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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

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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.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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