Napa Valley has been called the Disneyland of wine country, with good reason. It’s essentially a boozy amusement park for adults, with elite wineries and resorts packed along a highway.
Another reason for the comparison: The region has its own medieval castle.
Nestled in the rolling hills of Castiloga, California, Castello di Amorosa is a world-class winery based out of a replica of a 13th-century Tuscan castle. The owner, Dario Sattui, is a fourth-generation wine-maker and ardent Italophile who spent $US40 million to bring a slice of the old country to Napa Valley. At 142,000-square feet, the castle took more than a decade to build.
We recently took a guided tour of Castello di Amorosa. Here’s what it was like.
And it is -- sort of. Owner Dario Sattui once wrote, 'Castello di Amorosa appears to be an authentic castle for one reason only. It is an authentic castle, though fancified.'
In the early 1990s, Sattui -- already an established wine-maker -- bought the land with plans to replant a vineyard on the property and build an 8,500-square-foot winery.
His fascination with Old World Italian architecture took over and Sattui began to draw up plans for a more grandiose winery. He spent years visiting and studying medieval castles and wineries throughout Italy and Europe, as part of an exhaustive quest for authenticity. Sattui wanted every detail -- from the drawbridge to the dungeon -- to mimic 13th-century structures.
He hired master builders from five countries to bring his vision to life.
'I ended up spending everything I had, sold all my stock, had to borrow money from Wells Fargo. I just hope I don't go broke,' Sattui said at the time of the castle's opening in 2007.
In addition to hosting wine tastings and tours, which start at $US25 per person, the company sells more than 50,000 cases of wine direct-to-consumer each year, with no other distribution.
I joined a guided tour and premium wine tasting for $US40 on a recent Friday afternoon.
One of the first details our tour guide, Thomas, pointed out was this crooked tower. During construction, county officials wanted 10 feet skimmed off the castle's height to comply with building codes. Sattui asked his crew to do so in a haphazard manner so the tower would look battle-worn.
Fermentation tanks sit outside, drawing a stark contrast to the brick castle walls. Castello di Amoroso contains nearly one million antique bricks from torn-down Austrian palaces.
We found French oak barrels around every corner. The caves, located underground, offer an ideal environment for ageing wine with cool, constant temperatures and high humidity.
The barrels are so cumbersome to move around, it's easier for winemakers to fill them in the caves. They pour wine through 'very clean' hoses attached to holding tanks, Thomas said.
We passed a chamber where Sattui keeps hundred-year-old wine bottles from the family's original winery. They have been passed down through four generations of winemakers.
There are two original artifacts in the torture room. Interrogators would strap their prisoners into this prickly chair and light a fire underneath, causing them to squirm.
The Iron Maiden from the late Renaissance was one used to confine prisoners. It contained spikes and sharp nails that people would impale themselves on as they grew weary.
At last we arrived in the grand barrel cellar, the crown jewel of Castello di Amorosa. The 12,000-square-foot room took two years to build, largely because of its vaulted ceilings.
Then came the best part of the tour -- wine tasting! Thomas poured glasses of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, a wine bursting with aromas of cassis and mushroom.
It tasted much more earthy than the Cabernet I tried at another winery in Napa earlier that day. I prefer my red wines fruity, but I appreciated this one for its differences.
Each tour group is sequestered in a small cellar, where they enjoy a complimentary tasting of five current-release wines from Castello di Amorosa.
Throughout the tasting, people scribbled notes on the menus provided, taking note of the Italian-style wines they wanted to pick up from the gift shop after the tour.
Castello di Amorosa is one of the most unique experiences you can find in Napa Valley. It's a tourist trap, but still worth a visit.
'I never had the intention to build a tourist trap,' Sattui told the St. Helena Star. 'What I (wanted) was to build something unique, something beautiful, something authentic, something I personally love, and I was hoping that other people (would) respond to it as well and they have.'
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