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California dream built Tuscan castle on the hill

Email|Print| Text size + By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / July 29, 2007

CALISTOGA, Calif. -- As Daryl Sattui bent his 6-foot-5-inch frame to fit through an arched stone doorway in his recently opened Castello di Amorosa, a metaphor came to mind: Is this guy in over his head?

Sattui, 65, owner of the successful Napa Valley V. Sattui Winery just down Route 29 in the town of St. Helena, leveraged himself up to his bright blue eyes to build this castle atop a hill overlooking a terraced, Tuscan-style vineyard. It is a massive stone structure that replicates castle designs from the 11th through the 16th centuries, and is as much homage to his love of ancient architecture as to his passion for creating award-winning wine.

Consider: The place set him back $30 million, consists of 107 rooms (including an honest-to-goodness torture chamber with a genuine antique iron maiden and a replica rack) and seven levels (four of them underground), and took 14 years to build. V. Sattui Winery, begun by his great-grandfather Vittorio, closed during Prohibition, and reopened in 1976 with labor and money borrowed from friends, helped pay for most of the castle; V. Sattui's 400,000 visitors a year make it one of Napa's busiest wineries.

"I had a budget but threw it out. Now I'm all in," Sattui said as he walked me through and around his castle, which opened to the public April 9 for tours and wine tasting. "Except for my retirement, I've sunk every dime I had and then some into this."

The 121,000-square-foot castle is part of the 171-acre winery and was designed to look like what a castle was supposed to be: a defensive fortification. Its architectural design purposely spans the centuries because European castles underwent modifications, expansions, and renovations over their lifetimes. And being made of stone, they tended to last a very long time.

That is, unless they were blown apart by attackers. Sattui has that covered: One of the towers was created to look like it was shattered by cannon fire.

To make the castle as authentic as possible, no detail was overlooked. Much of the 8,000 tons of stone, most of it basalt, was hand-squared on site. The castle consists of five towers with battlements, a church, a gigantic drawbridge, a dry moat, and a monstrous hall with double doors held together by 2,000 nails handmade in Italy.

The majestic great hall -- 22 feet high, 72 feet long, and 30 feet wide -- can host 180 people. It boasts a 500-year-old fireplace and floor-to-ceiling wall frescoes hand-painted by Italian artisans. Wrought iron throughout the castle was doused with acid to make it look old. Hand-carved sandstone gargoyles keep garish sentry on walls and towers.

Below ground is a labyrinth of wine chambers -- 900 feet long in all -- smelling sweetly of the casks bearing the fruits of the vines from the rich earth above. Some tunnels are dead ends. At one point in our walk, Sattui sent me into a hallway that got smaller and went nowhere.

"I sent Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger up there," he said with a laugh about a reception attended by the California governor. "He hit his head."

Something this large might seem to indicate a rich man's out-of-whack ego, but Sattui is immensely likable, soft-spoken, and low-key. Tour the castle and you may well run into him as he tidies up after a tasting. He'll be happy to regale you with stories of how the castle was designed and built or talk about the wine that is made there.

"I have a real passion in my life for all things Italian, the architecture, the art, and especially the wines," Sattui said, his large hands cutting the air as he spoke. "This is partly homage to my ancestry.

"And," he said sheepishly, "it's partly -- I just don't know why. I just wanted to do it."

Sattui had never designed anything bigger than a doghouse in his life, he said, calling himself a closet architect. He built the castle mostly to showcase his wine. His winery has been named best in the state for two of the last three years, and his wines have won more than 75 gold medals in worldwide competitions.

Designing the castle came after numerous trips to Italy to get ideas, and poring over thousands of photos and blueprints of other castles to make sure he got it right. After a year of making his own designs, he turned them over to an architect. Fourteen years later, the dream was realized.

"I didn't care to rush it. I enjoyed the project, and I certainly didn't do it for the money, though I'd hate to go broke," Sattui said. "No prudent businessman would ever do this."

Castello di Amorosa wine is not sold in stores, only onsite and online, and is priced from $19 for the Rosato di Sangiovese 2005 to $68 for the Il Barone Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003.

The castle sells about 8,000 cases a year, V. Sattui about five times that.

"I'm at the point in my life where I want to do the things I want to do," he said with a shrug. "People might say I'm nuts, but I don't care. I'll be dead in 15 or 20 years, but this will be around a lot longer."

Sattui realizes that a $30 million, 107-room castle with a torture chamber just might be something of a curiosity. That's fine by him, as long as it gets people to sample the fruits of his labor.

"I want people who are serious about wines to come here," he said. "I thought if I built something beautiful to showcase it, they would."

Paul E. Kandarian, a freelance writer in Taunton, can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Dr. Wilkinson's Hot Springs Resort
1507 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, Calif.
707-942-4102; drwilkinson.com
Rooms $109-$229; bungalows $119-$229; Victorian house $139-$249.

Indian Springs Resort and Spa
1712 Lincoln Ave. 707-942-4913
indianspringscalistoga.com
Rooms $200-$225; cottages $215-$650.

Where to eat
Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery
1250 Lincoln Ave. 707-942-4101
calistogainn.com
Original building went up in 1882, Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton filmed "They Knew What They Wanted" here in 1940. Popular outdoor dining patio on Napa River.
Weekend brunch, lunch and dinner served daily.
Entrees $15-$30.

Brannan's Grill
1374 Lincoln Ave.
707-942-2233; brannansgrill.com
Ranch-style design, dark and wooded, outdoor seating option, extensive wine list.
Lunch $7-$29, dinner entrees $19-$32.

What to do
Castello di Amorosa
4045 North Saint Helena Highway
707-942-8200 castellodiamorosa.com
Tasting only $10, tasting and tour $25.

Old Faithful Geyser
1299 Tubbs Lane
707-942-6463 oldfaithfulgeyser.com
One of three official "Old Faithful" geysers, this tosses a scalding curtain of water up to 75 feet high every half hour or so.
Daily 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. in summer.
Adults $8, seniors $7, children ages 6-12 $3, under 6 free.

Petrified Forest
4100 Petrified Forest Road
707-942-6667; petrifiedforest.org
Daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m. in summer.
Adults $6, seniors $5, children 6-11 $3, under 6 free.

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