Experiencing Abundance in Napa

NAPA, CA -- To the outsider, the Napa Valley image is wall-to-wall grapes. To anyone traversing the valley on Route 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail, that is merely part of the inventory.

The moderate climate, affected by low mountains on either side and by the narrow Napa River that meanders through the cleft, nurtures brilliant clumps of lilies, oleander and roses, as well as stands of camphor, valley oak, cedar, magnolia and olive trees.

Despite its relatively diminutive size -- 30 miles long and one to five miles wide -- the Napa Valley's undulating topography creates a series of microclimates. Temperatures can differ by 10 or more degrees from one end to the other.

Swaths of browned-out vegetation form the floor of the woods and fields, in marked contrast to the deep blue-greens and brilliant emeralds of the numerous copses of trees dotting the landscape from this little city at the valley's southern edge to the village of Calistoga and its mineral and mud baths up north.

In February and March, the valley gets its share of precipitation. In summer and early autumn, rain is so rare the natives can tell you on what day in what year they last recall seeing a downpour.

"It was five years ago, on Aug. 16 ... No, it was on the 15th," the noted wine writer Dan Berger told a couple of visitors over breakfast one day. "Just enough to really be a pain."

Clever viniculture methods and irrigation systems have nevertheless made this spot an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco arguably America's premier wine producing area.

Such popular names as Robert Mondavi, Beringer, Stags Leap, Louis Martini, Chimney Rock, Franciscan, Coppola, Domaine Chandon and Sterling are among the 200 wineries in operation today, marked by their distinctive main-building architecture that ranges from Victorian farmhouse to French chateau to Tuscan villa to the "Star Wars" look of Mondavi's Opus One operation across the road from its main fields.

The valley's growing tourist popularity has fueled the rebirth of Napa, the anchor city of 53,000, and made the region home to such hospitality industry facilities as the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast branch, opened in 1995 in the former Greystone Cellars complex near the village of St. Helena.

Perhaps the most unusual facility in the valley, however, is something called COPIA, named for the Roman goddess of abundance who carried a cornucopia, the horn of plenty. The capitalization of its name serves to underscore that.

COPIA's subtitle is "The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts." It's a not-for-profit cultural center and museum that has been open to the public less than two years. But, it got its start in 1988 when the legendary vintner Robert Mondavi and other Napa community leaders began kicking around the idea of a place to honor and explore the culinary and wine- making arts.

In 1996, Mondavi donated a 12-acre parcel of land in the city of Napa plus $20 million of the $55 million startup funding. The next year, Peggy Loar, who had been president of the United States International Council of Museums, was hired as director and began putting together her staff.

COPIA includes sprawling herb, flower and tree gardens, as well as several restaurants in the 80,000-square-foot building on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Napa River.

Daphne L. Derven, a native of Schenectady, NY, and a graduate of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, is the curator of food and assistant director for programs.

"We're a non-collecting museum," she said, "and that keeps us on our toes to continually come up with new ways to educate and entertain our visitors.

"We've had showings of extensive collections of wine glasses over the years, for example, and right now we have 'Eating and Drinking in Splendor,' a collection of Georgian silver tableware and artifacts on display through the end of September."

Derven spent several decades as an archeologist in the field, with a particular interest in the impact of food on culture and vice-versa. Her experience is put to use in helping create the displays and programs at COPIA.

"It's a wonderful way of blending my years in the field with my institutional interests to help the public enjoy a visit," she said.

In addition to exhibition and event space, the center, open year-round, has many clever ways of appealing to visitors of all ages. The programs, guests and styles of entertainment are geared toward virtually any demographic group.

Formal or self-guided walking tours in the extensive herb and vegetable gardens -- home to an amazing 100 kinds of tomatoes and 40 kinds of lavender, for example -- show how the institution helps keep heirloom plant species alive.

Celebrity appearnces for book signings and demonstrations are commonplace, most recently from the likes of famed chef Jacques Pepin, TV's "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver, and the iconic Julia Child, for whom one of the public restaurants here is named.

A fair-weather outdoor concert series offers music from salsa to West African to zydeco to New Age. Films in the "Friday Night Flicks" series range from French comedies to war zone documentaries to Tunisian belly dancing.

Wine tastings, beer tastings, food sampling and open displays that offer foodstuffs to sniff, feel and look at help explain why people's reactions to the same substances vary wildly.

COPIA may be in the heart of California wine country, but its venue is the world. Many visitors take full advantage of being plopped down in the middle of this temple dedicated to the senses.

A long, winding staircase leads from the first-floor atrium space to a floor divided among a formal exhibition of pre-Christianity wine vessels from Iran, an open- space display of turn-of-the-20th Century advertising artwork extolling the virtues of California products, and -- the most popular of all -- a large walled-off area called "Forks In the Road: Food, Wine and the American Table."

That's where kids and adults alike tend to flock when they're not involved in some formal program, lecture or film. It's a hands-on area replete with exhibits of cooking vessels, short films, electronic quiz stations sure to please youngsters reared on Xboxes, even a film loop splicing together famous movie mealtime scenes.

Want to hear oral histories of ethnic food in America, cooking for the military, making wine at home? Interested in the rise of convenience foods? It's all here. Visitors also can hear classic food songs, test their sense of smell, try to identify strange kitchen gadgets. They also can contribute their own thoughts on current topics in food, or share food-related stories which will be recorded.

Curious which states have wineries? They all do, now, and an interactive display lets you select which ones you want to know about.

The one trait all humans share is the need for food and drink. At COPIA, its history and its present are celebrated and experienced, going well beyond the struggle for survival to the exultation of the senses.


Official COPIA site

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