Authentically Out of Place and Time

Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley, California

Castello di Amorosa

The world is better for eccentrics; the artists, entertainers, scientists and imaginers who see things no one before ever did and, by virtue of their vision, take the world in a direction it never previously knew existed. Eccentricity is also the reason you can tour an authentic 12th-century Tuscan castle in California’s Napa Valley.

Quibblers will no doubt deem the previous sentence a non sequitur. A Tuscan castle cannot, by definition, exist in California. Nor can this particular castle, completed in 2007, be described as 12th century. Yet, in important ways, it is both those things, and authentically so.

So what gives?

The answer lies in the fact that Castello di Amorosa is no ordinary building and its owner, winemaker Dario Sattui, is no ordinary man. But the story of both man and castle properly starts three generations earlier with Dario’s great-grandfather, Vittorio Sattui, an immigrant baker from Carsi, Italy, who built a successful California winery only to see it shuttered by 1920s Prohibition.

Castello di Amorosa Courtyard

Broken, but unbowed, the V. Sattui winery laid dormant for more than fifty years, quietly planting the seeds of its revival in the mind of young Dario as he played among its barrels and drank in family stories of its winemaking heyday. It was then, Dario recalls, that he pledged to rebuild his grandfather’s winery to its former glory.

But Europe called first.

After graduating from Berkeley in 1969, Dario took a two-year detour through the old country. “It was during this period his fascination for medieval architecture began to take shape. Living out of his van, Sattui would visit medieval castles, monasteries, palaces, farmhouses and wineries studying their designs, taking photographs and completing detailed sketches and renderings.”1 In time, this fascination would grow to become an obsession; one that would very nearly bankrupt him.

Castello di Amorosa Great Hall

Castello di Amorosa’s Great Hall took one and a half years to completely fresco and features a fireplace that pre-dates Christopher Columbus

Long before that though, in 1972, Dario returned to the U.S. with little money and even less hope of honoring his pledge of restoring Granddad’s winery. Horse trading for land, labor and equipment, Dario somehow managed to do the impossible. V. Sattui reopened its doors in 1976 after a five-decade hiatus.

Imitating the wonderful family-run delis he frequented in Europe, Dario opened his own cheese and food shop at V. Sattui – a novel innovation for Napa at the time. While other wineries posted “Stay Off The Grass” signs, V. Sattui had a picnic area.

By the 1980s Napa had become a global wine player taking V. Sattui along for the ride. More than just reclaiming old glory, Dario built his winery into a powerhouse producer churning out 40,000 cases per year and into one of the most popular stops along California’s “Wine Trail.”

Castello di Amorosa Dragon

A wrought iron dragon from the times of Napoleon guards the castle’s main door.

His pledge fulfilled and extremely wealthy to boot, Dario turned his attention to another passion: building an authentic Tuscan Castle right here in America.

His original vision was a modest one, if building a castle can ever be described as modest: an 8,500 square-foot medieval structure to showcase the small lot Italian-style wines he intended to produce on its grounds. He wanted it to “include all the elements of a true medieval castle–a moat and drawbridge, high walls and towers on a hillside, a great hall, courtyards and loggias, an apartment for the nobles, a big kitchen, an outdoor brick oven for baking bread, a church, a horse stables, secret passage ways and, of course, a prison and torture chamber.”2

One small problem: 8,500 square feet wasn’t nearly enough space.

Castello di Amorosa Suit of Armor

A suit of armor stands near a torture chamber complete with a Renaissance era Iron Maiden.

But that wasn’t the only problem, or even the most challenging. Dario’s absolute insistence on authenticity was.

And by “authentic” Dario didn’t mean authentic looking. He meant that every shape, every stone, every fixture, every method employed in the construction of Castello di Amorosa needed to be exactly as they would have been 1,000 years earlier.

Castello di Amorosa Defensive Tower

One of the castle’s five defensive towers.

Dario and his army of experts used original materials, when available, or created them with ancient methods when they weren’t. They imported over one million bricks from demolished Hapsburg palaces and chiseled an additional 8,000 tons of stone by hand. They pounded out iron work with hammer and anvil and open forge; poured leaded glass windows and hand carved ceiling beams.

They erected doorways and bricked them up to mimic the way European castles evolved over time. Dario even went so far as to partially destroy a tower in the most authentic way imaginable: with a cannon shot.

Castello di Amorosa Cellar and Barrel Tasting

A cellar barrel tasting and five traditional wine samples are included as part of the castle’s standard guided tour.

Meanwhile the Castle grew in size, topping out at 121,000 square feet spread over 107 rooms, and also expense.

By late 2005, Dario had finally run out of money. He sold assets, took extra dividends from V. Sattui, and even fired his gardener in an effort to save enough money to finish his fairytale castle. When that didn’t suffice, he borrowed from Wells Fargo in the hopes that a completed Castello di Amorosa would generate enough in wine sales to repay the loan.

Instead of retiring to Italy in 1994 as originally planned, Dario was working harder than ever. Lucky us. By 2007 he had once again pulled off the impossible and, after 15 years of construction, finally opened the doors to his down-to-the-nail-authentic Tuscan castle right in the heart of California wine country.

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12 Comments on “Authentically Out of Place and Time”

  1. TinLizzie72 June 17, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    Having grown up in Sacramento, we spent many a Saturday picnicking at Sattui as a family. So when I went home last fall, we made a trek to Castello di Amorosa. Worth the admission price to get in and see the details, although I think my favorite part were all the carved wine barrel trash cans outside the castle itself! An oddity, for sure, but really, it’s California – and there are so many others that what’s one more?! : )

  2. Touring NH June 17, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    What a cool place to visit. An amazing story of what you can do with a lot of determination and hard work.

  3. Animalcouriers June 17, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    You are right – where would we be without such wonderful and eccentric people. How lucky Nappa Valley is to have this particular version. No need to visit Tuscany for it’s architecture or wine then ;-)

  4. Pat June 17, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Great story, and excellent photos.

  5. gdmkimages June 17, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    That’s a pretty cool story illustrated with some excellent photos

  6. Rustic Recluse June 18, 2013 at 2:01 am #

    Wow. Right in Napa Valley? I like this. And I’m thankful for those who hold on to strong beliefs of authenticity and treasures of the past!

  7. The Earth Beneath My Feet June 24, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    What an amazing castle – looks like it belongs in Scotland. Love the photos!!

  8. Theresa July 1, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    Wow. I can’t believe I missed this when I was out in Napa!

  9. Suzy July 7, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    That is really neat! When I first saw your first photo I thought the post was about some castle in Italy, certainly not Napa.

  10. Miranda Metheny July 10, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    This is amazing!

  11. backthewaywecame August 23, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    What passion! What drive! What perseverance! What endurance! What a man! Could teach us a thing or two, eh? It’s quite mind boggling.

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