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Big Dreams for Napa Wine and Food Center

Copia plans national presence with awards ceremony, TV show and retail outlets

Tim Fish
Posted: May 26, 2005

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts has struggled to live up to expectations since opening four years ago, but trustees of the Napa Valley cultural center are hoping a new, grandly ambitious agenda of projects will change that.

Plans include a nationally televised food-and-wine awards ceremony, a chain of retail stores, a children's TV show, a riverfront resort and a year-round public market along the lines of San Francisco's Ferry Building and Seattle's Pike Place Market.

The goal is to give Copia a higher profile, establishing a national reputation for what essentially has been a regional institution. It's an aspiration in keeping with founder Robert Mondavi's original intent.

"We've been evolving and fine-tuning Copia since its inception," said trustee Garen Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards.

Most prominent among the ventures is a glitzy awards gala that will be produced by Michael Seligman, a veteran of the Academy and Emmy awards broadcasts. While some press reports in April implied that Copia's goal was to replace the James Beard Awards, after the Beard Foundation became mired in controversy over its finances and management last year, trustees refute that. "This is not a competition with the Beard House," Staglin said. Lauren Ackerman, chairwoman of the board, concurred.

Copia already has a small-scale wine awards gala that will be in its third year this September. The new program may be an extension of that or a separate project, Ackerman said. While details are still being negotiated, the goal is to have the new program broadcast from Copia on national TV in fall 2006.

On the front burner is a project that organizers hope will be the first of a chain of Copia outlets around the country. The location is Pier 39, one of San Francisco busiest tourist attractions, and it's scheduled to open this summer. The outlet would potentially offer educational exhibits, food-and-wine tastings and retail sales.

Plans for a hotel and convention center adjacent to, but independent from, Copia have been in the works for years. Staglin believes the site's owner, Intrawest, will break ground on the 160-room resort this fall.

Another project is a year-round public market, which will be located just west of Copia. The man behind that is Steve Carlin, the former CEO of the Oakville Grocery chain and a major player in San Francisco's highly successful Ferry Building market.

Tentatively named Oxbow Market--after the oxbow bend in the river where Copia is located--it's still awaiting city approval, but the facility would be built on land leased from Copia. Carlin said plans call for a large, open hall containing about 30 tenants--all small, locally owned businesses, including four small restaurants, as well as a bakery, meat, fish and fresh produce purveyors.

"We want to create an environment where the producer and the consumer have a seven-day-a-week opportunity to interact," Carlin said.

Copia is also acting as a sponsor and content provider for Gaspergoo, a new syndicated TV show for children that focuses on food and nutrition that should launch in 2006.

The projects are all about promoting the Copia name and improving tourism to the Napa facility, said Arthur Jacobus, who replaces Copia's founding director, Peggy Loar, in July.

Attendance, which was originally expected to reach 300,000 annually, is hovering around 150,000, Jacobus said. He concedes that the visitor experience at Copia has been lackluster. "The feeling is that there isn't a lot there," said Jacobus, who plans a makeover of the facility within his first six months. "It should be an orgy of food, wine and the arts."

All this begs the question--who is paying for it? Jacobus and Ackerman explained that Copia is not raising funds for the projects; instead, each is a partnership blending profit and nonprofit. Jacobus has made his reputation as an entrepreneur for nonprofit organizations such as the San Francisco Ballet and, most recently, the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. His goal is to create a separate organization to pursue commercial opportunities that will be an ongoing source of money for Copia.

As Ackerman put it, "It's time that we move beyond being a beautiful building and gardens."

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