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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

Page 4 of 5

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."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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