Dario Sattui doesn’t do anything in a small way, whether it’s building a castle or throwing a party, and so the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of his Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley was bound to be a memorable one.
“It was never meant to happen,” Sattui said, greeting guests in the courtyard of the medieval castle he spent 15 years building on a hillside in Calistoga.
The vintner proceeded to regale guests with the tale of the creation of his castle, which grew out of his ‘fanatical love” of architecture, especially castles.
Castello di Amorosa translates as “castle of love;” as Sattui notes, “I put a lot of love into it. Before he commenced building his Napa Valley castle, Sattui had spent days and months exploring old European castles. “I’d pry open a window if I couldn’t get into it,” he said. “I’d put on a suit and go to a realtor and say I was interested in buying a castle.” He, in fact, did buy one Italian castle, which he later sold, as well as a monastery that he restored and a castle in France.
And he had this property in Calistoga. “It was my dream property,” he said, because “history came with it.” He bought the Nash property on St. Helena Highway North primarily because of its Victorian mansion, which he also restored.
But it also came with vineyards, a building permit for a winery, and the last public tour and tasting permit in Napa County issued in 1989.
He started making plans to build a small winery; and then it grew. “In Europe much wine is made in castles,” he said. “You can see I have an incurable disease.”
But in deciding to build a castle in California in the late 20th century, he had one guiding principal: he wanted the real thing, not a faux, fantasy bit of Disneyland north.
From his years of exploring European castles he not only had a trove of photos, drawings, and plans, he’d met artists and artisans, blacksmiths and stone masons and fresco painters, who could help him build the real thing. He wanted authentic materials as well: He shipped 200 containers of materials from Europe including half a million antique bricks. These were augmented by 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone,
“It was composed of everything I’d seen,” he said. “I wanted it to be a new adventure every time you go around a corner.”
He began construction in 1994 and throughout the next decade and a half, he admitted he was plagued with doubts. “I have to tell you, I had nightmares. Before this I’d built a dog house, a rabbit hutch and a chicken coop, and they hadn’t turned out very well.
When the Castello di Amorosa opened on May 7, 2007, he said he was still wondering, “Did I make a total fool of myself? Will anyone actually come here?”
Yes, people came. In the 10 years since it’s opened the castle has drawn thousands of visitors to tour the castle with its towers, moat, courtyard, chapel and its torture chamber. “Some come for the architecture,” he said. “Some don’t even like wine. I’m happy to take their money.”
The castle has also hosted countless fundraisers for valley non-profits and arts performances. It’s a regular venue used by Festival Napa Valley.
For his celebration, Sattui invited the people who’d helped him build the castle, and the celebrated Italian chef Stefano Masanti flew in from Italy to prepare a lunch for the guests. It was served in the Great Hall, the walls of which are filled with colorful frescoes of medieval life.
Before the lunch, guests tasted a 10-year-vertical of Il Barone, the castle’s flagship wine, a robust cabernet sauvignon. More Castello wines were poured at the lunch, that also included Italian music, both operatic and popular.
Sattui also introduced his newly published book, “Castello di Amorosa, a Labor of Love,” which tells the castle’s story told in Sattui’s words accompanied by an opulent collection of photographs by Peter Menzel, who was there taking more photos.
“Sometimes a man does something that makes absolutely no sense at all,” vintner and film director Francis Ford Coppola writes in the introduction. “And then later on, it still doesn’t quite make sense, but you understand why he did it.
“In my mind such a man is truly a hero because whenever something gets imagined, created or actually built that would never normally happen, we all stand in the light of something new, even if in fact it is very old, which is what happened in the case of Dario Sattui.
Coppola adds, “When I first beheld the medieval castle that Dario built, I couldn’t believe my eyes ... I was awed that a modern man could attempt something so outrageous — and moreover complete it successfully. It stands there for all to see.”
The Castello di Amorosa “has become one of the premier attractions in the Napa Valley and across the nation,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) in a video greeting he sent to Sattui’s 10th anniversary party. “I’m one of the few congressman who has a castle in his district.
“It shows what can be accomplished when you have the vision and dedication,” Thompson added. “No dream is too big or too ambitious if yo have the grit to see it through.” These were good words to keep in mind these days, he noted.