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In Napa, a Museum of Earthly Delights

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2003

On a warm, breezy California morning, the open road through the rolling hills of vineyards was full of delicious possibilities. So why would anyone want to spend even an hour cooped up in a museum?

With two girlfriends, Beth and Alison, I was at the start of a four-day trip to the Northern California wine country, a getaway for busy multi-tasking working moms that had a sybaritic schedule of drinking wine, lying around the pool, drinking wine, having facials, drinking wine and eating alfresco at Napa and Sonoma's hot restaurants. We had spent weeks planning the trip, and each of us had one or two things we wanted to include. We are a generally agreeable threesome, so there was no visible dissension when I mentioned starting at the two-year-old cultural museum and education center called Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts.

After all, you can only take so many vineyard tours and aromatherapy baths.

The $55 million Copia project, spearheaded by uber-vintner Robert Mondavi, is a nonprofit center on 12 acres along the Napa River, a place to explore America's contribution to the culture of food and wine. Copia, named after the goddess of abundance (think cornucopia), is housed in a soaring 80,000-square-foot building of polished concrete, river rock and glass designed by Polshek Partnership Architects.

Copia showcases the role of food and wine in daily life, in history, even in the movies and TV. Each day, a menu of programs is made available to visitors. You might stumble into a tasting of Zinfandels, a display of Georgian silver, a mustard celebration, an exhibit of lunchboxes, a class on Oaxacan cuisine or an eggplant extravaganza. And it's definitely not just for food snobs: you can learn the history of Pez candy or the origin of Jell-O. The facility has galleries, theaters, classrooms, organic gardens, libraries, tasting tables, apricot orchards, an outdoor concert terrace, plus a charming dining spot named after Julia Child. And the gift shop is fab.

But while I was relishing several hours wandering through Copia, I had no idea that one of us was secretly stewing about spending the good part of a gorgeous day locked in a museum.

"I was dreading it," Beth confessed later. "I thought it would be institutional and commercial and I'd be bored out of my gourd, no pun intended. When we pulled into the parking lot, I could hardly wait to get it over with."

But Beth, a savvy consumer who knows a Riesling from a Gewurztraminer, quickly came around .

The first exhibit looked and smelled good enough to eat. A tableau of yellow, red and orange tomatoes, still warm from the California sun, was arranged on a table with ID cards -- as if it was a display of precious ancient relics. (We visited in late July. This time of year, you might be greeted by displays of chiles, pumpkins, winter squash and potatoes.)

We had allotted about four hours for our visit. The daily program menu listed the tours, lectures, exhibitions and demonstrations that were included with the $12.50 day pass; most programs require no reservations and are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. The list also includes events that require an additional fee, such as workshops, food and wine tastings, book signings. (Telephone or visit the Web site for the calendar; you may want to make a reservation.)

Beth and I started by dipping into the American Wine History lecture where we learned that in the 1860s first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was the first to serve American wines at a state dinner and that in 1975 white table wine sales exceeded red for the first time in U.S. history. After the 30-minute talk, we sipped thimblefuls of Oregon Pinot Noirs. Alison went to a stone fruits cooking demonstration where peaches, nectarines and apricots were featured; she got to taste plum chutney.

As we roamed the halls, we could see classrooms prepared for presentations and elegant wine tastings, with rows of tall sparkling crystal glasses lined up.

When it was time for lunch, we headed to Julia's Kitchen. Named for Julia Child, it is a bustling open kitchen so you can watch the staff at work. The menu makes the best of Copia's own organic gardens and, of course, focuses on seasonal ingredients.

My meal of Copia Garden Greens and Lobster à l'Americaine served with tomato salad and sweet pepper risotto was washed down with a pleasant Pinot Gris. (My lunch tab came to $43.45 and was well worth it.)

Copia's permanent exhibition, "Forks in the Road," examines contemporary American culture through food and drink and includes lots of interactive experiences. You can hear food songs, test your sense of smell and try to figure out how to use various kitchen gadgets, for example. We particularly enjoyed the food scenes from the movies and TV ("The Godfather," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") as well as the food packaging displays, which were nostalgic.

A presentation in this exhibit, entitled "Imported Tastes," oral histories projected on ersatz dining tables chronicled the "gastronomic stew" that is America's cuisine today. You'll hear the voices of cooks coast to coast discussing Polish holiday foods, sushi for Thanksgiving and southern black cooking in Los Angeles.

Copia Director Peggy Loar says the museum is also examining serious issues like sustainable agriculture, irradiated food and and organic vs. non-organic food. "We are into investigating everything about food and wine and celebrating the culture of the collective table," she says.

The museum's opening just before Thanksgiving 2001 came at a fragile time in America. Inaugural events were scaled back since it was so close to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Today, about 75 percent of the visitors are Californians, according to Loar. Last year, museum attendance was 203,000. But this year's numbers are down by 25 percent, according to Kathleen Iudice, Copia public relations manager.

While some tourists have criticized the museum for being overpriced, we thought the admission charge was quite in line with what people were spending to taste a couple of glasses of bad Chardonnay down the road. (And, for budget-conscious travelers, note that the museum charges half price on Wednesdays.)

After lunch we checked out an exhibit of ancient Iranian ceramics from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and a private collection of corkscrews. Then we wandered through the beautifully tended garden plots, taking in the aromas of the citrus fruits and the herbs. Although we were scheduled to have a VIP tour at a winery down the road, we really didn't want to leave.

Who would like Copia? Just about anybody, even if you buy your wine in a cardboard box. Although some visitors have been disappointed not to find a Disneyesque approach to the wine country here, we thought it was a nice blend of style and substance.

As we readied to leave, Beth proclaimed the place a foodie heaven. We pulled out of the parking lot after our four-hour visit feeling better educated and armed with shopping bags filled with fine olive oils and salt rubs, beautiful linen dish towels and special crystal polishing cloths from the gift shop. A nap would have been nice. But we had Cabernets to taste and grapeseed mud baths scheduled for later in the afternoon.

Copia: the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts (500 First St., Napa, Calif., 707-259-1600, www.copia.org)is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Hours are Wednesday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $7.50 for children ages 6 to 12. Half price on Wednesdays. For information on restaurants, hotels and nearby sights: www.napavalley.com or www.napadowntown.com.

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