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21 Aug 2013

Sniff the Cap: A Trip to California's Medieval Wine Castle

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Looks real, doesn't it? Looks real, doesn't it? Deidre Pike

If you’ve seen Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories or you’re a faithful fan of The Bachelor, you’ve seen Napa marketing genius Dario Sattui’s castle, located in Calistoga.

On the north end of Napa County, Castello di Amorosa isn’t exactly ancient. The 121,000-square-foot winery and eight-level playland opened to visitors in 2007.

Think Citizen Kane’s Xanadu—except this rich dude’s over-the-top architectural fantasy has a twisting, turning cave maze lined with wine in French oak barrels.

The Empire Sattui makes wine, too.

No, Castello di Amorosa wasn’t an Italian castle brought over to the United States brick by brick and reassembled. But, yes, bricks were brought over, along with doors, hunks of iron and various medieval fixtures—all used to generate the 107-room, $40 mil-ish castle, including its moat, drawbridge, torture chamber and wine caves. It’s a larger-than-life-sized model of a medieval castle as researched, imagined and re-created by a U.S. winemaker with a shit-ton of money who grew tired of simply buying up ancient Italian landmarks, including a medieval monastery near Siena, and a Medici palace.

Sattui writes about his passion—“some would say obsession”—on the Castello’s medieval themed website: “I was determined to erect the most beautiful and interesting building in North America for showcasing great wines; for it must not be forgotten that, aside from being defensive fortifications, throughout history and in modern times, many of the great wines in Europe have and are being made in castles.”

I’ve tasted some pretty terrific wines made in sheds and garages, but sure. OK. Build it, and we will come.

Sattui purchased the 170-acre property in the 1990s. The project sprawled from a modest 8,500-square-foot McCastle to, well, the spectacle we visited on a Saturday afternoon.

Packed parking lot. At least three couples taking wedding photos—though you can’t get married there. A half-hour wait in line to buy tickets was followed by a half-hour wait for our guided tour to begin. Not bad.

You don’t need to take a tour. You can roam limited areas and do a standard five-wine tasting for $18. For $33, there’s a guided tour that weaves through the castle bowels to a five-wine tasting at a private bar.

Upgrades: For $43, you sip six “low-production, high-end reserve wines.” For $69, it’s the Royal Pairing. You’ll be “secreted away to the elegantly appointed Royal Apartment” and sample award-winning wines paired with “savory bites” while seated at a “rustic Tuscan table.” Reservations recommended.

Meh. Dave and I didn’t have reservations. We wanted to see the castle because, well, it’s there, big, hyperreal—and we’re Americans. We opted for the standard tour and tasting, thank you. No, we didn’t want to add chocolate ($4), cheese ($15) or charcuterie ($15).

Besides, we’d enjoyed a barbecue on the lawn earlier at V. Sattui Winery—Dario Sattui’s original and obviously profitable winery, deli and playland.

You can get married there. The “V” is for Vittorio, D’s great granddad, whose own winery flourished in San Francisco through the early 1900s and then closed during Prohibition.

It’s hard to miss V. Sattui Winery. Driving through St. Helena, it’s on the main drag and jam-packed with cars, humans and dogs. Pet-friendly. Pretention-unfriendly. There is no room to snob it up in a loud, crowded tasting room when your wine’s poured by a guy from the Bronx.

“And this one here’s yer pasta wine. And this is gonna be puffect for the barbecue, right? You like that? Yeah, you do.”

V. Sattui charges for tastings. We found a buy-one-get-one coupon app on my smart phone and spent $10 for the two of us to share tastes of 12 wines.

We bought the 2010 Napa Valley Merlot ($34), because 1) we liked it and 2) Sattui’s wines aren’t sold in wine shops or at the 7-Eleven. For years, you could only buy ’em at the winery. Nowadays, you can buy online.

Then we stood in line to buy barbecued meat items that can be consumed on the winery lawn. Around us roamed honeymooners and parties of friends celebrating birthdays and upcoming weddings. We talked to tourists from Europe, Asia, Mexico, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles.

Sattui’s fortune, it turns out, doesn’t come merely from wine sales, but also from the deli and from weddings and picnics held on the property. Savvy, right? He’s been cornering this market since before Napa became Wine-Swilling Tourist Central.

Done with lunch, we were on to the Castello.

Thanks to Sattui’s extensive Italian travels and research, the medieval Tuscan castle is about as authentic as a reproduced medieval Tuscan castle built in the rolling hills of the Golden State can be. Above one large entrance are windows from which boiling oil can be poured on invaders. The attached room has actual oil boiling capabilities, according to our tour guide, Shawn Wager.

Speaking of sieges, there’s a working well inside the castle walls. That way, the invaders—Sonoma winemakers?—can’t pour poison or dirt into the community water supply.

“So don’t worry,” Wager told us. “If we’re besieged, we’ll be OK.”

Winery president Georg Salzner told a Sacramento Bee reporter that Sattui worries about people equating the Castello to Disneyland or Las Vegas. I don’t see the problem. People love Disneyland with its larger-than-life cartoon mammals. We love Vegas with its Fake Eiffel Tower, Fake Pyramids of Egypt and Fake Venetian Canals, complete with Fake Gondolas. Copies don’t need to feel real; they become their own “Real.” (See cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, best read with a second or even third glass of red.)

In fact, it’s comforting to me that no one has really died in the Castello’s Fake Torture Chamber, with its various historic artifacts, including the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg.

The Iron Maiden looks like a giant stand-up tomb, by the way. When a human body is closed in this device, it’s jabbed with 4-inch glowing hot spikes designed to poke and cauterize your guts, but not to puncture internal organs. Maximum pain—without death. You will tell your secrets, change your religion, alter your sexuality. Anything to stop the pain.

“A human pin cushion!” exclaimed our tour guide. Take that, water-boarding pussies, I thought.

In an underground tasting room, menus were doled out. Since Dave and I shared tastes, we tried 10 wines. All fine. Their wines win awards, so who am I to pooh-pooh?

The Il Barone 2009 ($88) won a double gold in the 2013 American Fine Wine Competition and received a 92 from Antonio Galloni, who is a real person (I checked) and, in fact, a renowned wine critic.

We didn’t buy wine. We noted, though, that the Castello sounded like an entertaining place, after hours, for employees.

Favorite quote from tour guide: “I love to catapult things into the lake.”

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