CALISTOGA Somehow, a winery in a medieval-style Tuscan castle doesn't seem out of place in this world- renowned Napa Valley, where the baronial vintners are better known for their deliberate caution and reverence for tradition than their sense of spectacle or willingness to throw the dice for huge stakes.
But there it is Castello di Amorosa, the love child of fourth-generation winemaker, iconoclast and self-made man of passion Dario Sattui. His 107-room showplace occupies 121,000 square feet. That's 3 acres, including the caves and cellars four levels above ground, four more below. The castle was 15 years in the making at a cost approaching $40 million.
"It was an obsession, and I got carried away," explained Sattui, 70.
No, he did not buy a castle, have it disassembled and rebuilt here, a common mis- belief (though he does own a 10th century monastery in Italy). Instead, Sattui sourced hundreds of tons of stone, antique bricks (more than 1 million), hand-formed terra cotta roof tiles, doors, timber and metalwork from Italy, Austria, France and the Napa Valley, and employed artisans and engineers from Europe to work the "job site," as he called it during construction.
Recently, we added our numbers to the 180,000 visitors who tour Castello di Amorosa each year and left with sore feet and a new appreciation for stonemasonry.
We turned off Highway 29 onto a cypress-lined driveway that led through tall iron gates and up a short rise to a crest. Below, backed by a forested hillside and fronted by vineyards and century-old olive trees, was a mountain of stone glowing in the light, colorful pennants fluttering from its towers and spires.
We walked across the drawbridge that spans the moat, past fierce gargoyles perched atop stone columns and through the iron gate at the entrance. Above were turrets with arrow slits designed for archers to loose their flights on the enemy below. The massive castle seems impenetrable.
Soon we stood on the upper logia overlooking the courtyard. An iron-hinged oak door creaked open behind us, leading to the Royal Apartment, reserved for wine-pairing dinners, with a stone fireplace, antique furniture and cabinets stocked with bottles of wine and gleaming glasses.
We sat at the centerpiece, a massive table hand-crafted in Italy out of 500-year-old wood, with images of the castle carved into the chairs.
"It took eight guys and a forklift to get the pieces into this room, and we assembled it right here," said vice president of marketing Jim Sullivan.
Was Sattui going to join us? At the moment, it wasn't a good time to meet with the master of the castle. For one thing, no one could locate him. For another, Sattui was super-stressed, preparing to leave for Italy in a few days. Also, the nearby Victorian house he has been renovating is past the move-in deadline date.
"My furniture is gathering dust," he complained later.
To add to the hectic morning, "The neighbor called and said, 'Your peacocks are in our garden again! Come get them!' " said winery president Georg Salzner.
Castello di Amorosa the Castle of Love is the culmination of Sattui's decades-long fascination with medieval architecture and a display of his single-minded determination. But, really, a castle?
"Dario wanted to build something real, which he did, but he is still worried that people will think it's Disneyland or Las Vegas," Salzner said. "But this is as real as it gets, not a facade. My office looks exactly the same as the rest of the castle."
In 1976, Sattui resuscitated his great-grandfather Vittorio Sattui's San Francisco-based winery idle since Prohibition and opened a new incarnation in St. Helena as V. Sattui (www.vsattui.com). At first it was a case of: What if you opened a winery and nobody came? Since then, its wines have won more than 100 gold medals, and the property greets 400,000 visitors a year.
In the early 1990s, Sattui purchased a 171-acre pastoral parcel in nearby Calistoga, after he fell for the striking 19th century Victorian house on the property. By chance, the deal came with generous winemaking and construction permits.
"I'd been thinking about making small-lot Italian-style wines to honor my heritage and decided to build an 8,500-square-foot winery there, using medieval architecture," he would explain later in the day, after our tour. "It got bigger and bigger, and several years into the project, I decided I really wanted a castle."
The castle has been a sensation with visitors since opening in 2007, though some of its neighbors are said to be a bit appalled by what they perceive as its grandiosity.
"I was responsible for 90-plus percent of its design, down to the most minute details," Sattui said. "I agonized over it and would wake up in the night to write down notes. I spent thousands of hours poring over the details and concept, changing things, going back to Italy for more research. I read 100 books on castles.
"We used materials and (building) techniques that were used centuries ago. It had to be right. When it wasn't right, we would do it over again."
Show-stopping Great Hall
It was time for a walkabout. We left the Royal Apartment and toured the guard house, south tower, two courtyards, battlements, a terrace and a chapel. Along the way we climbed stone passageways and hidden staircases, and paused to admire graceful arches, age-darkened doors braced with iron hinges, hand-forged dragon-shaped metal wall sconces, all-mounted coats of arms, elaborate chandeliers, and impossibly high ceilings fortified with hand-hewn wooden beams.
Because it took centuries for real castles to evolve, Sullivan pointed out, the castle was built in several architectural styles for authenticity.
Placed around the grounds are hand-crafted antique wine presses and other artifacts.
"Dario travels the Italian countryside to find them," said Sullivan.
The castle's centerpiece is the spectacular Great Hall, 72 feet long and 30 feet wide, with an ornate ceiling rising 22 feet. The main door is hand-planed 500-year-old Italian oak, covered with steel latticework and 2,000 hand-forged nails.
The stone of the parquet floor was sourced in Luxembourg, and the 500-year-old Italian fireplace is big enough to stand in.
Hand-painted Italian-style frescos on one wall dramatically tell of knights and kings, bloody battles and unrequited love, marriage and murder.
Over the fireplace is a portrait of a king holding the Sattui family crest.
"(Italian muralist- designer) Fabio Sanzogni painted Dario's likeness into the painting, giving him a beard," Sullivan said. "Loosely translated (from Italian), the inscription above says, 'I am the lord of the vines.' "
And a torture chamber
A tour of the dimly lit, gunnite-covered wine caves is a reminder that Castillo di Amorosa is a working winery that produces 20,000 cases of 23 varietals grown on 30 acres. The wine is sold only at the castle and through its wine club ($20 to $88, with library wines up to $125).
"The winemaking philosophy came from Dario and his visits to Italy beginning in the 1970s," Sullivan said. "He loves those approachable, food-friendly table wines and wanted to emulate them."
The winery has done very well in competitions. The Wine Enthusiast gave 93 points to its La Castellana Reserve Super Tuscan Blend, and Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate gave 94 points to its 2007 Il Barone Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Below ground, echoey corridors are lined on both sides with 60-gallon French white oak barrels stacked three deep, and the air is rich with the musty aroma of aging wine waiting to come into the world.
Wandering the sconce-lined tunnels, we walked by winetasting bars, small banquet rooms and vaults full of dusty bottles of red wine.
Deeper we went, through the Knights Chamber with its parabolic dome ceiling and into the Armory with its display of chain mail, helmets, suits of armor, swords, battle axes and halberds (long poles topped with ax blades), spikes and hooks.
There, too, is the oubliette or "pit of despair," where prisoners were dropped into the deep well and left to starve.
Ghastly devices of misery fill the next-door Torture Chamber a centuries-old Iron Maiden, a stretching rack, an Inquisition chair bristling with nails.
Sullivan lightened the mood with a barrel tasting of 2012 cabernet sauvignon in the 12,000-square-foot Grand Barrel Room. The cross-vaulted Austrian brick ceiling is a marvelous example of Roman-style architecture.
An identical ceiling and an Italian travertine bar dominate the Main Tasting Room. Its gift shop offers imported goods, from olive oil and canned tuna, to hand-painted plates and cashmere scarves.
Later, we drove down a dirt road on the edge of the property, parked in front of the almost-restored Victorian (workmen were adding finishing touches) and found Dario Sattui himself in a makeshift office upstairs.
He's a tall, imposing man who gets to the point, though he has a reservoir of worldly charm. Clearly, he is accustomed to being the star of his own show.
With all the dust now settled, is he satisfied with his castle legacy?
"I look back and wonder, 'How did I do this? How did I have the patience and perseverance?' " he said. "But, yes, I am very happy. We had so much fun."
Tours, tastings and more
Castello di Amorosa offers tours, tastings and wine-and-food pairings (and other programs) from $18 to $69. Reservations are accepted by phone only, (707) 967-6272. The winery is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. For directions and more information, go to www.castellodiamorosa.com.
The castle will be one of the venues for the eighth annual Festival del Sole, a celebration of the arts, wine and food. Soprano Audra McDonald will appear July 12. Violinist Sarah Chang will join pianist Andrew von Oeyen July 18. Details are at www.festivaldelsole.org.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.