EXPECTATIONS ARE a powerful thing. I'm writing about them this week in my other job covering psychology. They creep into everything, from our disappointment in a presidential candidate's debating skills to the pleasant surprise of flowers on a Tuesday.

We have expectations when it comes to wine, too.

For instance, I wasn't sure what to expect when I ascended the windy, regal hill leading to Castello di Amorosa, the medieval, Tuscan-style winery in Calistoga. It's a 121,000-square-foot castle, I thought to myself, with a drawbridge and defensive towers and a torture chamber. Do these people care about making wine?

They do, it turns out. But for starters, the tours ($25-$40 includes five tastes) are an education in history, architecture and Dario Sattui's tireless quest for authenticity. The eight-level castle took 15 years to build, and it shows. Hand-painted frescoes. Roman cross-vaulted brick ceilings. Hand-hewn doors and 500-year-old fireplaces from Italy.

Sounds like a museum, and it is, in a sense. But 95 of the 107 rooms are dedicated to winemaking, and when the tour is over, you get to taste that dedication in a subterranean tasting room that is both cozy and majestic. This was the first test of my expectations. The second was to learn that Castello di Amorosa's annual case production is only 15,000, so they focus on small lots of their Italian-style wines. Big winery, artisan mentality.


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Also, they have 30 acres of estate fruit, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, and source grapes for their white wines from cool-climate regions, such as Los Carneros and Anderson Valley. They make 12 wines and the attendants give generous pours, so plan to stay a while and take advantage of that tour fee.

Now, all I'd need to say to break every stereotypical expectation you probably have at this point is to say that the wines are affordable. Well, with the exception of the reserve wines, everything is $42 or under.

Director of winemaking Brooks Painter left Robert Mondavi Winery (he was at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars before that) for Castello di Amorosa. He's wrestled the brawn out of his reds at this new job. The 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($42) is fleshy yet graceful, with lots of lovely earth to balance out the fleshy Diamond Mountain fruit.

Likewise, the unfiltered 2004 Reserve "La Castellana" ($65), a Super Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese, is intense without sacrificing harmony. The wine reminded me of the pipe my dad used to fill with cherry tobacco.

Here are the other standouts. All are available only at the winery:

  • 2006 Los Carneros Pinot Bianco

    Crisp and easy to drink, this dry white wine is made for enjoying with fish. It has lovely tropical aromas and flavors. $24.

  • 2006 Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer "Dry"

    A bone-dry, spicy expression of this white wine. It has aromas and flavors of rose, lychee and nutmeg. I plan to drink my bottle with Cambodian soup. $21.

  • 2003 Napa Valley Sangiovese

    Grown on the estate, the grapes in this medium-bodied red wine yield tons of black fruit flavors framed by earth and a touch of soft vanilla toast. Great with roasted veggie lasagna. $30.

  • 2002 Napa Valley Merlot

    A sophisticated Merlot at a great price. The lush, supple wine has undertones of earth that are native to the historic Diamond Mountain district where the grapes are grown. Soft yet complex, this wine would be lovely reduced and drizzled on pork chops. $32.

    Reach Jessica Yadegaran at jyadegaran@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-943-8155. Read her wine blog at www.ibabuzz.com/corkheads.