First stop on my mom’s tour of the Bay Area was San Francisco. Next, we went to Napa Valley to tour a castle!
But there were a few obstacles:
- I rarely ever drink wine (or any alcohol for that matter because I just don’t like the taste)
- Neither does my mother
- I forgot my ball gown back in Florida
Yet so it happened that two nondrinkers came to visit Wine Country…
Touring the Castello di Amorosa: Turrets, Caves, and a Torture Chamber
We arrive at the Castello ten minutes late.
“I can’t believe we’re late to tour a castle!” I yell at my mom, even though really it’s my fault for waking up late and taking too long to choose what to wear.
Our tour guide is Damian, who’s been working at the Castello since 2008. He’s quite the character, cracking jokes, inserting snarky comments, and spewing a multitude of facts about the castle and wine.
The castle’s specs are impressive:
- Authentically styled as a 13th-century Tuscan castle
- 121,000 square feet
- 107 rooms
- 5 defensive towers
- Hand-painted frescoes
- All ironwork hand-forged by Italian artisans over open flame
- More than 170 containers of handmade antique bricks and tiles brought over from Europe
- Secret passageways (sadly, I was never made privy to these…)
- Two and a half acres of caves
- Torture chamber with an authentic 300-year-old iron maiden and other torture devices
Damian takes us into the caves below the castle. It is cold, dark, and damp. I am reminded of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, and a shiver runs down my spine. Despite its eeriness, the cave part of the tour is absolutely thrilling.
We spend an uncomfortable amount of time in the torture chamber as Damian details the uses of each and every device in the room.
Wine Tasting at the Castello
We step out of the torture chamber into a room piled high with barrels, and Damian informs us that we will be doing a barrel tasting. As he pulls out the wine glasses, I mentally run through the steps I found on Google the night before when I searched “how to do a wine tasting.”
He hands me a glass and keeps talking, but I am so focused on the glass, I hardly hear what he’s saying.
Swirl. Every article I read told me the first step is to swirl. I take a deep breath, rear back my hand, and just as I’m about to flick my wrist, I hear him shout:
I immediately freeze and look at him. Thankfully, he was talking to everyone, and not me specifically.
“I know people ALWAYS tell you to swirl, and people always get all swirl happy.” He takes an empty wine glass and spins it wildly in the air. “Woohoo! I’m a cowboy!”
The others laugh at this wine tasting faux pas. I chuckle nervously.
“Yeah,” I mutter to the person next to me. “Like, who the heck would do that?”
“Just take a sip,” Damian tells us. “Let it touch just the tip of your tongue.”
I take a sip.
“If you did it right, it should taste sweet.”
I think I did it wrong because it just tastes like alcohol to me.
“Now,” he says, “smell it. Stick your nose in it and breathe deep.”
At some point, he finally lets us swirl, and I’m proud of myself because I do it without spilling any wine on my white shirt.
I manage to fake my way through the rest of the barrel tasting, but the true test comes when we all take our seats at a bar deep in the caverns of the Castello for our wine tasting.
Damian instructs us to pull out the other half of our torn ticket.
“But my ticket hasn’t been torn,” I tell him.
“Um, honey, that’s because you showed up LATE,” he retorts, then takes my ticket and rips it in half. “Here ya go.”
He then tells us to open up the wine lists in front of us and check off the wines we’d like to taste. My mom and I purchased the upgraded ticket, meaning we can taste six wines, including the priciest ones, which are on the “Reserve” list. (Oh yes, we are fancy.)
I eye the menu and wonder if Damian will call me out if I order the non-alcoholic grape juice.
I determine that, yes, of course Damian will call me out if I order the grape juice, so I do the next best thing and check off all the sweet wines and then check off the two most expensive Reserve wines because clearly that means they’re SUPER good, right?
“I don’t really like wine,” I confess to Damian in a hushed voice.
“Oh, we’ll fix that,” he assures me.
He pours me the first glass, and without my asking, he tells me what to do: “Don’t swirl that one. Just sip it slowly.”
I’m grateful he’s willing to help me, sparing me the fate of looking like an inexperienced fool.
He then pours wine for the couple next to me and tells them, “She’s a crazy bag o’ nuts,” and jerks his thumb in my direction.
I’m astounded by his ability to give me advice in one breath and then make fun of me in the next. I decide we would make great friends.
The Castello has exquisite wines that boast awards from various places such as the American Fine Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, but I’m just not accustomed to the taste of alcohol. I’m about to give up on ever finding one I like when Damian pours me a wine called Fantasia.
The wine list describes it as:
An Italian style, soft sparkling wine…naturally sweet and refreshing with bright aromas of cherry, exotic flowers, and wild berries. Darker in color than most rose-style wines, this is loaded with flavor and has more structure. It is absolutely packed with black raspberry, plum, and strawberry flavors in the mouth and ample sweetness which leads to a creamy, round finish.
Which, ya know, is EXACTLY how I would’ve described it.
“Mm!” I exclaim. “This tastes good!”
“Oh good,” Damian says as he pours another glass of wine. “She’s found her happy place.”
I glance over at my mom, and it seems she’s found her happy place too. The self-proclaimed nondrinker has downed every drop of every glass Damian has poured for her.
The Man Behind the Castle
Tell me I can’t do something and, if it is important to me, I will try to prove you wrong. -Dario Sattui
I think it would be easy to write off the owner of the castle as a rich, excessive snob. But from what I’ve learned about Dario Sattui, I can’t help but genuinely like and respect him.
I suggest you read this brief history of the Castello. Sattui didn’t just throw his money at some skilled architects and say, “Build me a castle!” He went to Europe. He spent years measuring, photographing, and studying medieval architecture. He handpicked the architects who would build the castle and meticulously oversaw every step of the process to ensure the castle was built authentically and perfectly. At one point, Sattui nearly went bankrupt and lost his property. The 14-year process of constructing the Castello was truly a labor of love.
So whether you’re a wine connoisseur, an architecture aficionado, or you just like pretty things, consider visiting the Castello di Amorosa. It’s a chance to explore enchanting hallways, venture into intricate caves, learn a little about history, and savor wines you can’t find anywhere else (the Castello does not distribute its wines outside of the property). And c’mon, it’s a freaking CASTLE. How many times are you gonna come across one of those in the United States?
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Tips to Know Before You Go
Castello di Amorosa
4045 North Saint Helena Highway
Calistoga, CA 94515
Hours: The Castello is open seven days a week from 9:30am-6:00pm March-October and 9:30am-5:00pm November-February. Closed December 25.
Where to buy tickets: Call the reservation desk at (707) 967-6272. You cannot book reservations on the website or via email.
Cost: General admission (roaming access of the castle and a five-wine premium tasting) is $18. Price goes up from there depending on what you want. Please see the Castello website for more information.
Other tips: My only regret is that I didn’t take the time after the tour and wine tasting to roam the castle on my own. Whether you do the tour or not, make sure you take some time to look around at your own leisure. There is a lot to see!