Words by Sheri Baer
Just short of downtown Calistoga on Highway 128, you’ll spot the turnoff for Castello di Amorosa. Everything strikes the eye as familiar Napa Valley scenery: a private driveway winding up a grapevine-terraced hillside. Only with a reservation can you proceed up the road to the astonishing sight that lies just beyond view.
“People come up over the crest of the hill and often just stop their cars,” notes winery owner Dario Sattui. “Sometimes they even get out and take videos or photos. They’re in awe before they even get closer or inside the castle.”
That’s right. Castle. An authentically-built 14th-century medieval Tuscan-style castle to be precise. At three acres in size, the castle winery consists of 107 distinctive rooms spanning eight levels (including four underground) and five defensive towers with battlements. But unlike the centuries-old fortresses that once protected central Italy, this castle wasn’t designed to thwart invaders. Instead, it entices visitors who appreciate history, architecture and Italian-style wines. And above all, it’s the manifestation of one man’s dream—or all-consuming obsession. “I have a disease and I know I have it,” confesses Dario. “I just can’t resist beautiful architecture.”
Dario Sattui’s Royal Dream
As an emigrant from Italy, Dario’s great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui, established St. Helena Wine Cellars back in 1885 but Prohibition shut the winery down. After earning his MBA from Cal and traveling around Europe, Dario became determined to carry on the family’s legacy and successfully reopened V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena in 1975.
Always fascinated by architecture, Dario broke away to live in Italy in the late 1980s and spent his time exploring abandoned castles, churches and farmhouses in Tuscany and Umbria. “I was mesmerized, totally passionate about medieval architecture,” he recounts. “And when I would get into places, I would sketch them, I would measure them, I would photograph them.”
A few years later, in search of an idyllic property to settle on in Napa Valley, Dario came across a 171-acre parcel that had belonged to Colonel William Nash, known for planting one of California’s first vineyards back in 1846. Dario was instantly enchanted by the site’s Victorian three-story home with a wrap-around porch. “When I bought the property, I didn’t buy it to build the castle,” Dario says. “I bought it because I love the house. But I kept thinking and thinking…”
Dario’s thoughts led him to a fantastical idea—a way to honor his passion and heritage: create a medieval castle setting for making and showcasing Italian-style wines. “I didn’t want it to be something like Disneyland,” he emphasizes. “Here in the Napa Valley, people can be critical, and I wanted to get it authentically correct.”
Building The Castle
Initially envisioning an 8,500-square-foot structure that would take five to six years to build, Dario realized that framework was too constraining. Instead, over 15 years, the project morphed and expanded into what’s now the 121,000-square-foot Castello di Amorosa. Drawing on exhaustive research and accumulated knowledge, Dario remained faithful to his authenticity pledge. “You cannot build something that looks old using new materials,” he explains. “If you study the walls of European castles, you can see their history over time. Often, castles took hundreds of years to really finalize.”
For Dario, achieving that same aesthetic meant sourcing only old or handmade materials and employing 800-year-old building techniques. From battle-damaged tower to castle moat, the level of detail is staggering. Nearly one million antique bricks imported from Europe and 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled local stone. Hand-forged ironwork. Hand-carved gargoyles. Imported Italian lead glass. More than 200 shipping containers of antiques, armor and furnishings. “One door to the Great Hall has about 2,000 nails in it, all made by hand over the open fire,” describes Dario. “I was on the construction site in the daytime and working on the plans at night. I spent countless hours researching, tweaking stuff, going back to Italy to make sure I got it right. I was consumed—I did it out of passion, not because I had to.”
On April 7, 2007, Castello di Amorosa finally opened to the public. After a sleepless night, Dario arrived early and stood on the drawbridge, anxiously awaiting judgment. “For years, I tried to keep it a secret. What a crazy idea to build a castle in the Napa Valley!” he acknowledges. “Had I made a complete fool of myself or would people come?”
To Dario’s relief, they came. Slowly at first, but word spread—amplified by newspaper, magazine and TV coverage—and then…. “People really started to come, and today, I think we’re the most frequented winery in the Napa Valley.”
Tours and Tastings
No need to storm this castle. All that’s required to cross the drawbridge is a Tour & Tasting reservation. “Our philosophy is to make elegant, intensely flavored and well-balanced wines,” says Dario. “We get visitors who love the architecture of the castle and wine aficionados who really support us and buy our wine as well.”
All tasting reservations include a self-guided tour, which allows you to freely explore the Castello’s two main levels. Spend time in the Courtyard, studying architectural styles from the 10th through 15th centuries, before taking in the Great Hall’s hand-painted Italian frescoes and 500-year-old Umbrian fireplace. For portraits of knights and medieval jousting scenes, check out the Knights Hall, and don’t miss the Chapel frescoes painted by a medieval religious art specialist.
Book a tasting experience with a guided tour, and you’ll be led down winding stone hallways to the dramatic Grand Barrel Room three levels below, along with the Armory, which features centuries-old suits of armor and weapons. Adhering to authenticity, there’s even a gruesome torture chamber. “To my knowledge, all medieval castles had prisons and many of them had torture chambers,” shares Dario. “The whole idea of torture wasn’t a quick death. It was slow prolonged pain.” In addition to displaying replicas—such as a stretching rack, cranium crusher and chain whips—the chamber also showcases an authentic Iron Maiden.
As you explore the castle, you’ll also be treated to views of the surrounding 30-acre estate vineyard, one of nearly 15 vineyards bearing fruit for Castello di Amorosa.
Providing the perfect backdrop for Italian-style wines, the Castello’s Main Tasting Room features a Roman cross-vaulted brick ceiling and Tuscan-inspired murals. The small lots you’ll sample—from an extensive list of white, rosé, red and sweet wines, along with muscat non-alcoholic grape juice—are only sold here or through the winery’s website. In addition to your selected tastings, you can also add on extras like a cheese and charcuterie pairing or Belgian chocolates.
Now in his early 80s, Dario still enjoys standing on the drawbridge, taking in the animated chatter as visitors depart. It’s one thing to dream. Another to fully realize one’s passion. “I get a lot of personal satisfaction knowing that most people really love the castle,” he reflects. “In the United States, there’s nothing that’s comparable, and I’m proud of that.”
Tour and taste – castellodiamorosa.com
EXTEND YOUR STAY Castello Victorian Inn - Historic luxury Calistoga inn owned by Dario Sattui. castellovictorian.com Harvest Inn - Enchanting Napa Valley getaway in nearby St. Helena. harvestinn.com Mount View Hotel & Spa - Art Deco-style luxury on Calistoga’s Lincoln Avenue. mountviewhotel.com