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What the Hell Is Copia? 

At Robert Mondavi's new $55 million foodie mecca, you'll find seminars on goat cheese and mustard; surrealist movies; a SPAM exhibit; wine tastings; figurines of pooping Catholics -- everything, in fact, but the answer to that question.

Wednesday, Apr 10 2002

We all say this at once. It's 11:30 in the morning, sunlight trickles through the trees and spills onto the Napa River, and what we're all trying to say is that the sheep cheese we've just eaten is divine.

We -- about two dozen people, mostly local, mostly middle-aged, mostly coupled -- choose to ignore the verdant beauty of the wine country surrounding us. Instead we're sitting in the Food Forum of Copia, a recently opened ... something on the banks of the Napa River. It's a hard place to describe, though the major media outlets have been taking a crack at it. The Los Angeles Times calls it "a monument to the good life." So does USA Today, just with more exclamation points. National Public Radio soothingly pronounces it "a shrine to the good life." And the New York Times, exploiting the talent for unique angles that's made it the nation's paper of record, calls it a temple to the good life.

But right now, it's where you learn about cheese.

"I could talk for hours about cheese," says our teacher, who's given each of us a paper plate with three tiny slivers of sheep and goat cheese, along with a tiny cupful of milk. The seminar is free -- the "Say Cheese! Gougères" lecture later today will cost you 10 bucks -- so this is one of the better-attended classes, filling the Food Forum to nearly half its capacity.

"How many of you love goat's milk?" the teacher asks.

Two dozen goat's-milk-loving arms fly into the air, and we are invited to drink.


Somebody interrupts with a question about brie. It's off-topic, but there are no dumb questions in this class. Still, somebody sighs, loudly, as if to say, Why have so many cheese-ignorant fools invaded my life?

This is Copia, fulfilling its mission. Opened in November at a cost of $55 million, Copia is dedicated to ... well, even the executive director wonders. "Is it an art museum?" Peggy Loar asks in the latest issue of the facility's magazine. "A theme park? A wine-tasting center? A research facility? A gallery?"

Copia is an experiment, and a risky one. Museums are supposed to be user-friendly places with simple missions -- art, modern art, science, aviation, shoes, glass. Copia, on the other hand, is about "celebrating the synergy of culinary and cultural expression." But what that means, exactly, is a little murky. At Copia, it seems to mean a little of everything: lectures on goat cheese, seminars on mustard, explorations of food packaging, screenings of vaguely food-related movies, photo exhibits of people eating lunch -- all explained in a brochure only slightly less complex than a college course catalog. There's certainly no lack of well-heeled, Bay Area foodies, but there's a difference between shelling out for a Gourmet subscription or a French Laundry reservation and driving out to Napa to make it to class on time. With a post-Sept. 11 slump in travel and museum attendance, most facilities have had a hard time attracting crowds; pancultural synergies have had it even harder. Can a place based on themes like "Celebrating Mustard," "The Birth of Coffee," and "Bacchus Meets Biodynamics" really work? Is it even necessary?

Or, to put it another way, what is Copia? The summer tourist season will be the first real test of the Copia concept. In the meantime, the center will take success wherever it can find it.

"I've never had sheep cheese," pipes up one person in the Food Forum. "I'm from New Jersey."

Like there.

The Copia story, which tour guides in red aprons explain twice a day, goes like this. Ten years ago, a guide explains in the wood-paneled auditorium, famed vintner Robert Mondavi had a vision of a place that would celebrate wine, food, and the arts. ("Vision" and "Robert Mondavi" show up in the same sentence a lot here.) Famous names came on board -- Julia Child, Alice Waters, Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl, among others -- and a variety of wealthy folks contributed enough money to build the 80,000-square-foot facility to be a world center for wine, food, etc., and to help support the city of Napa, a town of blue-collar folks toiling in the midst of white-collar wealth.

A man raises his hand in the auditorium. He's missed this part of the tour.

"What is Copia, please?"

The tour guide smiles tightly.

"It's like cornucopia," he says. "It's a lot of things."

At first glance, it's hard to tell what any of those things might be. The complex itself looks less like a theme park than it does a small college building, or one of the modern "campus" structures that define Silicon Valley tech firms. A man-made stream runs beside the long, wide path up to the front doors, where the "Program Menu" lists the day's events. Getting in costs $12.50, and though there are two free wine and food classes daily, the good stuff costs you from $10 ("Deconstructing Dessert: Strawberry Shortcake") to $30 ("Traditional Methods for Vinegar, Cheese & Aioli").

The official tour of Copia moves slowly through the first floor, which contains precious little that's eye-catching: an exhibit of mustard jars; a wine-tasting table, behind which is Julia's Kitchen (named for Julia Child); doors to the tasting room and the Food Forum; and finally the auditorium, with 280 seats.

Things feel a little less like a ghost town on the second floor. The exhibit of American food culture, "Forks in the Road," shows food-themed clips from films, vintage kitchen-of-the-future documentary kitsch ("With a simple wave of the hand ... presto! Ready for cookery!"), a booth where people have recorded their weirdest food experiences ("One time, in China, I ate a snake"), and displays of historic blenders, bar code scanners, and cans of SPAM. A large wine bottle can tell you at the push of a button about the wine industry in your favorite state ("Wineries in North Dakota are ... nonexistent"). Finally there's the art gallery, where the pooping Catholics are. We'll get to that.

And downstairs in the lobby, a disembodied voice continues to guide the herd. "Attention Copia visitors," it says, and what follows could be any number of things. The garden tour begins outside in five minutes. The next wine tasting is almost under way, pay at the front desk. The class on pralines is in the Food Forum. The lecture on gumbo and the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is over in the auditorium. Luis Buñuel's masterpiece The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie will be screening tonight in the auditorium. There's so much stuff inside you need to have your attention called to it, like a Kmart for foodies. The tourists, blithely intrigued, are a sea of Polartec sweaters.

It's a confusing concept at first. But aren't all revolutions? Still, taking part in the Copia experience can be a hard thing to keep straight. A recent Saturday in March, "Trailblazers & Trendsetters Month," included the following classes: "Sweet Sensations: Late Harvest Wine," "Sugar," "Sugar Fun," "Le Vin et Les Chansons: The Art of Pairing Wine and Song." On a recent day in April ("South of the Border Month"), the subtheme was "Food Science for the Scientific," and classes included: "Making Scents About Wine," "American Foodways: Chiles, Chocolate and Tomatoes," as well as "The Language of Art: Mexican Culture, Political Ideas and the Frescos of Diego Rivera."

To figure out what sort of place packs in white wine and red communists in a single day, a trip to Peggy Loar's office is in order. Copia's executive director is a pro -- she came here from the Smithsonian. Her sentences are long, flowing rivers, Faulknerian in their beauty and complexity, though Loar uses the word "fabulous" more than Faulkner did. ("Our culinary staff made three different gumbos, and it was fabulous. ... I wanted to put together a publication, and it needed to be fabulous.").

OK, what is Copia?

She's answered this one a lot. "Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts is the first cultural institution devoted to the subject of food and wine as agriculture, mated with a cultural museum devoted to issues relating to food and wine. ... The idea was to create a center in America that would celebrate that new century of wine in America, and at the same time engage with the world in a dialogue about something that has sustained humanity since the earliest times."

What it is not -- and perhaps America's papers of record should be running corrections -- is a place devoted to the good life. "I said to the board early on," Loar says, "and I've said it afterward, I'm not interested in leaving what I'm doing in the cultural world to come and build an institution to the good life. That's irresponsible. I want to make sure that this place deals with scarcity and abundance."

But one wonders: With the lack of international travel and the bad timing of opening shortly after Sept. 11, what adjustments has Copia had to make?

Loar's response to this question deserves to be quoted in full. Actually, it deserves to be framed. It is spin -- spin of the most wondrous, beautiful, audacious variety, spin at its most seductive -- but it is also a magnificent travelogue of the emotions of the nonprofit director, and all the more touching because there is absolutely no question that Peggy Loar believes in every last word of it, deeply. Here it is:

"In the 19th century there were places like Walden, where you would go to think and commune with nature, you think about the future and about what's possible in terms of human nature. And I thought, if ever there were a place where people could get around an idea of planting in the earth, nurturing the earth, going back to seed, going to the table, the communion of people, individuals or family sitting around a table, the intimacy of sitting around a table and getting to know somebody -- there are so many icons there and so much symbolism, food is a common denominator in sustaining life, and take it to the next step as a creative force, that creative force exists everywhere, whether you're living in Hungary, or Libya, or California -- I thought that if ever there were a place that could have meaning, that could deal with some of these issues, it would be here. Here we are, multicultural. Last weekend, we had a fabulous Sunday afternoon in the theater that was about barbecue in the U.S. It was Texas barbecue, it was Brooklyn barbecue, it was barbecue in the South, and it was a story about human nature."

It's as good a time as any for a stiff drink.

The class is called "Presidential Wines," which sounds promising. Might we perhaps discover what Richard Nixon drank in the White House? Pat Nixon?

No. The point of "Presidential Wines" is for us to drink two sauvignon blancs, two chardonnays, two zinfandels, and two ports, vote on which ones we like best, and then get a lecture on the winner in a jokey, fun kind of way. If we "elect" a Kendall-Jackson chard, say, we get an educational lecture on Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears. And what could be more fun than a lecture on smallpox blankets when you've been drinking?

It's absurd enough to start with. By the time we get to the ports we're all but ignoring the idea of the high-concept wine tasting. "So, what are you tasting here?" the teacher asks, soberly swishing the second port around in his hand. He's been using the spit bucket, and we haven't. "What does this port remind you of?"

"Communion!" one woman bursts out.

Fun as this is, though, only five people are attending the class, which means the docent staff is going to have to throw out about a dozen settings' worth of wine, one of which includes a pricey bottle of port. Because an ongoing war in the Middle East can be a bit of a bummer from a tourism standpoint, Copia has had to adjust its programming by dropping the price of its classes and changing its marketing plan -- trying harder to persuade locals to come and holding off on any national (or international) promotions until travel picks up and Copia sorts out the dynamic of its synergy. Copia anticipates an attendance of 300,000 tourists in its first year, which is on the low end of its early estimates.

The idea of a high-concept museum/art gallery/multidisciplinary learning center is a new but not entirely unexpected one. "What's driving this is a recognition that the public doesn't view the world in discrete disciplines," says Edward Able, president of the American Association of Museums. "Instead, they view it holistically."

Holistic. Multidisciplinary. Any second now, somebody around here is going to use the word "paradigm."

"We're creating a new paradigm," says Assistant Director of Exhibitions Betty Teller, sitting in the dining room of Julia's Kitchen. "What we got asked so often while we were planning it was, '"What are you going to be like? Can you name another institution that it's going to be like?' It's very hard to say what we're like. We think the next institution after us will have an easier time. They can say, '"We're a little like Copia.' We're a little bit like the elephant described by a blind man -- it depends on what part of us you experience."

Part of the problem with being a new paradigm in museums, Teller explains, is that Copia requires a lot more planning ahead on the part of the tourist. Dropping in unannounced in the late afternoon might give you a free tour, a peek at the mustard jars, and a spot at the wine-tasting table, but not much else. And if you came on March 15 hoping to learn about brie, well, hard cheese. That was two days ago; now you're stuck with "Touring Wine Country in Mustard Season," "Origins of Ice Cream," and, for an extra $15, "Eye for Color: Yellow," which according to the program notes is a seminar celebrating "bee pollen, daffodils, mustard, chardonnay!"

"We don't always call ourselves a museum because as a new kind of museum, we have to work against the stereotypes that people do have about what a museum is," Teller says. "To me, it's a space in which exhibitions are seamlessly integrated with the programs -- or will be. We haven't quite gotten there yet."

Richard Miami, who coordinates the film and music programs at Copia, says there's nothing to do in Napa. He's lying. Why, on Friday night, right in the middle of downtown, there's a punk rock show at the local VFW hall! And what about the fellow playing accordion at the Italian restaurant down the block? Just because half the shops in downtown Napa close at 6 and the other half are closed for good doesn't mean the town's ... dead. OK, maybe, but the Ben & Jerry's shop is still open, and it's just past sunset.

So high culture can be a hard thing to come by in Napa, which goes a long way toward explaining why, according to Peggy Loar, 60 percent of Copia's 8,000 paying members live in Napa and Sonoma. Because Napa's cinematic needs are served solely by a multiplex puking up insults like Snow Dogs, art films go over like gangbusters. On a recent Friday night Copia's theater was stuffed with enough tweed sport coats to staff an English department for a screening of one of Buñuel's finest, funniest films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about three couples desperately searching for a meal.

"A cheap, empty restaurant is dubious," one man says.

Everybody laughs. So true.

"No system can give the masses the proper social graces," somebody else says, later.

And everybody laughs at that as well.

A few days later, attendees are asked to pay $25 for a chance to see if white wine goes with parsley. With about a dozen folks attending, this goes over less than gangbusters.

"Welcome to Copia's very first Lunch and Learn," says Jeff Dawson, Copia's curator of gardens. We're back in the Food Forum for a little experiment. "Let's find out where some of you are from," he says. "Pennsylvania, OK. Kentucky. Connecticut. How many of you are from Sonoma? We're saluting Sonoma today." These sort of glad-handing, just-chatting-with-our-guests questions happen all the time at Copia -- sly little attempts to find out who, exactly, is showing up. "So, who came the farthest to get here?" "Soooo, seems like we have people from all over, right?" "So, how many of you are Bay Area people?"

Regardless of where we're from, we all have a fine time -- chardonnay with chervil, sauvignon blanc with parsley -- and we mutter approving things as Dawson encourages us to find a "seamless match" between wine and herbs. The quiche comes, and we're supposed to do the testing with the quiche, but we've pretty much drunk all our wine and the quiche is so damn good we've lost our interest in experimenting. A few people ask for the recipe. It's damn good quiche.

Figuring out what people want -- and don't want -- at Copia has been a touch-and-go process from the start. "We're finding out that they're not really signing up in advance as much as we expected," says Kara Nielsen, Copia's education programs director. "It's a lot more of, '"I'm gonna come, and sign up for the class at the last minute.'" Going to Copia requires a lot more homework than the average museum, zoo, movie theater, jazz club, what have you. Copia's ongoing problem is figuring out whether people actually want to plan ahead on their leisure visits.

And it doesn't seem like people are paying much attention to whether it's "Sonoma Weekend" or "Latin American Month." The Copia staff itself is having a hard time keeping it all straight. April is "South of the Border Month," Nielsen explains, "so of course Jeff Dawson comes to us and says, '"The garden is not going to have any of the '"South of the Border' ingredients, and our cultural garden is changing to a Latin American garden. Why don't we swap it with September?' '"Well, we're committed to this.'"

"There's a little bit of a disconnect," says Dawson. "We haven't gotten in sync yet. They're having a '"South of the Border Month' in May. And we're like, '"The Hispanic garden isn't going to be happening until August.' They're like, '"We already set it up.' Aw, man!"

Dawson has the worn hands of a serious gardener. Walking through the 3-1/2-acre gardens -- which are not-so-verdantly cut in half by a two-lane thoroughfare -- he points out the 40 kinds of lavender that gild the side of the south garden ("They had this designated for one variety of lavender, and I said wait a second, we're here to educate"). We stroll through the Asian garden, the Italian garden, the wine garden, where grapes are planted next to their "affinity" plants (red wine goes well with tobacco). You get the sense that Dawson runs the joint single-handedly. Actually, there are about four staffers. Is that about right for a garden of this size?

Dawson laughs heartily. "No," he says. "We're a nonprofit."

"Honey, look at the poop!" a woman calls out to her husband.

Everybody wants to look at the poop, which you may have heard about -- it's the biggest story Copia has to tell concerning itself. As part of the facility's "Active Ingredients" exhibit, Spanish-born artist Miralda collected a bunch of tiny figurines of people defecating and included them in one of his displays. Santa Claus pooping. The pope. A nun. Fidel Castro. And so on. It's a tradition to sell these things on the steps of a Barcelona cathedral. We know this because the Associated Press sent a reporter to look into it. And the AP sent a reporter because of the stink Harry Martin made.

Harry Martin is an elected member of Napa's city council and publisher of the weekly Napa Sentinel, a serious and crusading local newspaper. You can tell it's a serious and crusading newspaper because there's a rendering of a Revolutionary War minuteman on the masthead. You can also tell it's serious and crusading because every front-page headline is in screaming, war-declared bold type:




With crusading journalism like this, you'd figure that Martin might be a beloved local figure. This is not the case.

Martin's complaint in the Sentinel about the pooping figurines -- headlined "STATUES OF POOPING PEOPLE IS CULTURE?" -- played a leading role in drawing the Catholic League of North America to complain loudly and vociferously about the exhibit. (This was in January. Catholic groups have since moved on to other things.) The story was absurd enough to attract national attention from respected media outlets, as well as the New York Post ("Sick sculpture irks Catholics").

But Napa locals don't appreciate this sort of scrutiny, and they apparently don't appreciate Harry Martin. "Wake up, Napa," read a recent guest commentary in the Napa Valley Register. "Harry Martin is a blight on our town." "Wake up, Napa," wrote another, "Harry Martin diminishes all of us. His distortions and shenanigans bring all of us down." So you can see that Harry Martin is a problem in Napa. As is, apparently, narcolepsy.

"Copia doesn't fit the scene in Napa," says Martin. He talks for a bit about how he doesn't get Copia, and the fact that a seven-year flood control project is going to put access bridges out of commission. "Tourists are going to be so disgusted" at the road reconstruction, he adds.

So is there anybody else you might recommend to talk about this?

"Pro or con?"

Oh, just for fun, let's try pro.

"You could always talk to the mayor," he says. "If Hitler was born here, he'd sell it as a tourist attraction."

Mayor. Hitler. OK, got it. Thanks.

Ed Henderson, the mayor of Napa, makes a noise halfway between a laugh and an exasperated sigh when Martin's name comes up. "You have to keep in mind that Mr. Martin sells newspapers," he says. "He's found a niche where he can take the other side effectively.

"I'm not saying something negative," he adds, quickly.

More to the point, he explains, the city needs something like Copia; over the past 10 years Napa has had severe economic problems. "Our employment base was Mare Island [Naval Station], Kaiser Steel, and Basalt Rock, and they're all gone," he says. "What does that tell you?" And personally, Henderson kind of likes the place -- he takes in the movies and concerts. "Copia is an activity center for wine, food, and the arts. It's got something for everybody."

Sounds like somebody's been talking to Peggy Loar. Speaking of which: William Donohue, director of the Catholic League, says he sent over a pooper scooper. Ms. Loar, did you, uh, get the pooper scooper?

"We turned it right over to the security people," she says sharply. "To send that at a time when we're dealing with anthrax and everything else. Think of it, just think of somebody ..."

She's mad now.

"... taking on something like this, and you give them their authority and their point of view and their respect, and they do something like send that. Then you wonder, what was all of this about? Well, how sad."

The female retiree is wandering outside, near Copia's limestone front, looking. "Is this where people get to smoke?" she asks. "Do they let you?"

She, along with her friends from a Vallejo retirement community, has been bused in to spend the entire day at Copia. Which is probably the best way to do it. Take in a whole day. Settle back for the lectures on the art of the wine label. Pay $15 to spend an hour learning about the color yellow. Peruse the pooping figurines. Try to figure out if this massive employment of exhibits, classes, seminars, and multidisciplinary paradigms will exist in the same form a year from now.

Wander through the lobby, because you're retired and have the time, and take a look at the mustard exhibit, "Hold the Mustard!" There are vintage mustard tins, silver and china pots, old advertisements for mustard. Mustard, a whole wall of it, under glass. You can see it all.

And you can notice, if you look closely, that somebody has slipped a tiny little packet of fast-food mustard between the glass panes guarding the exhibit. It sits there on the bottom shelf, and you can wonder if somebody was trying to say something.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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