choosing from the white, red, reserve and dessert wines. There is even a non-alcoholic grape juice to sample!
Ancient wine press
We try a Pinot Grigio, a “dry” Gewurztraminer, a Gioia Rosato di Sangiovese (a light rose, the color of summer raspberries) and The “Brigante” Red. Our all time-favorite is the Vermentino 2012, described as a traditional Mediterranean grape variety popular in northern Italy and southern France.
Having sampled our flight of five, we walk out of the castle with a case and a half of the various bottles of wine! They are really good! Be sure to also stop in the gift shop to try some of the flavored grape seed oils!
Dario Sattui has succeeded in eclectically combining wine, history, architecture and art of the Old World in the New! If you have time to visit only one of the 400+ wineries in the Napa Valley area, then a trip to the Castello di Amorosa is a must!

The best time to photograph the outside of the Castle is in the morning just before opening time when there are few people around. A wide-angled lens (we use a Nikon 14-24mm) enables you to capture the entire castle from various angles. For most of our other photographs we use a Nikon 28-300mm lens which allows us the flexibility to frame artifacts, the many corners and angles of the castle, and the fine details without having to change lenses. Inside the Castle a flash is required because of the low light available in many places. For a nature shot, look for the hummingbirds that seem to enjoy the colorful flowers near the moat as well as the peacocks, sheep and other barnyard animals near the Castello exit.

View of Napa Valley from terrace
            The Castello di Amorosa Winery is located off California Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga. It is open 364 days of the year (closed 25 December) from 0930 to 1700 Nov to Feb; 0930 to 1800 March to Oct. There are a number of different tours, tastings and wine-food pairing that you can consider, ranging in price from $18 to $69. Reservations are recommended and can only be made by phone. While it is possible to take children on the general admissions tour, no one under 21 is admitted to the more extensive wine tours or the full tour of the castle. Wine is only available for purchase at the Castle or by mail order and not in any store or restaurant. (4045 North St. Helena Highway, Calistoga, CA 94515; Tel. 707-967-6272;

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for including your visit to Castello di Amorosa in your wonderful blog. Please come back and see us again soon.

    Warm regards,


    Jim Sullivan
    Vice President, Public Relations and Marketing