I made my first visit to the latest “castle” in Napa this past weekend, in honor of my sister Shauna’s birthday. Saturday morning Beth and I made the cruise up from the East Bay and into the Valley, meeting up with everyone at my parents’ house in Browns Valley.
Now…when I say “castle,” I don’t mean some overgrown McMansion built by the latest tech wiz from San Jose, I mean a real and ginormous Italian castle! Daryl Sattui, family patriarch and proprietor of the enormously popular V. Sattui winery destination on 29 just before St. Helena proper, has spent the last 14 years and over US$30 million building an obsessively authentic Italian castle on Diamond Mountain.
At 121,000 square feet, 8 stories and 109 rooms, this painstakingly-designed replica of a Tuscan medieval-era castle, while ostentatious, is so well executed that one cannot come away from visiting the grounds without a sense of awe and inspiration. Most of the stone, artifacts and other materials were imported from Italy, as were many of the artisans that worked on the building. The building is replete with a dungeon and even a torture chamber!
The feeling of awe becomes tempered however, once you actually enter the facility and realize that you need to stand in line for tickets to taste or tour the facility, just as you would at any amusement park. We actually had to wait for an extra 5-10 minutes while the cashier and another gentleman searched for the proper “color” ticket for Napa residents until the cashier finally just wrote on some other colored tickets and sent us into the main tasting room. Our problems were not yet over however, as two of the pourers debated whether or not we could taste using these “other” colored tickets…frustration abounded. The tickets were not bar-coded, meaning that no database would be off at the end of the day if we were just to taste with a ticket that had the wrong color. This image of an obsession with the payment for any services really turned me off for awhile.
I would have just shrugged it off as one of those things that you encounter at any big “destination winery,” but then I saw the size of the pours. Most pours were barely 2 small swallows, some even smaller. It is very difficult to actually evaluate a wine with such a small volume, particularly when the pourer (nicely, actually) suggested we share and that way can try more wines at once, something Beth and I do fairly often. But we’ll share…what? A taste that’s about a third or a quarter of an ounce?
After tasting some of the wines, I did come away with some good first impressions of their ’06 Pinot Bianco and the ’02 Il Brigante pseudo-Super Tuscan (it’s not a Super Tuscan blend, traditionally that of Sangiovese plus any number of Bordeaux varietals, its 100% Cab). After finishing my allotted pours, our pourer also offered me an extra pour of any other wine, which was much-appreciated.
We then walked around the grounds some more, at least of the two floors that were accessible without a tour and really enjoyed the facility. The tour prices that we’ve seen ranged from $25-50, so we didn’t tour that day, but I don’t think that I’d take one if it was, indeed, $50, regardless of whether the tasting was included. I did enjoy myself at the Castello and I think it is quite an experience, but I think they need to work on the money-centric ambiance and iron out some of the tasting service kinks before I’d head back over to taste any time soon. While I did find a few wines that I really liked as you can see below, I thought that some of the wines might have been a bit over-priced, especially when compared to those at V. Sattui. Admittedly, they might be going for a different market than their original winery. That said, it’s hard to justify a New World Pinot Grigio priced at $20.
After touring medieval Tuscany, we decided that a picnic lunch was next on the agenda and debated where we might go and eat. We finally decided on heading up to an old favorite up the road, Graeser Winery, also situated on Diamond Mountain. I first wrote about Graeser when my dad and I had such a great time there again, during our annual Pops & Son Wine Trip. There we had lunch amid the beautiful surroundings, joined by Richard Graeser’s two Great Danes . We greatly enjoyed Graeser’s ’02 Chard and ’02 Two Dog Merlot during our meal.
We next headed down to the city of Napa to check out Copia (to which I’ve never been) and the new Oxbow Wine Market next door, modeled after the very successful Ferry Building Marketplace in SF. Oxbow was a bit sparse, seeing as how their official grand opening is to be the following weekend and we ran out of time for Copia. Oxbow does look pretty promising however, with an expansive wine merchant and many other stalls offering high-end foodstuffs and antiques. It is the latest addition to what is becoming another fine food and wine destination near downtown Napa, what with the new Taylor’s Refresher (the original is still in St. Helena) that opened that weekend and many other bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants all in that neighborhood.
Finally pooped, we headed back to my parents in Browns Valley where we enjoyed a little more wine and I barbecued some great steaks that my parents had picked up. A wonderful day concluded with some more great food, drink and company. Shauna knows how to party!