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California | Michael Hiltzik / GOLDEN STATE

Growing Pains for a Napa Cultural Center

August 09, 2004|Michael Hiltzik

The best way to define Napa Valley's ambivalent feelings about its biggest and richest cultural institution may be to paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein: "How do you solve a problem like Copia?"

Named for a Roman goddess of abundance, the $55-million Copia, which calls itself "The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts," opened in November 2001 near the City of Napa's downtown retail zone. Ever since then, the facility, the city and the valley's wine and food community have been grappling with the question of just what such a center should be.

Copia is not exactly a museum, though it regularly hosts art exhibitions. It's not exactly an educational institution, though it schedules daily cooking demonstrations and professional courses. It would love to become an essential stop for

the 5 million tourists who visit the region annually, but it's

located five miles off the valley's main thoroughfare.

Those factors may have much to do with why Copia is still trying today to build its

attendance figures back to those of its launch year, which were themselves well short of projections. The 220,000 admissions in 2002 dipped to about 160,000 in 2003, but are now running more than 15% ahead of a year ago, says Peggy A. Loar, a lively professional museum manager who moved from Miami to run Copia as its first and only director.

The center's recent efforts to make itself more accessible to locals by hosting such events as a teeming twice-a-week farmer's market have raised its community profile. But local winery

experts say that as a tourist

attraction, Copia probably doesn't yet match the popularity of the best-known commercial wineries up-valley.

Loar candidly acknowledges that some of Copia's growing pains arise from its rather nebulous mission. "This was a brand-new institution, and a new concept for an institution," she told me. "We got a little wobbly. We had to get ourselves open and shake things out a little bit."

One aspect still in shakedown mode is Copia's relationship with its home city, a blue-collar community that customarily serves as the "gateway" to its namesake valley in the same way that Anaheim has been the "gateway" to Disneyland: It's the place you drive through en route to the theme park gate. Copia has been credited some for the expanding gentrification of downtown Napa, but whether its arrival inspired or merely coincided with that trend is

debatable.

New gourmet restaurants, art galleries and performance venues were already beginning to sprout downtown before

Copia opened, although the presence of the gleaming center may help make the trend irreversible. "I think Napa has

finally kicked in, and Copia may be the anchor tenant," says Craig Root, a local winery consultant.

Questions about Copia's mission are partially the result of its history as the brainchild of the wine magnate Robert Mondavi, a devoted promoter of the Napa region as a viticultural center. Mondavi donated $20 million to get the project started and played an important role in

selecting its riverfront site. (He remains chairman of the Copia board.)

But unlike a museum or

library built to house an endowment of artworks or books,

Copia from the start seemed

designed around a catchphrase. Although many in Napa welcomed the abstract idea of a food and wine center, it was harder to identify what gaps may have been left unfilled in a region boasting hundreds of wineries open to the public, restaurants drawing gourmets and gourmands from around the world, and a branch of the Culinary Institute of America offering professional classes and public cooking demonstrations.

To answer that question, Loar and her staff have been

laboring to sharpen Copia's

focus. They've stressed programs on wine more than food because wine is the subject more in need of demystification for the masses. Informal guides to choosing wine glasses and tastings of regional wines can now be found all around Copia's main floor.

But much about Copia still suggests an institution trying to find its niche. Its main exhibition, "Forks in the Road," is a salmagundi of ancient utensils and modern packaged goods, Hollywood film clips of characters at the table and flashy multimedia displays of useless food lore, all presented in the perky style of an agriculture

pavilion at a world's fair. ("Zea Maize: That's what Arawak Indians of the Caribbean name the grain we call corn....")

Nor is it clear how well Napa's tourist demographic fits Loar's ambition to make Copia an indispensable stop by offering guides to wine connoisseurship before folks head out to

local vintners' tasting rooms. Local winery professionals say that as many as 80% of their visitors are already knowledgeable enough to feel comfortable without any such primer. And the most popular wineries, including Mondavi's, make it their business to bring novices along gently.

Still, Copia has plainly made strides, especially among locals. Many people think that's a vital step in its securing a place as a Napa Valley institution because year-round community support is crucial to long-term survival.

"I've noticed more people

going," says Lisa Toller, a principal at NewLevel Group, a local winery consulting firm, who says Copia's expanding roster of films, concerts and other programs now draws her to the center a couple of times a week. "Of late, they've been evolving in a very noticeable way."

Loar would certainly drink to that.

*

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.

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