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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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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.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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