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Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, is the perfect summer day trip

Photo By Larry Dalton

What you eat and drink in the next three months may become your most lasting memories of the summer of 2003.

I remember my summers growing up in Southern California. I was raised in a family with six kids. Both my parents worked, so they placed a premium on efficiency and value with respect to our meals.

Breakfast was often a bowl of Cheerios or Wheaties, reconstituted frozen juice and a banana. My brown-bag lunch typically contained a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a bag of corn chips, an apple and milk money. Dinner was Hamburger Helper, Chung King chop suey, frozen fish sticks, spaghetti with canned meat sauce, fried round steak, Shake ’n Bake chicken or tacos spiced up by a packaged seasoning.

There often was a starch on the dinner plate, such as Rosarita refried beans or packaged scalloped potatoes. Fresh vegetables usually meant salad. As far as I knew, salad contained one type of lettuce (iceberg) and one variety of tomato (beefsteak).

But summers brought something completely different, one of the absolute food highlights of the year. Summertime meant that our nectarine tree in the backyard would produce gobs of the sweetest, most aromatic fruit I had ever tasted.

So, there you have it, two distinctly different sets of food memories: one set of memories based on mass-produced foods and one based on a single tree offering fruit that was local, seasonal and organic. I got to appreciate both sets of memories a great deal more by visiting Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts (, in Napa recently.

Copia, which opened in November 2001, is a great summer day trip. It is located just one hour from downtown Sacramento, and Napa’s summer weather is several degrees cooler than the capital city’s. The center offers plenty of variety, including food and wine tastings, cooking classes, seminars, Friday-night films, Monday-night concerts, interactive exhibits, gardens and restaurants. Ultimately, Copia offers the opportunity to explore something that we do all the time, which is eating and drinking.

The Copia center references the industrial and agricultural heritage of the Napa Valley.

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But isn’t this a bit elitist, a center that celebrates the taste buds? Daphne Dervin, Copia’s stylish and articulate assistant director of programs and curator of food, likely has heard that question before. “I look at the issue the opposite way,” she said. “Everyone has to eat.”

She’s right. Food and wine are intricately intertwined with family, celebrations, rites of passage, holidays and religion. For all the differences that often divide people, food and drink are powerful threads all cultures share.

And in contrast to the snooty reputation of wine connoisseurs and foodies, a day at Copia is fun and accessible. Heck, the place was exhibiting one piece of art that was a shrine constructed from Marshmallow Peeps.

Copia is the brainchild of Robert Mondavi, the visionary who believed in the potential for great Napa Valley wine in the early 1960s, when California wine had a screw-cap reputation. Mondavi helped place Napa wine within the world’s top tier. And now, because of the cutting-edge restaurants that followed, Napa Valley is among the top destinations for wine and food in the world. Mondavi believed America should celebrate the unique contributions it brings to the world’s table, and through an aggressive fund-raising drive, Copia was born.

The center is perched on the banks of the Napa River, a few blocks from Napa’s burgeoning central business district. The modernist building is clad in fieldstone, corrugated metal, glass and polished concrete, with references to the industrial and agricultural heritage of the Napa Valley. These references extend to the building’s interior design, such as the cafe light fixtures that resemble farm windmills.

A day pass is $12.50 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and $7.50 for children. The price gives you access to the exhibitions, gardens, programs, scheduled tours and various wine and food programs.

The exhibits offer thought-provoking explorations of food, wine and American culture. Forks in the Road—Food, Wine and the American Table is Copia’s permanent exhibit in the center’s main gallery. This multimedia, interactive exhibit helped me gain a better appreciation of my childhood memories of mass-produced food.

The exhibit explores how agricultural innovations have given us a cheap, bountiful and shelf-stable food supply. At the same time, our culture craves convenience and speed. The exhibit provides interpretative displays of how these cultural preferences are reflected in our food choices, from single-serve packages to fast food and “instant” food preparations. The tradeoff for all this convenience is that we give up taste, nutritional value and culinary tradition.

Gustav and Ulla Kraitz’s stoneware spheres accentuate Copia’s gardens.

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The American emphasis on convenience also extends to kitchen equipment, from refrigerators to microwave ovens. Forks in the Road includes an RCA video from 1964, which effuses ideas about the kitchens of tomorrow. By 2000, we are told, meals will be prepared with the touch of a button, and a robotic device, which scurries about like a small pet, will clean the floor automatically.

Copia’s exhibits also include a generous helping of art that explores food and wine themes. One recent exhibit, Sweet Tooth, examined America’s love-hate relationship with desserts, candy and sugar. Another Copia exhibit achieved notoriety by including a figurine of the pope sitting on the toilet. Of course, there was a huge uproar, but let’s face it, even pontiffs are subject to the laws of the digestive system.

All of this discussion of exhibits and art should not make you think that Copia is solely a cerebral experience. Copia, unlike a conventional museum, really engages all of the senses. A journey out to Copia’s gardens is a case in point.

Copia operates three-and-a-half acres of organic gardens, which supply fresh produce to the classes and restaurants onsite. The gardens are divided into square beds, with each section artistically planted with a unique theme. The Cultural Garden, for example, is a showcase for America’s ethnic diversity, with the garden spotlighting an individual culture’s unique styles, tastes and traditions. This garden will focus on the foods of Mexico over the summer; it will be planted with cilantro, onions, tomatoes, chiles, corn and other representative produce.

I also liked the White Wine Garden and the Red Wine Garden. These areas contain plants that capture the aromas and flavors of various wine types. For example, the Zinfandel section included blackberry, black currant, plum, pomegranate, rose and nasturtium. The gardens also are planted with foods that tend to have an affinity with the wines.

The garden tours afford the opportunity to smell fresh herbs and sample some of the beautiful produce. I plucked a Freezonia pea pod off the vine and ripped it open to reveal six tiny, pale-green peas. The flavor was delicate and sweet, the texture tender and slightly juicy. These are not the same peas I ate in the school cafeteria.

The garden includes areas devoted to seed production and also to composting the kitchen waste. The realization hits you: Copia is engaged in practices that seem unusual today but were actually the norm not too many generations ago.

I walked past small orchards, the slender branches of nectarine trees waving at me in the breeze. I decided it was time to eat.

Interactive installations, such as this station that tests the sense of smell, highlight the permanent <i>Forks in the Road</i> exhibition.

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Copia offers plenty of opportunities for tasting food and wine. Some of these experiences are included with general admission, such as the tastings at the Wine Spectator Tasting Table, where a different winery will be featured each week this summer.

Also included with the day pass are 30-minute programs on food and wine. The food programs offered this summer will focus on pistachios, cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk, grapes, melons, eggplants and stone fruits. This summer’s wine-tasting programs include examinations of wines of the ancient world, preserving and cellaring wine, French wines and California’s wine history.

As you might expect, Copia features a couple of fine eateries. The casual option is called the American Market Café. There, you can grab top-quality sandwiches, salads, olives, cheeses and beverages that make for a fine picnic beneath the 85-year-old olive trees on the patio.

The more upscale dining option is Julia’s Kitchen, named after our first TV celebrity chef, Julia Child. The executive chef, Victor Scargle, has put in time at top Bay Area restaurants, most recently at San Francisco’s Aqua. He works closely with the gardeners to develop menus based on the produce available right outside the door.

The lunch menu includes items like roasted Sonoma quail, Half Moon Bay sand dabs, Fulton Valley Farms chicken breasts and grilled rib-eye steak. I opted to try the chef’s tasting menu, featuring five small courses, for $40.

The starter course featured those magnificent peas that I had sampled in the garden. The peas were pureed, enhanced by what tasted like fresh oregano or thyme and served with chunks of Dungeness crab. The inherent sweetness of the two main ingredients echoed on the palate, pure and clean.

Cured salmon, crème fraîche and caviar were served over thick potato blini, a dish that was enlivened with a scattering of micro-greens, bits of citrus and chopped shallots. Seared dayboat scallops were served with buttery morel mushrooms, fava beans and a port reduction sauce. The favas, which I also had sampled in the garden, glowed brightly on the plate and paired well with the rich and sweet scallops.

The main course offered juicy slices of roast lamb from a local farmer, matched with a peppermint-infused quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), a grain rarely used in restaurants. The feast ended with dark chocolate cake, fresh ice cream and a cup of Illy coffee. The meal was magnificent, the confluence of perfect ingredients in the hands of a top-notch chef. It was well worth the price.

I left Copia and headed for I-80, driving past the vineyards of Jamieson Canyon. The bucolic vistas disappeared once we hit the freeway. I sped by the fast-food restaurants and factory outlets. I was thinking of that incredible lunch and of the nectarines I would be tasting from my yard this summer.