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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.