Rod Byers: A place in history
Napa Valley is as much about creating identity as it is about creating wine, I thought to myself as I crept along in the late afternoon Napa Valley traffic heading south on Hwy 29.
I went over to Napa Valley a few a weeks ago to visit Castello di Amorosa. I had actually never heard of it until a press packet tumbled through my mailbox inviting me to visit. Castello di Amorosa was being promoted as “the only authentic 12th century medieval Italian Tuscan castle and winery built in America.” The pictures were pretty impressive. How could I pass on an offer like that?
Driving through the Napa Valley in the tranquil coolness of a summer morning is one of life’s little pleasures. I had heard the castle wasn’t visible from the road so I was watching the addresses carefully. Still, I couldn’t help thinking it must be a little difficult to hide a 121,000 square foot 12th century castle in the middle of Napa Valley.
Castello di Amorosa has been a life-long dream of Daryl Sattui. You might better recognize Sattui as the name as the winery that sits at the southern edge of St. Helena. That’s the place with the big lawn where sooner or later everyone stops for a picnic. Sattui, a fourth generation valley resident, first leased the building in the 1960s. At the time he would buy two barrels of wine from the newly opened Mondavi Winery and then sell them directly to the public. In one form or another he has been doing it ever since.
With his Italian heritage he had a strong European connection and always had an interest in castles. On trips to Europe he visited as many as he could studying them, making careful detailed notes because he wanted to build his own.
In 1993, after 15 years of planning, Sattui purchased 171 acres on Diamond Mountain just south of Calistoga. He started construction in 1994. The original plans called for an 8,500 square foot design. Ultimately the project took another 15 years to complete and over that time mushroomed into a 121,000 square foot castle. As I turned off of Hwy 29 at the correct address I still couldn’t see it.
Through a gate, crest a hill and suddenly off in the distance, silhouetted against the pale blue sky was an enormous castle. There was a moat, a drawbridge, high fortressed walls and five imperial towers. I’ve visited quite a few castles and this definitely qualified.
A more careful and closer look reveals an impressive level of attention to detail. It’s constructed of brick imported from a dismantled Austrian castle and 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled stone, using the same building techniques employed 800 years ago. There is a great hall, medieval church, staples, a prison, torture chamber, escape tunnel and secret passageways. My guide, Pierce Thompson, Vice President, even pointed out how the construction styles of different sections of the walls were different because of changing conditions over the time period the castle would have been built. There were both big and little touches providing authenticity everywhere. It took two Italian artists a year and a half to paint the giant frescos in the great hall.
The castle is what you see above the ground but don’t forget it’s also a winery. Of the 107 rooms in the castle 95 are devoted to winemaking layered in levels sinking ever-deeper underground. It’s a labyrinth of passageways interconnecting rooms with beautiful Roman cross-vaulted ceilings. As we twisted and turned our way through four levels of underground cellars I wondered how long it would take before you could go down there by yourself and not get lost coming back out. I had no doubt it was honeycombed with secret doors and passageways.
I had a private tour, but in a sense everyone does. While they are open to the public you still need to make a reservation for a tour, especially on weekends. Tours are limited to 12 people and including the tasting last about an hour and three quarters. Basically it’s the same tour I went on though I ended up in the main tasting room. Each of the group tours ends up in their own private tasting rooms, which are nestled throughout the heart of the winery. The tour and wine tasting is $25. You can just go to the tasting room for a $10 tasting fee, but why would you want to miss the tour?
I was impressed with the wines. I was concerned it might be “all talk and no walk,” but winemaker Brooks Painter clearly gives lots of attention to the 10,000 cases he produces annually. They both buy grapes and grow their own in their 30-acre vineyard surrounding the castle. No wine is cheap in Napa but considering the gigantic pile of stone and brick they were supporting I thought these would be much pricier. They produce a range of wines so there is something for everyone including a fun, slightly sweet, slightly fizzy Italian style red. I especially liked the crisp Pinot Grigio ($20), spicy Dry Gewurztraminer ($21) and luscious Reserve Chardonnay ($38). Among reds, I enjoyed the estate grown Sangiovese ($30), Il Brigante, Cab-Merlot blend ($25) and their super Tuscan blend, La Castellana Reserve ($65) but everything I tasted was well made. The wines are only available at the castle and I left with a half case of my favorites.
Finally leaving the castle, I turned to snap one last photo before ducking into my car to avoid the now soaring mid-day heat. Was this place too cool or too weird I wondered? Other than the fact that it was a 12th century castle in the middle of Napa Valley, there didn’t seem to be anything fake about it. Napa is a rich playground loaded with bloated mansions with million dollar landscaping. Was Castello di Amorosa just one more narcissistic attempt at raising the status bar?
As I drove south on 29 I pulled into the old Charles Krug Winery, one of the oldest in the valley. The venerable old building, dating back to the 1860s was closed and gutted awaiting a complete makeover. I had just left something brand new but built to look really old. Krug was something old in the process of being renewed. Although these two buildings were separated by 150 years, both were attempts by visionaries at creating enduring identities.
Napa Valley has a history as old as the state of California. Refugees, immigrants and characters creating something out of nothing but their own vision in this grape growing paradise. I couldn’t help but see Daryl Sattui’s castle in that same light.
Egotistic or genius – time will tell. Custom and culture don’t develop in a generation. If we look to Europe, we see it takes hundreds of years for identities to develop and, like the Eiffel Tower, we know that when new things come along they often shatter the status quo. History takes time.
One of the enduring images, looking out from one of Castello di Amorosa’s towers is the immediate view over to Sterling Winery sitting on another hilltop across the valley. Just because one looks like a monastery belonging on a Greek Island while the other belongs in the Tuscan hillsides is no reason they can’t co-exist in the ongoing and developing world that is Napa Valley. It’s an easy day trip from here. Go see it. It’s worth the visit.
You can find pictures of the castle at http://www.castellodiamorosa.com. Call (707) 967-6272 or find them directly at 4045 North St. Helena Hwy a few miles south of Calistoga.
Rod Byers, a certified wine educator, teaches wine classes at Sierra College and is a California State Certified Wine Judge. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (530) 913-3703.
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