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.

"Mmmmmm!"

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 templeto the good life.

The Julia's Kitchen restaurant is named for Copia honorary trustee Julia Child.
Brandon Fernandez
The Julia's Kitchen restaurant is named for Copia honorary trustee Julia Child.
The Julia's Kitchen restaurant is named for Copia honorary trustee Julia Child.
Brandon Fernandez
The Julia's Kitchen restaurant is named for Copia honorary trustee Julia Child.

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.

"Mmmmmmm!"

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, GourmetEditor 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.

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