Castello di Amorosa – Dario Sattui’s Modern Day Medieval Wonder

By Kaye Cloutman, Photography by AK Sandhu

The sun leaned into the western sky this perfect spring afternoon as I wandered up the path toward the entrance to one of Napa’s most recent and spectacular attractions – Castello di Amorosa. This 21st century rendering of a beautiful 13th century medieval castle appears on the hillside as if it were transported thru time unscathed.  The product and passion of owner Dario Sattui, this incredible piece of architecture was hand-crafted using many authentic tools and techniques of its original era, and took almost 15 years to complete. Until you descend into the lower reaches of this beautiful castle, you won’t see many of the high-technology features that make this a state-of-the-art wine production facility. The castle could surely stand on its own as a tourist attraction but Dario Sattui comes from a long line of established and proud vintners and Castello di Amorosa sits on some of the finest soil in all Napa Valley. Almost overnight, the wines made here were winning awards and garnering attention from critics worldwide.

Dario Sattui is in many ways a figure as large as life, and it was a pleasure to get to sit down and have a chat with him this lazy spring afternoon. It was apparent from his firm handshake and the twinkle in his eye that this is a man who, like his castle, was relatively untouched by the passage of time. Also quickly evident was his passion for all things medieval, and our shared appreciation of the digging and labor involved in restoring or recreating a piece of history, especially one as large as Castello di Amorosa.  Apologizing for his verbose nature, it was clear Dario Sattui has utterly enjoyed his life and times and frankly he had nothing to apologize for – here was a man whose history was truly worthy of discussion at length.

Being the great-grandson of one of California’s first vintners has its rewards – among them is getting the opportunity to learn the craft in great detail including family recipes and trade secrets and having all this knowledge passed down from his elders.  After college he travelled Europe in an old VW Bus for a time and it was during this period that he developed his affinity for Medieval architecture. When he returned to California in the mid-1970’s he set about restoring the family vineyard and in so doing, he created a small village with a European feel and used a marketing approach that appealed directly to consumers. In the first year of operation, the business was profitable, and todayV. Sattui Wineryproduces 40,000 cases of wine each year. The success of V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena became the fuel for Dario’s dream of building Castello di Amorosa in nearby Calistoga.

And then there were the wines… I honestly did not truly expect much from them at first. One may initially think that the real gem here is the Castle, but I was wrong. Blown away with the tastes and aromas of 4 particular wines, I found myself hoarding bottles before I left for home. I really don’t fancy sweet wines much but the bottles of Gioia and La Fantasia have a great deal of merit to their names. The Gioia Rosato Di Sangiovese is an Italian style rosé with bright aromas of cherry, spice and ripe berries. Lovely black raspberry, plum and strawberry flavors in the mouth and just a hint of sweetness leads to a creamy, round finish. It is a perfect sipping or warm weather wine. Meanwhile, La Fantasia which is an Italian style soft sparkling wine which is lower in alcohol, naturally sweet and refreshing with bright aromas of cherry, exotic flowers and wild berries. Darker in color than most rosé -style wines, this is loaded with flavor and has more structure. It is absolutely packed with black raspberry, plum and strawberry flavors in the mouth and ample sweetness which leads to a creamy, round finish.

The real winners for my taste buds though are the 2008 Bien Nacido Reserve Chardonnay and the 2007 Il Barone Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon. The Chardonnay, which is a ripe and fruity wine, with tangerine and flowery orange blossom complemented by exotic pear, fig, and honeydew melon aromas and a creamy, toasty oak bouquet. Silky and mouth-filling, this is an impressive style of concentration and intense flavors of tropical fruit, peach and hazelnut that are harmonious and provide a delicious, lingering aftertaste. Great paired with appetizers, herb-roasted chicken andrich seafood dishes. Need to relax and unwind fast… really fast? Then this is the bottle for you. The 2007 Il Barone Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon has recently earned 94 points from wine critic Robert Parker and 100 points from me. The aroma will delightfully enrapture you and the taste is second to none. This brilliant blend boasts an opaque purple color as well as a beautiful sweet nose of blackberries, black currants, camphor, subtle toasty oak, and espresso roast. Rich and full-bodied with sweet tannin, a hint of smoked meats, deep fruit, and impeccable balance, purity, and texture, this stunning wine should drink nicely for 15-20 years.

The tour and tasting is priced at $31.00 per person and well worth it. The tasting room provides a romantic intimate setting conducive to a holistic indulging of the senses. Castello Di Amorosa has occasional medieval inspired events wherein people are invited to wear their mid-Victorian outfits to relive and enjoy old-world drinking, dining, jostling and dancing. The medieval banquet I recently attended certainly beats any Halloween or costume party I’ve gone to in the past. And then there’s the staff. There is much to say about an establishment when the employees love their boss like they do their own father. “This castle is just like our giant playground and he rewards us for taking care of it and having fun” Shelly exclaimed joyfully.

Currently Dario is preoccupied with a new project; Castello delle Serre in Italy. A jewel of the Tuscan countryside, Castello delle Serre majestically sits at the top of the charming medieval town of Serre di Rapolano. This is the passage into the Crete Senesi, the area that has sparked the worldwide love affair with Tuscany. Dario Sattui may well be in his late sixties but the man clearly displays a youthful exuberance and charismatic aura that is notably appreciated and respected all over. Just like his wines, Dario Sattui well represents the old adage… “One does not get older, one just gets better”.

Dario’s Suggested Reads

Italian Splendor: Great Castles, Palaces, and Villas By Roberto Schezen

Rizolli, 420 pages, $85.00

This is a lavishly illustrated tour through fifty magnificent villas and palaces built by the Italian aristocracy. From peaceful country retreats in Tuscany and the Veneto and impressive urban residences in Rome and Siena to fortress-like castles and grand villas in Trieste and Sicily, this book showcases the works of some of the most famous artists and architects of all time. Palladio, Raphael, and Veronese, among others, each contributed to create the most divine and otherworldly atmospheres ever to grace Italian art and architecture. In these pages, one is permitted behind the often imposing gates and facades to get a glimpse of a lifestyle that seems almost unimaginable in the twenty-first century.

The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by J.E. Kaufmann, Joseph Kaufmann, H.W. Kaufmann and Robert M. Jurga

Combined Publishing, 320 pages, $39.99

The great walled castles of the medieval world continue to fascinate the modern world. Today, the remains of medieval forts and walls throughout Europe are popular tourist sites. Unlike many other books on castles, The Medieval Fortress is unique in its comprehensive treatment of these architectural wonders from a military perspective. The Medieval Fortress includes an analysis of the origins and evolution of castles and other walled defenses, a detailed description of their major components, and the reasons for their eventual decline. The authors, acclaimed fortification experts J.E. and H.W. Kaufmann, explain how the military strategies and weapons used in the Middle Ages led to many modifications of these structures. All of the representative types of castles and fortifications are discussed, from the British Isles, Ireland, France, Germany, Moorish Spain, Italy, as far east as Poland and Russia, as well as Muslim and Crusader castles in the Middle East. Over 200 photographs and 300 extraordinarily detailed technical drawings, plans, and sketches by Robert M. Jurga accompany and enrich the main text.

Allen Brown’s English Castles by R. Allen Brown

Boydell Press, 231 pages, $ 29.95

Castle studies have been shaped and defined over the past half-century by the work of R. Allen Brown. His classic English Castles, renamed here to acknowledge its definitive approach to the subject, has never been superseded by other more recent studies, and is still the foundation study of the English, and Welsh, castles built between the Norman Conquest and the mid 1500s. As the subject evolved, so too did this book, and for the most recent edition a considerable amount of French comparative material was added, though it remains essentially a study of English castles. For Allen Brown, castles were fortified residences (or residential fortresses), and developed, from European precursors, to support political and social realities as the Norman and Angevin kings secured their realm. Once these political ends had been largely met, the castle and castle-building entered a period of decline, and domestic and military interests went in opposite directions. This book, with numerous photographs and plans, remains the outstanding guide to the origins, purpose and identity of the great castles of England and Wales.

Take Note!

After decades of research, planning, and studying medieval castles throughout Italy and the rest of Europe, Dario Sattui began his marathon building project in 1993, spanning nearly 14 years. The Castello has evolved to include over 121,000 square feet, 107 rooms, 8000 tons of hand-squared stones, 8 levels (4 above ground and 4 below), 900 feet of caves, a great hall with a 500-year-old fireplace and two-story Italian frescoes, a drawbridge, dungeon and torture chamber, stables, medieval church, a lake, and arguably the single most impressive wine barrel room in the U.S., constructed with ancient Roman cross-vaulted ceilings.

Book  It!
Castello Di Amorosa

4045 Saint Helena Highway
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 967-6272