“Have Fun Storming The Castle”

For all of you 80’s movie buffs, you know exactly what scene that line is from and how wonderful the now iconic movie is.Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

It’s one of my all-time favorites. I even own this one—and nope, not afraid to admit it either. Bet this is secretly one of your favorites too. Great, so we’re in good company then. Watching it once or twice a year still makes me giggle, laugh out loud, tear-up, and well, what can I say…. it’s just a plain old good time getting reacquainted with each of the characters we’ve come to love so much. I never seem to tire of the infamous quotes & one-liners this movie created. Not sure which movie I’m referring to? Keep reading. But if you get stuck–spoiler alert–movie title at bottom of post.

Well, last week I got my Buttercup on and had a blast storming this castle over in Napa Valley. Okay, “storming” may be a wee bit of an exaggeration perhaps. There were no Cliffs of Insanity to scale, no Pit Of Despair to escape from— just a gorgeous drive on a spring day through the back roads of Sonoma County, over Calistoga Summit dropping down into the northern end of Napa Valley.  All the vineyards throughout the valley are in full-leaf right now, making it the perfect day for a special VIP / behind-the-scenes access to one of wine country’s most well-known landmarks– Castello di Amorosa Winery in Calistoga. Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Moat at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Castello di Amarosa, Napa Valley
I lucked out on this exclusive, private tour through a chance meeting with Patrick (formerly of Castello, now with its sister winery V. Sattui), at a recent wine industry event. Patrick had been with “The Castle” (as the locals refer to it) since it opened in 2007 and he graciously invited my dear friend, Miss LJ, and I up for a visit. Since both of us are in the wine biz and have only heard tell of this amazing place–we were very excited to finally see the winery in person. Patrick knows every square inch of this place inside and out. He shared with us all the mind-boggling details of how a piece of Italy was reproduced, stone by stone, here in California wine country. It was 14 years in the making and no matter what other winery folks tell you– it’s definitely well-worth a visit. Do yourself some favors though and 1) get there early to beat the crowds (opens at 9:30am daily), 2) book the tour and the tasting ($35/pp) otherwise you’ll miss out on most of the castle if you only do the self-guided tour and 3) wear comfortable shoes. It’s a real castle people. And it’s huge! There are heaps of stone stairs, narrow cobblestone walkways, sloping pathways into four levels of dark cellars….you get the idea. So much fun! Oh, and bring your camera too. The views of the valley from the turrets are stunning.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa ValleyDSC_0084-2
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Where to begin- there is so much to share. I’ll give you the highlights and then you’ll just have to hop on a plane to experience the rest of this majestic place for yourself. The Castello was built to period with a combination of 13-14th and 16th century castle architecture. There’s not one specific castle in Italy it was modeled after,  rather a collection of Tuscan villas, castles and alike that owner Dario Sattui found inspiration from. There are eight levels (four above-ground, four underground) with 107 rooms. In total, 121,000 square feet of medieval artistry. He has recreated every detail with incredible accuracy and (needless to say), expense. All the iron work for the doors, walls, hinges, light fixtures was hand-forged by Italian artisans. The mural in the Great Hall is a replica from a fresco in Siena; hand-painted by artists he flew in from Umbria. The centuries-old salvaged cobblestones near the draw bridge (yep, told you it was a real castle) were shipped over in hundreds of containers from Italy. The upper courtyard (the bailey) has beautiful natural Carrara marble walls and bar-tops. The rectangular gaps (crenels) in the walls were engineered to the exact angle a guardsmen of the day would have needed to deftly launch his deadly arrow through to kill an enemy, yet protect himself from return fire.
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
We walked through a myriad of wine cellars, the Armory, the Torture Chamber, Member-Only tasting room, fermentation and barrel aging rooms. In all—four levels down from the main courtyard, about 70-80 feet beneath the earth. We even got to meet Lancelot (the cat). His sister Guinevere was off sunning herself on one of the outer walls. The entire property is in keeping with a real working-castle of the day with their stable of animals– chickens running in & out of vineyard rows, sheep, goats, pigs, ducks and geese in the moat, and a stately peacock near the entrance to greet you.

Private Tasting Cellar- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
After a 1.5-hour journey underground, we finished up in the large main tasting area for a sip or two (or three!) of their signature releases. Patrick offered his suggestions from their expansive collection of wines- ranging from sweet whites and reds to dry, aromatic white blends to several well-made reds and a few tasty dessert wines. There is a wine here for the novice drinker up to the expert. My favorites were:
2014 Castello di Amorosa Gewürztraminer, Mendocino County– amazing spice and rose petal on the nose. Dry, mineral-laced and bright stone fruit on the palate. Vinified in an Alsacian-style. A nice drop. $25.00

2014 Castello di Amorosa Pinot Bianco, Sonoma County-you don’t see too much of this varietal produced around here. Light, crisp, tropical fruit but not heavy-handed. Would be ideal for a brunch or just for sipping on a lazy summer day. $26.00

2011 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese, Napa Valley– all the bright acidity you’d expect from a Sangiovese. Loaded with cherries, dark berries, mocha, bit of earthiness too. Perfect with an antipasti plate. $29.00
Family Tasting Area- Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley
Patrick & Miss LJ at Castello di Amorosa, Napa Valley

Many thanks to Patrick for the expert tour and his wealth of knowledge. We now have a deep appreciation for the talents and hard work contributed by the hundreds of skilled artisans that constructed this jaw-dropping and unique winery. In admiration of their work, all we could say was “inconceivable!”.

What’s your favorite line from the movie? ;>)

To visit:
Castello di Amorosa
4045 St Helena Hwy, Calistoga, CA 94515 |  (707) 967-6272
Several tour, tasting, food pairing options available. Tour & tasting information
Open daily 9:30am-6:00pm March-Oct | 9:30am-5:00pm Nov-Feb
Email: tours@castellodiamorosa.com

-Movie title= The Princess Bride (1987)
-Header Tag Line= scene with Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and his wife Valerie (Carol Kane) wishing Westley good luck as he embarks on a journey to save Buttercup from Prince Humperdink.
-Plan to spend at least 2 – 2.5 hours here. You will need every minute of that if you are doing the tour & tasting, plus you’ll want time to wander the grounds.
-Scenes from Adam Sandler’s movie Bedtime Stories (2008) were filmed here. Their production crew scouted 19 sites world-wide before discovering Castello.

The Perfect Match: Figs & Ricotta Salata

Black Mission Figs with Ricotta Salata
This is the first post of a new series called the Perfect Match. Periodically I’ll be sharing some great food & food pairings as well as food & wine suggestions. I think we all can agree that when you eat something amazing, and then find another food that perfectly complements it,  the result is crazy good. And for those even more rare occasions when you’re lucky enough to elevate that pairing to the next level with a phenomenal wine; the end result is off-the-charts good.

So is the food nirvana for me with fresh figs and Ricotta Salata. The earthiness,  sweetness and softness of the figs is nicely counter-balanced with the firm, salty tang of the Ricotta Salata. The best flavors of each are amplified when the two come together. Simply shave a few slices of cheese off the wedge and place on a fig half. Couldn’t be easier or more delicious! And with figs on the cusp of being in full-fledged season,  what better time to revel in these two gastronomically delightful delicacies.
black mission figs
First, a bit about figs. There are several varieties growing where I live:

Black Mission: these are the most popular commercially and one of my favorites. Deep purple to black with a bright pink flesh. The flavor is earthy, sweet-tart and the tannins from fruit enable it to be a very wine-friendly food.  This variety is available mid-May through November.

Brown Turkey: a lighter purple – black color and have a similar pink flesh on the interior. They have a more intense “figgy” flavor as compared to Black Mission and notes of hazelnuts in the finish. Brown Turkey’s are delicious fresh or dried. Almost ever-bearing, this variety is available mid-May through December.

Kadota: very pale yellow to green in color these are not as commonly seen commercially as their two darker counterparts. When the fig ripens, the skin turns a beautiful amber color and this particular variety is almost seedless, making it the ideal candidate for drying, canning, or jams.  The thick skin houses a light pink and sweet pulp. Limited window of availability June- October.

Calimyrna: Large and pale yellow skinned figs with a nutty, sweet flavor. These are typically eaten dried as their fig-flavor and sweetness intensifies as the pulp dehydrates. They have a very limited window of  availability from July through September, hence the propensity of this variety typically eaten dried. Read more about Figs in California.black mission figs & ricotta salata
ricotta salata & black mission figs
Say hello to Ricotta Salata. This cheese is so good, yet so under-utilized. Made from Ricotta, it’s a pressed, salted, dried, and aged variety of the cheese. It is milky-white and firm, and used for grating or shaving. Originally from Sicily, Ricotta Salata is sold in wheels, decorated by a delicate basket-weave pattern. It’s typically used when you want to introduce a salty flavor to a pasta dish or salads (both greens and fruit based).  I personally love to nibble on this delicious sheep’s milk cheese with fresh figs (of course), cantaloupe, or crumble over a bowl of fresh strawberries drizzled with balsamic- yum!!

white wine in glass

Now to kick it up a notch: the wine pairing.

Whites: I recommend a Riesling, Champagne/Cava/Prosecco or Pinot Gris. For all of the above wines, you’ll want to find offerings of those varieties with a slight RS (wine-speak for residual sugar) to elevate the sweetness of the fig and off-set the acidity of the cheese. You could do a Late Harvest Semillon or Late Harvest Riesling, just be sure it isn’t too sweet or cloying as it will over power the pairing.

For the bubble lovers (like me!) I suggest a Spanish Cava (light, floral aromas, citrus notes on the palate). Look for a Brut Cava —that has 0-12 g/l residual sugar so it’s not sweet, but not totally “dry'” either. An Italian Prosecco made from the Glera grape has loads of fresh & bright aromatics, notes of stone fruit and flowers on the palate. These wines have become lower in sugar over time as compared to the Proseccos of yester-year,  but you’ll still find them a tad sweeter than traditional French Champagne.

If you choose a Pinot Gris, please be sure it’s an Alsatian style, not an Italian Pinot Grigio. A true Pinot Gris will have elements of spice notes and slight oak or neutral barrel aging to create a fuller mouth-feel. Italian Pinot Grigios (although made from the same Pinot Gris grape) are typically stainless steel fermented which yields a much tighter, astringent, less full-bodied wine and it will fight with the inherent acidity in the cheese.

red wine in glass

Reds: My ideal partner for this dish would be one of the red wines of Tuscany such as Sangiovese, Chianti and my all-time favorite, the heavy-hitting Brunello. But for this pairing Sangiovese is probably the best match as the grape has a naturally higher acidity level than other red varietals, making it a good foil to the sweetness of the fig and saltiness of the cheese.

Another fabulous pairing would be the Tuscan-exclusive Vin Santo. This is a wonderful dessert wine made from dried Trebbiano and Malvasia Bianca grapes. It dates back to the Renaissance days where it was used as a sacramental sweet wine. This nutty-tasting elixir is similar to a sherry in aromatics and viscosity and will vary in levels of sweetness, depending on the mix of grapes used and the producer. It’s meant to be consumed with Cantucci , a heavenly biscotti-like biscuit with almonds for dunking in the wine.

Final thought: do try this pairing of figs and Ricotta Salata and you will have a new found appreciation for them both. And perhaps give one of the recommended wines a whirl & swirl as well. Then let me know what your Perfect Match is. Cheers!

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