Adventures in Napa’s castles and geysers

Look at the castles!” my four-year-old daughter exclaimed, pressing her nose against the car window.

“Yes, Napa has lots of castles,” I agreed.

There’s no shortage of temples to the vine along Highway 29 as you drive toward Calistoga, in the heart of California’s wine country. Greco-Roman, Persian, and Tuscan-style wineries, one more impressive than the next, demand your attention.

But there’s only one real castle: Castello di Amorosa.

It’s an ostentatious, 121,000-square foot, 107-room medieval castle that doubles as a winery. In almost every respect, it’s as authentic as anything you’d find in Europe.

It didn’t matter to our three kids that they make a first-rate wine on the premises. They cared about the drawbridge with a real moat, the labyrinth in the cellar, and the dungeon with authentic torture devices, such as a rack, an iron maiden and a cat o’ nine tails.

Architecture buffs would have also appreciated the attention to detail paid by Dario Sattui, owner of the V. Sattui Winery, who commissioned the building almost two decades ago. A very loose interpretation of its name is “labor of love.” How appropriate, considering the rumors that he spent nearly all his resources to finish the project, which opened in 2007.

I haven’t taken our two youngest kids to see real castles yet. Aren, my oldest, visited several castles in the Czech Republic back in 2004, but he was too young to remember it.

And no, Disney World doesn’t count.

Sattui’s pursuit of authenticity puts Amorosa in a class by itself. There’s a chapel that’s as real as anything I’ve seen in Central Europe, with woodwork and paintings done in the Old World tradition, and even a Latin Mass held every Sunday. The imposing edifice looks as if it’s been on the same Napa hillside for the last 500 years, with its imported masonry and frescoes.

“I hear chickens,” says Iden, our middle child.

Just outside the thick castle walls, we also found sheep, peacocks, and two resident cats. It’s authentic right down to the livestock.

You get the sense Calistoga likes to be real, even long after you’ve descended from the castle and wandered into town. Walk through the Sharpsteen Historical Museum, and you’ll understand the town’s relaxed attitude, which made its evolution into a resort town inevitable. The exhibits show how Calistoga became what it is today, from a rough-and-tumble pioneer town to one of the centers of the American wine industry that still appreciates its roots.

Stop in for lunch at Solbar and you’ll find almost nothing on the menu that isn’t organic and locally grown. Even the grocery store next to our hotel, the Indian Springs Resort and Spa has a full assortment of raw milk and cheeses and organic, local wines.

The kids spent a good part of their visit playing in the Mission Revival-style thermal pool, which is heated to a balmy 102 degrees F. during the winter.

But for extra hot water, you have to head just a few miles north to the Old Faithful Geyser of California, which on a recent day was erupting every five minutes. The water is scalding hot and you have to keep a safe distance.

Napa may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a family destination in northern California. But maybe it should be.