At age 75, Dario Sattui is proud of his accomplishments, building both V. Sattui Winery, in honor of his great grandfather, and Calistoga’s 13th-century Tuscan castle, Castello di Amorosa.
He’s also proud of the wines his team is making, including the eight red wines from 2014 that all received 90 or above from influential wine critic Robert Parker. One of those wines scored 96 and two scored 95s. “You and I both know Robert Parker is the most well thought of wine critic in the world. A lot of wineries make their wines in the style they think he’ll like, rather than what they like, just to get a score,” Sattui said. “He can make and break wineries with his opinion of the wines.”
Winemaker Brooks Painter, who oversees winemaking at both properties, has been with Sattui for 10 years. “He’s taken us to another level,” Sattui said. “The guy we had before was good but Brooks is better. We like Brooks so much and what he has done for us, we actually gave him a share of V. Sattui Winery.”
Working with Painter is Peter Vellano, winemaker for Castello. “Peter Vellano is great,” Sattui said. “We’re taking care of him because we don’t want to lose him.”
After nearly 15 years of construction, Castello di Amorosa opened to the public on April 7, 2007.
This year, on Thursday, April 6, Sattui, Georg Salzner, president, and his winemaking team, Painter and Velleno, will host a by-invitation-only 10th anniversary celebration, featuring wine, food and stories.
Sattui’s book, “Castello di Amorosa, A Labor of Love,” will be released, author Karen MacNeil will hold a grand vertical tasting of Il Barone from 2003 to 2012, and Michelin-rated chef Stefano Masanti from Italy will prepare lunch.
“We want to have a celebration,” Sattui said. “We’ve invited the governor, some of the people who helped build it, Fritz Gruber from Austria, who supplied over 800,000 handmade bricks — you can’t build an old castle with new materials — we’ve invited Mike Thompson, the board of supervisors, the mayor of Calistoga, journalists and media.”
Recently, Sattui was sitting in the kitchen of his historic Victorian house that is on the same property as the winery. He remembers his doubts and fears during the years it took to build the medieval castle.
“When I first started, I had no idea it would work. I had nightmares over it. I lost sleep over it. I thought, maybe I made a total fool of myself,” Sattui said. People told him he was crazy for building a castle and people thought it would be Disneyesque and fake. “I think all of those were great motivators to get it right,” he said.
He even had workers tear down parts of the castle that were already built, because he said he didn’t think they got the details right.
“We spent innumerable hours in the evenings working on the details, refining them, changing them, taking trips to Italy to look at medieval castles, to try to get it right,” Sattui said. Partly that was for his own satisfaction — if there’s one characteristic that Sattui has in spades, it is that he’s driven — and partly so that “I wouldn’t be ostracized too much,” he said. “I think in the Napa Valley, if you screw up, word gets around and people will make fun of you.”
Sattui said he remembers the night before the castle opened to the public. “I didn’t sleep very well, because I was real nervous. Would anybody come or did I totally blow it with this crazy construction? I went up early, I stood on the drawbridge before we opened and I waited. At 9 o’clock we opened and nobody came, but at 9:30, the first couple came and I greeted them. Then I stayed around for an hour. The first day, not a lot of people came and I thought, ‘Well, at least some people came, so I thought maybe this can work.’ ”
And it has worked tremendously in the past 10 years, although Sattui wouldn’t release attendance figures. “We’ve been successful. I never thought we’d see as many people as we did, I never thought we’d sell as much wine as we’re selling; I’m kind of blown away by how successful it’s been,” Sattui said.
Castello di Amorosa staff sell more than 50,000 cases of wine a year, direct to the public, without other distribution. Sattui said, “I tend to get asked too much about the architecture, which I’m proud of, but also I’m proud that we’re making really good wines, otherwise people probably wouldn’t come back. I think we’re doing a good job with the wine.”
The castle sits on 171 acres and about 30 acres of vines are planted to Bordeaux and Italian reds, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Sangiovese. He said he is looking to buy a top-notch cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the Rutherford, Oakville or St. Helena areas and knows he will have to pay a premium price for it. He said he made an offer on an A-quality vineyard in Rutherford two years ago.
“I offered $10 million or $10.5 million, I can’t remember the acreage but it had 15 planted acres with no more plantable, but I lost it to somebody else. That’s the kind of prices vineyards are going for,” Sattui said.
Reflections, 10 years on
“You asked me a question, how was it to run the castle for 10 years. I was scared because I invested everything I had (in the castle), I had sold all my stock, borrowed money from the bank. I was really scared, but something inside of me made me want to do it,” Sattui said.
He had always loved the historic Victorian house that was on the property and bought it “for a bargain” from Andre Bosc. After buying the property, he said he was going to semi-retire, live five or six months a year in Europe, but admitted, “I had too much energy” and too much motivation to follow through on that retirement plan.
Besides, the property came with a winery permit that allowed for 250,000 gallons of wine production, 130,000 square feet of building and, Sattui said, unlimited tasting and tours.
Sattui claims he didn’t care about the permit when he bought the property, but a few months later, he thought he’d replant the old vineyard on the property and then maybe he’d indulge his love for Italian architecture and build an 8,500-square-foot small winery building.
“But I had this permit and it (the building) just started growing and growing,” he said. It was first a monastery, but after two years of construction, Sattui changed it to a castle.
Today, it has 107 unique rooms, with 70 to 75 percent underground for winemaking and tasting, and totals 107,000 square feet.
He admits that he enjoys “building something over the years that people enjoy, to make what we think are outstanding wines.” He said he looks at people’s faces and there are smiles on them when they’re leaving. Sometimes, he said, “They see me, they know who I am, they’re effusive, they enjoyed the wines, enjoyed the castle and going through it. That gives me a lot of pleasure.”
He adds that money has never been his prime objective. “I like the money, but I really like that I’ve done something that brings joy and happiness to people. That makes me feel good.”
Is Castello di Amorosa a tourist trap?
His response: “I know people say that, usually behind my back. Throughout history, many of the great wines made in Germany, France, Austria and Italy have been made in castles. I happen to love castles. I also love great architecture. I think too much of the modern architecture of wineries and buildings is not very nice-looking.
“When we’re charging $25 a head to come in and taste our wine and see part of our castle, why are people paying me that? And they are not paying that to go somewhere else. In other words, maybe the architecture and what we did here is not so bad.
“I never had the intention to build a tourist trap. What I had the intention was to build something unique, something beautiful, something authentic, something I personally love and I was hoping that other people respond to it as well and they have.”
He added, “I want to sell wine, but I want to do it in a beautiful facility. And the fact that our sales keep growing, we have a lot of repeat business, says maybe our wines are pretty good.”