Castello di Amorosa

Dario Sattui built a classic XIII century Italian castle in his wine estate in California's Napa Valley.

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Dario Sattui, the owner of Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, California
Dario Sattui is a very determined fourth-generation American winemaker with Italian roots. It took him 15 years and a million old bricks from Europe to build a proper medieval castle. His wife left him, he lost his hair and spent all of his money! He started the construction back in 1994 for a reason - he wanted to pay tribute to his Italian heritage and quench his passion for medieval architecture. His great granddad, pioneering vintner Vittorio Sattui, founded St. Helena Wine Cellars in 1885. Dario was always fascinated by the stories and photos of the old winery. As a child, he would play in the winery's underground cellars and dream of reviving the family business. Dario's interest in medieval architecture grew into an obsession as he traveled around Europe after college. Dario returned to the US in 1972 with a firm intention to to re-open the family winery that had been dormant for more than 50 years.


Dario spent the next twenty years looking for his dream site in the Napa Valley. In 1993 such a plot was found - about 70 hectares of land near the town of Calistoga. It was there that Colonel William Nash planted one of the first vineyards in California in 1846. Dario bought a plot of land with hills, woods, a creek, a lake, and a gorgeous Victorian-style house, where he settled. The most important thing was permission to build on the plot! Dario wanted to specialize in the production of small batches of mostly Italian wines. It would only be possible to buy wine in his medieval castle, no deliveries to stores and restaurants were planned.
As a hobby, I had spent years visiting and studying medieval architecture, collecting thousands of detailed photos and measurements. I obtained building plans of Italian castles; I even pretended to be a rich and interested buyer, dressing in suits to get realtors to show me through castles I would have never seen otherwise. I was determined to bring a slice of Italy I loved to the Napa Valley.
While in Burgundy, he visited a great wine Patriarch cellars, built over two hundred years in the 13th and 14th centuries. They contained some 3 hectares of underground cellars and rooms.
I was the first person to arrive one day, equipped with a camera, plenty of film, a tape measure, a sketch pad and plenty of sharpened pencils. All day I studied the cellars, essentially drawing and photographing with precision every room that moved me. About every hour, the elderly watchman would walk by me, observe my actions and continue on. Finally, late in the day, he came up behind me, grabbed me roughly on the shoulder and forcibly threw me out, while haranguing me loudly and coarsely in French. I was shocked and embarrassed. As he finally let go of me at the outer door, all I could sputter was something like, "I'm going to do something like this in the United States one day, you…. No, even better!"
Which German castle was about to be sold the Hare Krishna sect?


One day, while traveling through Italy, Dario stumbled upon a X century fortified Augustinian monastery on a hill in the countryside. It was only 50 kilometers from Siena on the road to Perugia. The monastery was utterly deserted, with piles of trash lying all over the place. The winemaker's wife didn't like it at all, but Dario immediately imagined what it had been like and what it could become. From the window of his future bedroom he had the most beautiful view in the world: golden fields, stone farmhouses, green lush vineyards, two castles, another monastery, and hills, hills, hills... A close study of medieval building techniques began at the monastery. Coriano became Dario's base, where he practiced his immersion in medieval construction, and from which he made forays into the villages and castles in the neighborhood.


Dario studied his surroundings and spotted another medieval castle from across the road. Despite the "No Trespassing" sign, he took a shortcut to the castle. He was lucky. Firstly, the owner didn't shoot and kill him, and secondly, she introduced him to her husband, Lars Nimskov, a naval architect. He had built two houses on the estate that looked like old houses, but in fact were just finished. Dario invited Lars to his house in Calistoga, and as soon as they arrived, they began working on sketches.

The second builder to join the team of the possessed Dario was Fritz Gruber from Austria. Dario learned about him from a leaflet he had once received in the mail. Armed with it, he went to Austria.
Fritz had grown in love with medieval architecture and spent countless hours studying how to do it. He built small wine cellars for friends, using old world materials and techniques. We started talking and I told him of my dream. "A wine cellar I can understand," he said, "but a whole castle?" He showed me underneath his house where he had built a labyrinth of medieval vaulted cellars. I loved them. I stayed at his house and we talked for three days. He agreed to come with six of his Austrian masons and stay for three months building the first two rooms, so our crew could learn from them.


Dario's idea was to create a fantasy, a maze where every room and space opened into a new and different adventure as one traveled throughout the building. He would 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 proper torture chamber. He was determined to erect the most beautiful and interesting building in North America for showcasing and tasting his great wines.
Even before the idea of building a castle materialized, Dario spent years searching for sources of raw materials for construction. He ended up with an impressive list of addresses where he could get the necessary materials.

The construction of the Castello di Amorosa began in 1994. The initial plan morphed into something huge with 107 completely different rooms located on 8 levels including 4 of them - underground.
Determined to make the Castello authentic in every respect, I used only old, hand-made materials and I built it employing the same methods and materials that would have been used 700-800 years ago. You can't fake something like this. You either do it right or people will know it's not authentic.


The plan was to build the cellars first, followed by castle walls, towers and all the above-ground structures. Sounds like a plan. Dario had been saving for years. He was confident that what he had saved and his current income would be enough to handle any financial situation. Construction, he estimated, should have taken about five to six years. WRONG!
On January 5, 1995, the construction of the underground part of the castle began. A Welsh mining bore excavated horizontally into the hillside at a rate of about four and a half meters per day. After five and a half months, one of the four underground levels was excavated. Gruber's stonemasons trained Lars' crew on how to build vaulted ceilings.
I kept changing and enlarging the plan, carried away with this obsession to build ever better and ever more. When things weren't done absolutely authentically and correctly, we tore them down and started again. Along the way we kept referring back to source materials and photos, making sure that every minute detail was done properly.
Through rain, occasional snow, cold, heat, and heavy winds, the team built Castello di Amorosa, working six days a week, usually ten or more hours a day. Over the years, the project employed builders from eight different countries.
As the years of building continued on, I divorced, lost my hair, became more wrinkled, was struck by a car crossing a San Francisco street, and endured a major flood and a slowdown of my energy. But I always kept building. The 5-6 year project expanded from the original 8,500 to 121,000 square feet and 107 rooms, all different. I went through my money - all of it. Then I sold all my stock to raise cash, often when the market indicated to do the contrary. When that money didn't suffice, I sold my castle in Tuscany. I fired my housekeeper, then the gardener in an effort to save money to use in construction. I skimped everywhere I could to keep building. And the years of construction kept slowly rolling by. Instead of semi-retiring to Italy in 1994 as I had envisioned doing, I was working harder than ever at both V. Sattui, my original winery, and on building Castello di Amorosa. But I loved it. I couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning and hurry to the construction site.
The team worked over 10 years building underground, often seeing daylight only at lunchtime. They completed more than 80 rooms underground, each different, using all the ideas Dario had discovered during his research in Europe.
Authentic medieval Italian castle with a Celtic sacrificial alter nearby
In 2004, the team finally finished the underground portion and began building above. They constructed a dry moat, high defensive fortified walls, five towers, courtyards and loggias, a Tuscan farmhouse and other outbuildings. They erected archways, a big kitchen, a Great Hall that took one and a half years to completely fresco.
But finally, in late 2005, I ran out of money. Enter Wells Fargo Bank– from which I secured a large loan. By mid-2006, I was nearly in a panic about going bankrupt and losing my entire property. I simply couldn't continue to expend large sums of money I had invested in the Castle, the winery equipment, the vineyards and the wine inventory. It had been nearly 14 years without one penny back. I started selling some of the Castle wine cheaply just to raise money. I borrowed from V. Sattui as well as the bank. I was desperate.


Castello di Amorosa appears to be an authentic castle for one reason only: it is an authentic castle, though fancified. A fireplace predating Christopher Columbus adorns the Great Hall, and Iron Maiden from the late Renaissance dominates the torture chamber. A wrought iron dragon from the times of Napoleon hovers over the massive main door.
Fritz Gruber supplied me with nearly one million handmade, antique bricks from torn-down Habsburg palaces.
Georgio Mariani of Assisi in Umbria, along with his father, brother and uncle, made all lamps, iron gates and decorative iron pieces by hand over an open forge. Every nail, every chain link, every hinge and lock was hand-done by the Marianis. Their friend, Lucio, made all the leaded glass windows by hand. The Nanni brothers hand-carved all the ceiling beams. Loris Vanni and his brother-in-law Marino hand carved most of the door and window surrounds and the well. Dario Ruffini hand-carved the stone crests depicting my family's coat of arms. There were many others, mostly from Italy, too numerous to name, who lent a hand to create the only real medieval castle in the United States. Even an Italian architect specializing in the restoration of medieval buildings, Frederico Franci, lent advice.
I was bent on being totally authentic incorporating every element of a real XII – XIII century Tuscan castle. I attempted to depict how castles evolved over time, by erecting doorways and niches and then bricking them up. We built a partially destroyed tower.
It took more than 8,000 tons of hand-chiseled local stone and nearly one million antique bricks imported from Europe to complete the castle. More than 200 containers of old materials and furnishings were shipped over from Europe to decorate the interior. The construction took 15 years and opened to the public on April 7, 2007.
I had no idea if the project would be well-received or not. Would I be laughed at or would people respond positively? The first few days after opening gave me hope. The response to both the Castle and our wines was overwhelmingly positive.
Thanks to Dario Statue's perseverance and obsession, California now has a unique place, a real medieval castle just like one in Tuscany. Dario's ability to pursue his dream in spite of all odds commands great respect.
From red to white, sweet to dry, and more, Castello di Amoroso's exclusive and highly-awarded collection includes more than 50 wines - available for sale exclusively online or in-person at the Castello. In 2019, the Castello was voted the best wine tasting room by USA Today, which is not surprising at all!
During the terrible 2020 California wildfires the estate's farm house burnt down. Along with it, the fire destroyed 120,000 bottles of wine worth $6 million, some of the 2020 vintage, a bottling line, and a laboratory.
All images belong to @Castello di Amorosa
Sources: Castello di Amorosa, USA Today
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