Oh, shit! I just realized I’ve got only 45 minutes to write up my freelance article for Wine Spectator magazine, about my visit to the Castello di Amorosa winery! I better get right to it.
Wine Tasting – Castello di Amorosa
The site of the winery, or terroir in viticulture parlance, is quite extravagant, almost exquisite. The castle is so imposing, I have to wonder if our military has an arrangement in place to appropriate the property in the case of an attack. It’s kind of hard to believe that all that goes on in this mighty fortress is the production, tasting, and sale of wine. Oddly, the grapevines themselves are virtually unprotected and in fact during our visit several goats escaped and started chowing down on them! Fortunately, stone walls are not the only protection: the castle turrets have arrowslits, aka balistraria, which are those tall slots that an archer can shoot arrows through. Or, a crossbowman can launch bolts through them. How badass is that? So let’s say I’m not even tempted to return under dark of night to steal grapes from this place. Besides, they just finished their harvest.
(Note: I’ve just been advised, by someone reading over my shoulder, that terroir has nothing to do with territory and in fact pertains to the combination of soil, climate, etc. that influences the character of a fine wine. Yes, I’m embarrassed. But honestly, that sentence reads so well, I’m going to leave it.)
You might be wondering if there’s a moat. Hell yeah there is! It doesn’t look very deep, nor are there crocodiles, but who knows … maybe it has piranhas? Or maybe there’s an underwater cage of piranhas they can release on command, if anyone storms the moat? That would be so cool. Now, no moat would be complete without a drawbridge … so does this Castello have one? Yes! I’m not sure if it’s operational, though. The brochure says, “The heavy iron chains would be used to raise the drawbridge to prevent marauders from entering through the main entrance.” Well, yeah … it’s not like it’d keep marauders from coming through the side entrance. Or from doing something other than entering. But what really bothers me about that sentence is that the verb is in the hypothetical subjunctive, “would be used...” There’s such a whiff of “never” about that. How about “The heavy iron chains can be used…”? Or, since we all grasp the concept, how about just saying “the drawbridge totally works”?
So, does the castle live up to its reputation as “a magical place which will transport you to medieval Italy”? I can’t say for sure, since I’ve never been to Italy, but at a minimum the Castello transported me to modern Anaheim, home of Disneyland. But in a good way.
The tasting room is down a flight of stone steps. My party had been warned that it’s a cave and can be quite chilly, but in fact a) it’s not a cave, and b) it’s not chilly. Could my daughter have confused the Castello with some other winery she researched? Easily. The brick ceilings are hand-built which seems remarkable unless you consider the alternative: robot-built? Is that even a thing? The arches are impressively vaulted, if that makes any sense. The bars are travertine stone and present an impressive and quite functional surface on which to place glasses of wine and fill out our tasting forms. I’ll bet you could hand-mix ice cream or fudge on this bar, like at those tourist places. Or you could lay out a corpse on the stone surface. It’s like marble.
Here I am filling out my tasting form.
That’s not my purse, by the way. I don’t carry a purse. (It’s not that a purse would compromise my masculine dignity; I could totally carry it off. I just don’t happen to desire one. If I did though, it would be soft kid leather like the one you see here.)
Castello wines are sold only at the winery. I’m sure the vintner is tempted to say, “Not sold in stores!” but that phrase has such a strong association with the QVC network and/or Ginsu steak knives, it cannot be uttered. But it’s true: you cannot buy this Castello di Amorosa wine at any restaurant or store. So what happens if you’re entertaining late and run out of wine? Perhaps that is where the fortress, with its moat and drawbridge, come in to play. Don’t even try it.
During our tasting we were cared for by Elisa, who is new to the Castello, having just arrived from Italy. She spoke with a charming Italian accent, as in “We-a will-a start-a with-a the white-a wines-a and-a work-a our way-a down.” Come to think of it, it’s possible her name is Elise, and it just sounded like Elisa. (Full disclosure: as I mentioned before, I’ve never been to Italy, so it’s possible she’s not Italian at all and has just mastered a fake Italian accent. If so, she-a had-a me fooled!)
At Castello the Pinot Grigio is vintned with a young Malvasia grape. (An old grape would be a raisin, from which wine cannot be reliably produced.) This being an Italian style wine, it is more acidic than a traditional American wine such as Thunderbird, or a soft drink like Kool-Aid. The fragrance, or nose, is beguiling, almost coquettish, with hints of come-hither. The taste is light and frisky, almost meretricious, like the sassy tongue of a young prostitute. Overall I find the wine very sippable. I cannot say whether it would be quaffable or guzzle-able since I was given only about an ounce. (The exact tasting amount is unknown, because Elisa knows only the metric system and I was too enthralled with the terroir to calculate the conversion.)
The Traminer grapes producing this varietal are notoriously difficult to grow, given their unstable genome, especially in Napa County, where the climate is a bit hot for them. As a result, the young grapes are often exposed to routine profanity and even abuse at the hands of frustrated growers. This results in traumatized grapes and a final product that’s easily the most hard-bitten bad-boy of whites I’ve ever sampled. The wine is initially sharp on the palate with notes of anguish (or agnosia in wine parlance) but tamped down by subtle hints of musk, lychee, and leach. The flavor starts out rather boldly and strongly, like a German with a megaphone, but then softens and dissipates like evaporating solvent and ultimately resolves into a graceful waft of gingerbread nostalgia as it rolls past your lingual frenulum.
The breadsticks come lovingly wrapped in a form-fitting plastic bag, suggestive of both high density polyethylene and old-school cellophane. Presentation is in a simple glass, and I had the small thrill of tearing into the bag myself. The sticks are long and pale, like a British rocker’s slender fingers, but the flavor is pure Tuscany, with tones of airy sifted flour and extra virgin olive oil. The finish is salty, like a good sea shanty, and left me yearning for more wine, ideally right out of the spigot like how I used to get it in my childhood home.
The reds are justifiably famous at the Castello, earning a loyal following among wine aficionados and culinary epicures, along with a begrudging but undeniable sense of street cred. Two of the reds on offer for the tasting have won awards from the SFC, which (I admit, I had to look this up) stands for Sucka Free City, i.e., San Francisco. Imagine all those ballers from the Western Addition or the Mission district rolling up to the castle in their low-riders or souped-up Acuras with aftermarket spoilers, subwoofers booming. “Don’t gimme no Clos du Bois, we don’t swill that shit in tha SFC.”
After much hemming and hawing, I settled on the Pinot Noir Morning Dew, known among local tech millionaires as a perfect breakfast wine and a nice replacement for their beloved Mountain Dew, now that they’ve graduated from coding in the garage to grandstanding in the boardroom. The flavor awakens the tongue with all the sharpness and clarity of a modern OLED digital display, accompanied by the bold stride of berry and accented with a tannic spice reminiscent of silicon. For all its cutting edge spine, though, there’s a reassuring coziness to the mouth-feel: a tongue-numbing cloak of gentle clove, summoning wistful affection for one’s youth, such as one might experience stumbling across a Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM at a yard sale.
It is said a winery can be fairly judged by its cab, and the Castello’s has plenty of swagger, with a flavor-forward bite that electrifies the tongue. The zesty tones of pepper grinder, like those very long wooden grinders favored by fancy restaurants, put you on notice just before the strong-armed tannins kick in. This is a big proud cab that quickens your pulse. If you met this wine in a bar it would challenge you to punch it in the stomach as hard as you can … but you won’t find it in a bar because, again, Castello di Amorosa is available only right here at the castle!
If you travel widely among the many wineries in Napa and Sonoma, you’ll start to realize the age cohort is edging upward. Let’s face it, with the global ascension of California wines driving up prices, the only people who can afford it are those who’ve broken the backs of their home mortgages and whose 401(k)s are well into seven figures. There’s a reason Tesla charging stations dot the Napa landscape: these people are as foggy and forgetful as they are rich. So what is the industry to do, as its ageing patrons gradually die off? The Castello has taken a page from the cannabis gummy playbook and is clearly courting the younger set with a nice array of unapologetically sweet dessert wines. Think Hawaiian Punch or Hi-C, but with legs—and plenty of alcohol.
After being pushed around so much by the Cab, I needed a friend—so when I saw the word Simpatica I was hooked right in. But I hesitated because this was last wine I’d get to taste. Would I be selling myself short by skipping the Moscato? Perhaps, but I couldn’t get past the “mosca” part, that being Italian for “fly,” and I just knew I’d take the bait and make a corny joke like “Elisa, there’s a fly in my wine, and he thinks it’s gazpacho.” (I’d already lost a bet that Elisa would make a joke about the wine-spitting bowl, along the lines of “We send that down to Charles Shaw and they bottle it.” She didn’t say anything of the kind. But like I said, she’s new.) In the event, the Simpatica did not let me down: this was a bright wine, redolent of pears and honey, that caressed my tongue, but then took an unexpected detour into light fizz, like fermented peaches at a salad bar, with just a hint of bong water. It’s a highly drinkable wine that says, “Hey, buddy, lighten up.” I could totally see myself drinking this out of a bota bag at a sweltering music festival. It would pair nicely with those weird cream cheese appetizers at P.F. Chang’s, or with Rice Krispies.
I only had a little sip of this, when my tasting companion insisted I try it. I know that, as a wine critic, I should use words like “remarkable,” but my honest reaction was OMG! This is by far the sweetest liquid I’ve ever had in my mouth. Honey is so over. The flavor is so fawningly unctuous, I thought this wine would try to sell me a timeshare in Honolulu. But as it lingers on the tongue it’s all Sweetness & Light, like old school Grade-A maple syrup without the maple. I suddenly had a craving for the totally crusty, blackened pork ribs you find in the dark corner of the grill toward the end of a barbecue. But Il Passito also has a regal flair; if this wine could talk, it’d tell a Bartles & James wine cooler, “You’re just a vulgar little street urchin.”
Nobody in my party remembered to fill out the score card. Or maybe it’s not a memory thing; for me, numeric scores kind of seemed beside the point. I mean, would you give a point rating to the color of your child’s eyes, or to the length of your cat’s tale? Suffice to say, I shall surely return to the Castello di Amorosa, next time I need a full lineup of artisanal wines, or am fleeing a zombie apocalypse. As for which wine impressed us the most, I suppose that can be answered by the one we ended up deciding to buy: the Simpatica, at $30 for a 750ml bottle. I have a feeling it’s gonna go great with chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.
No, Wine Spectator never did run my story. This may have something to do with the fact that I never submitted it. Why would I bother, when I haven’t arranged for the Castello di Amarosa winery to place an ad with the magazine?