Unlike the other once-obscure farm towns dotting the Napa Valley, this outpost at the northern tip has resisted most of the country-club pretensions that took hold when tourists discovered their taste for the wine-country lifestyle in the 1980s.
St. Helena has become a mecca for boutique shops and traffic jams, Yountville reigns as an elite dining destination, and Napa aspires to a chic cosmopolitan vibe.
But rugged Calistoga, which sits atop a network of geothermal springs, is where folks build fantasy castles, soak in hot volcanic mud and enjoy food and wine that fit a workingman's budget. Even though the moneyed interests have arrived here, too, their new ventures still adhere to the quirky, laid-back ethos of the area.
As this mellowest of towns settles into the mellowest of seasons, now's an ideal time to see what has bubbled up lately between the mountains.
Keeper of the castle
For much of the past two decades, Daryl Sattui worried about making a fool of himself as he invested a fortune in a winery project that charitably could be called quixotic or not so charitably, downright strange.
After all, he says, Napa Valley "is a small place, and people talk. A lot of them said, 'He's absolutely crazy.' "
But since April, when Sattui finally unveiled Castello di Amorosa, the centerpiece of his 171-acre estate on Diamond Mountain, a lot of people have been left speechless.
And who can blame them?
Sattui's "Castle of Love" is a full-scale, brick-by-brick re-creation of the medieval castles built in Italy between the 10th and 16th centuries. There's a moat with a drawbridge; a Great Hall with hand-painted frescoes on the walls and ceiling; a dungeon; a torture chamber outfitted with an iron maiden, a rack and a stump for beheadings; 60-foot watch towers affording stunning views of the valley; a chapel; a royal apartment; a vast piazza where Schwarzenegger, Pelosi, Giuliani and a Russian symphony orchestra have staged receptions; and four underground levels totaling two acres.
And somewhere within the walls is a winery that specializes in Italian-style blends.
"I'm Italian, and I love all things Italian — food, wine, art, people, medieval architecture," says Sattui, 65, explaining why he invested a lifetime of profits from his V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena ("It's been quoted as $30 million, somewhere in there") to indulge his passion.
Sattui, a fourth-generation winemaker, spent about 30 years researching the project and taking thousands of photos of medieval structures in Tuscany and Umbria. During that time, he acquired the Diamond Mountain property and hired master builders in Italy to render his dream. It took them 14 years, using centuries-old reclaimed bricks from Italy and Austria, hand-forged iron and hand-planed timber.
Originally envisioned as an 8,500-square-foot winery, Amorosa grew into a 121,000-square-foot complex encompassing 107 rooms (95 dedicated to winemaking), 900 linear feet of caves and vaulted tunnels, and a 12,000-square-foot barrel room.
"It turned out better than I envisioned," Sattui says during a recent chat in the underground tasting room. "I was born with no money, and I'm OK to die with no money, but I want some in between."
Here's mud in your ear
Auberge Resorts is known throughout the valley for its luxurious, romantic hideaways, Calistoga Ranch in Calistoga and Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, where some rooms can top $2,000 a night in the high season.