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Celebrating the senses -- Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts makes a smashing debut in Napa

NAPA -- Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts is the biggest -- and perhaps most misunderstood -- thing to hit the tony Napa Valley in years. Even those who frequent the region on a regular basis are sketchy about just what this imposing landmark really represents.

The question "What is it, exactly?" won't be answered entirely until next Sunday, an opening date intentionally timed to coincide with the week of Thanksgiving, a celebration of the American table.

Daphne Derven, Copia's assistant director of programs and curator of food, attributes the confusion to the center's one-of-a-kind, interdisciplinary mission. "There's nothing else like us," she says, preparing to walk a group of donors through the facility on a pre-opening, hard-hat tour. "We're gardens, a museum, an educational center, a performing arts center -- with shopping, dining and wine tasting, too."

Endowed with a $20 million gift from wine legend Robert Mondavi, the center is being built at a cost of $55 million. Its literature promises it will bring together "chefs and home cooks, wine makers and wine lovers, artists and audiences, experts and amateurs, all sharing their connections with food and wine as expressions of American culture."

Whatever its intent, the consumer-oriented center is expected to draw about 225,000 visitors in its first year, many of them tourists headed to Napa's legendary wineries. Projections are that the average visitor will spend two to four hours on site, paying $12.50 general admission to tour the exhibits, wander the gardens and attend tastings, cooking demonstrations and a wide array of other educational programs -- some free, some costing up to $49.

Offerings will change frequently, with free programs the first month addressing such topics as wines for Thanksgiving (Nov. 20), apples (Nov. 26) and touring the wine country (Nov. 30). Free tours of the gardens, the main building and its art exhibits will be offered daily.

Combine these activities with a picnic on the grounds, a concert in the outdoor amphitheater or a meal at the center's signature restaurant, Julia's Kitchen, created in partnership with epicurean Julia Child, and a quick visit to Copia could turn into an all-day venture.

Two weeks before its opening, Copia was still a bustling construction site, with few installations and little of the promised pizazz yet visible. But Peggy Loar, the center's director, gave a verbal sketch of what visitors can expect to encounter, beginning with the grand allÈe of Lombardi poplars and circulating pools leading from the parking area to the front door of the warehouse-like structure.

Everything at Copia, she explained, is geared to "pulling food, wine and art together, to showing and celebrating how they interrelate."

The concept takes shape right in front of the building, where 4 acres of organic gardens tied to the American table are laid out in formal, 60-foot-square beds. "Everything in them is edible or used on the table in some way," explained Derven. Each plot is surrounded by a low wall crafted of local stone, and each is devoted to a theme: There's the seed-saver garden, the red wine textures and flavors garden, the kitchen garden, the Italian-American garden, the Asian garden, the vineyards, the orchards, the lavender exhibition, and so on.

Scattered about are a variety of smile-provoking artworks, ranging from a trio of giant acorns in a grove of transplanted, 85-year-old olive trees, to a black granite table holding a giant red ceramic apple. Picnic tables situated amid the plantings are expected to attract those who want to linger over a bottle of wine and a gourmet lunch -- both available at retail outlets inside.

Copia's Cornucopia gift shop, restaurants and theater areas are accessible to visitors without admission, but you'll need a ticket to see more, starting with an installation called "Circle of the Senses," which consists 10 video monitors that Derven said will show people doing all kinds of things with food and wine: "Chopping, whisking, stirring, popping a wine cork, all choreographed to music."

Down a hallway to the left is an as-yet-unnamed theater seating 280 in steeply raked tiers of seats; this will be the venue for a Friday night film and concert series to kick off in January.

To the right, a soaring, two-story concave glass wall floods an area known as the Beringer Atrium with natural light. The views outside encompass a grass bowl that will serve as an amphitheater seating up to 500, and the muddy brown Napa River beyond. At the bottom of the lawn, hugging the river, is a hike-and-bike trail that eventually will link Copia with downtown Napa -- about a half-mile away.

The atrium is the setting for several works of art, most notably a 16-foot-high sculpture made of garbage cans, cooking pots and woks arranged to resemble a giant candelabra. Other food-themed artworks will include a 7-foot bowl of handblown fruit and, in honor of the season, a collection of turkeys ranging from early American renditions to one on loan from design maven Martha Stewart.

Here, too, is found the sleek curve of the Wine Spectator Tasting Bar, which will feature, on a rotating basis, wines from all 50 states and many foreign countries. Beyond it, a long line of museum cases holds a temporary display of wine goblets and related items from the 16th century to modern times.

To the back of the wine bar is the American Market Cafe, a casual restaurant seating 30 inside, as many more outside, and offering a changing menu of tapas and tasting plates. Next to that is Julia's Kitchen, Copia's showplace eatery, with indoor and outdoor seating for about 150.

At the far end of the atrium is the Meyer Food Forum, an exhibition kitchen seating 75 in black leather chairs at curved, classroom-style tables. Sightlines are clear from every seating tier, and overhead screens bring the cooking action up close.

Copia's second floor is anchored by a sweeping gallery that holds the center's core exhibits. "Forks in the Road: Food, Wine and the American Table," is a long-term exhibition that looks at how domestication of plants and animals, cooking with fire and harnessing natural fermentation have shaped the world's cuisines, and specifically the culinary traits associated with America. Playful displays on the side include interactive smell displays and a compilation of food fights on film.

Two nearby exhibit spaces will see contents changed about three times a year. The opening show, "Active Ingredients," features pieces by eight international artists who have, in Loar's words, "used food to get at larger issues."

Copia's opening next Sunday will come minus the black-tie galas that usually mark such important community events. "It just didn't feel right to don sequins at a time like this," Loar said, referring to the gravity of world events. "But we decided to open on schedule, and to celebrate in a meaningful way.

"We may not get the national and international audience we'd hoped for immediately," she said, reflecting on the times. "But hopefully, they will eventually come."

In the meantime, those of us who live close enough to drive can be among the first to celebrate the culinary arts through this newest fruit of the valley.

Travel Wise: Napa's cultural gem

Getting to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts: From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west and exit on Highway 12 toward Napa/Sonoma. Turn onto Highway 29 north, exit right at Downtown Napa/Lake Berryessa. Turn right on Highway 121 (Silverado Trail); then left onto First Street. Continue two blocks to the center at 500 First St.

Hours: Copia opens next Sunday. Hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Longer hours will begin in June.

Admission: Adults ages 18-64, $12.50; students (ages 13-17 or with student ID) and seniors, $10; children, $7.50.

Daily tours: Garden tours will be offered at 10:15 a.m. and 2 p.m.; facilities tours at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.; exhibition tours at 11:30 a.m. Tours will last 60 minutes.

Programs: At least two free educational programs will be offered daily, along with an array of classes and lectures carrying fees of $6 to $49. One day each month will be devoted to programming directed toward children.

Tickets and information: (707) 259-1600 or www.copia.org.

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