Serving a Range of Palates in a Palace

It’s hard for wine tourists to miss Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, California.

After all, it’s pretty difficult for a 150,000-square-foot castle to hide among the vines.

The Napa Valley winery is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Construction began on owner Dario Sattui’s Tuscan-style castle in 1994, and the winery opened in 2007, two years before construction on the massive structure finally wrapped up.

Winemaker Peter Velleno doesn’t look at his job making wines at a tourist destination as burdening him with making a diverse, ever-growing portfolio of wines. He sees it as an opportunity.

Being located in a castle, Castello Di Amorosa attracts its share of people who are interested in tasting its wines and purchasing bottles, but it also draws in a fair number of families who are far more interested in the fact that it’s a castle in northern Napa Valley.

But Velleno considers that more of a boon than a burden.

“We get a lot of people who aren’t experienced wine drinkers and families who are bringing their kids along,” Velleno said. “I get to share my passion for winemaking with a crowd of people who maybe otherwise wouldn’t get to experience that.”

Velleno didn’t originally set out to be a winemaker. He studied chemical engineering at the University of California, Davis, and was also studying brewing.

“I thought I was going to do beer,” Velleno said. “I was doing quality control, but once I started taking winemaking courses, that was interesting to me. I liked the connection to agriculture — you’re not buying ingredients from around the world and piecing them together. You’re seeing them grow here, and making the product without even leaving the property. You don’t get that in industries like brewing.

“Maybe, what’s different for me is I found my way into wine because I appreciated the winemaking process rather than discovering the product first. The more I grew with it, the more I loved wine.”

That’s a good thing because these days, Velleno makes a lot of them.

Castello Di Amorosa offers an array of reds, whites, sweet wines, Rosé, and even specially crafted non-alcoholic grape juice for minors and non-drinkers who find themselves at the castle with their families.

“People come and see the castle and then we turn them into wine lovers once they’re here. We make so many products and have something for everyone here,” he explained.

The castle includes multiple courtyards, a chapel, the drawbridge, a watch tower, a torture chamber, and secret passageways. It also houses advanced crushing and fermentation facilities, five underground levels, and 24,000 square feet of caves all for barrel aging.

Velleno said its location and venue drive Castello Di Amorosa to be both diverse in products it offers and also enables it to expand beyond the portfolio of what he described as a typical Napa Valley winery.

“So many wineries are making two Cabs, a Merlot and a Chardonnay, and five years from now they’ll be doing the same thing, with maybe a Malbec that they serve only in the tasting room,” Velleno said. “We’re always trying new things and new varieties. We’re direct to consumer, so we’re able to control what we’re doing. We’re not in distribution or tied into fulfilling orders with grocery store chains. We have much more freedom here than anyone I’ve ever known in Napa Valley.”

At a destination winery like Castello that has a tourism draw to it that goes beyond wine, Velleno said turning new people onto wine requires an enthusiasm for patience, education, kindness, and good customer service.

“One thing we really pride ourselves on, besides how special our wines and the castle are, is customer service. We really enjoy educating customers,” Velleno said. “Nobody here is going to feel intimidated by our staff, and no one is going to make them feel dumb for not saying the wine terminology correctly. If someone doesn’t care for strong reds, we have other wines we can offer them.”

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