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COPIA never made much sense


I know we’re still in the grieving stage of COPIA’s recent demise, when you’re supposed to remember all the good things about the late, great dearly departed. But really, can we talk? The truth is, COPIA was a drag from day one.

As a tourist attraction it just didn’t cut it. Think of some of the cultural institutions that have opened around here over the years that have truly been successes: The new DeYoung Museum. The new Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The new Asian Art Museum and Main Library, in Civic Center. The Contemporary Jewish Museum. San Francisco MOMA. All of these opened to great fanfare, and have done stellar business ever since, because they delivered — no, over-delivered on their promises.

COPIA didn’t deliver.

Granted, COPIA wasn’t in San Francisco, but even if it had been, I don’t think it would have thrived. The problem was that it just wasn’t interesting or exciting. As an art museum, it basically sucked. There’s nothing worse than an art museum that displays bad art. Every time I went to COPIA — maybe 15 times in all — I was amazed at the feeble quality of the exhibits that passed as “art.” Other places in Napa Valley, such as Clos Pegase and the Hess Collection, had great works. COPIA didn’t. I always had the feeling they tried so hard to be avant garde, they forgot that contemporary art actually has to be good.

Then there was the wine education stuff. I never could figure out why tourists would go to COPIA for a wine experience rather than to the actual wineries in Napa Valley. I guess the tourists couldn’t figure it out either, which is why not enough of them went to COPIA to keep it alive.

Julia’s Kitchen was okay, although it never achieved the critical renown of restaurants in Yountville and further upvalley. Nor was COPIA attractively or conveniently sited. It was built on the “wrong” side of the Napa River, in a humdrum area that’s only now beginning to come alive. Moreover, COPIA was notoriously difficult to get to for years, while the roads and bridges were being worked on and that whole part of town was detours and closures. I bet a whole lot of tourists got fed up with that.

In the end, a cultural destination needs to generate word of mouth, and no one I ever knew who went to COPIA was excited enough by the experience to either go back, or to tell their friends to go. COPIA wasn’t a bad place; it was just kind of boring. When you think about it, the only reason it did as well as it did was because we loved and respected Robert Mondavi and Julia Child, and wanted their vision for an American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts to thrive. It didn’t, and I’m glad that neither of them was around to see their baby fold.


P.S. Tom Wark, at Fermentation, this morning included this blog among his 5 Most Intriguing New Wine Blogs of 2008. I am humbled and grateful.

  1. In September we happened to visit the Nestle Museum just outside of Lausanne, Switzerland with friends and their three children, ages 8 to 13. The museum was a wonderful tribute to food, its journey from plant to table, its history and meaning to humanity. Children were lined up for the interactive exhibits. Two of “our” children had previously visited with their classes but were completely excited to be going again. The outdoor gardens were thronged with people checking out all the different kinds of vegetables. As I left, my thought was, “This is what Copia should have been. Too bad.”

  2. I think what is really missing in the wine country is a serious museum of wine just like “Le musee du vin ” in Paris or others around Europe. They are very interesting to visit and you can learn history, winemaking techniques (old and new) , viticulture etc.

  3. As I wrote in an earlier blog – Copia, Over $50 Million is Lost on the East Side of Napa

    A dream is but a dream. A marketing plan is money well spent… The Four P’s: Product, Promotion, Price, and Place…

    Location, location, location…

  4. Last Summer we put on an event there with the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society (TAPAS), which had the side effect of exposing me to COPIA in general. It was a great facility for holding special events, at least in our case, and the staff was also great to work with. And our event was very successful. But all of your points are well taken. I remember being there, looking at the place (and waiting a long time for a BLT…) and wondering why people would go there in the absence of a specific event of interest. And for an “American” Center for Food and Wine, except for one display of wines by state, it was very Napa/Sonoma-centric.

  5. Jefe, you are so right. I have also participated at several events at COPIA and, while they were always enjoyable and drew good audiences, they just as easily could have been held at the Embassy Suites or some other meeting hall.

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