At COPIA, wine is food and food is art and the collective table awaits
By R. V. Scheide
Not that it would ever admit it, but the culinary arts has what in politics is called an "image problem." For a small segment of the population--the educated, the erudite, the epicureans--good food and wine is akin to a fetish, replete with its own indecipherable language and symbolism. The rest of us are left scratching our heads wondering what all the fuss is about.
Since it opened in Napa in November 2001, COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts has gone a long way toward correcting this state of affairs.
"Our mission is to investigate and celebrate the collective table," says COPIA president and CEO Peggy Loar. She's using "collective" in the progressive sense. "We are not about the good life. We are about the better life for all."
That's not a message that's always gotten through, particularly considering the culinary arts' aforementioned image problem. For a large percentage of people, there's just something about swirling and spitting that seems too high-falutin'. Little do they know that COPIA is really here for them.
"Lots of people are still afraid of wine," Loar says. "They think they don't know about it. If they come here, we can demystify that."
This writer, having once attended a Taste of COPIA luncheon, can personally attest to Loar's statement. The luncheon featured food and wine pairings from Mendocino County and was hosted by COPIA wine curator Peter Marks, who artfully explained the reasons why certain wines go better with certain foods, how to distinguish the complex flavors flowing across our palates and, most importantly, how to enjoy winetasting despite its intimidating aspects.
"Your palate, your tongue, your taste, your preference--that's what's important here," Loar says.
Art, food and wine are irrevocably intertwined, and when it comes to the art exhibits at COPIA, food is always the common denominator. "We don't do art for art's sake, we stay close to our mission," says Loar. For instance, the 80,000-square-foot museum's current exhibit, "The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia," explains through painting, ceramics, weaving and photography how the grain travels from earth to table to soul in the Eastern Hemisphere.
"We want to show the geography and economics of how we move food around," Loar says. "We want to teach kids where their food comes from. There's so much about food and food history that we don't know."
Interestingly, the center does not shy away from offering the occasional provocative exhibit, such as Julie Green's The Last Supper, a series of 186 plates painted with depictions of the last meals requested by death-row inmates.
"When we first opened, people thought we were going to be still-life paintings of food and wine," Loar explains. "Who would come to see that?"
Because COPIA is a nonprofit organization, it relies both on philanthropy and the people who come through the door for revenue. Recognizing that not everyone can pony up the admission price, the center offers at least three free community days a year. The events have so far been well-attended, with as many as 1,500 people turning out.
Also well-attended have been the farmers markets held in COPIA's parking lot, where parents can shop for fresh vegetables and chat up local farmers while children play or even learn the fine art of composting in COPIA's edible gardens. Thank God It's Monday! nights feature live music by such seminal favorites as Tommy Castro, and the center's state-of-the-art cinema offers excellent alternatives to the multiplex. The community feels welcomed. Special events are even held for members of Napa County's hospitality industry, and cooking classes led by prominent local, national and international chefs rotate through on a continual basis.
It's a difficult charge, offering something for everybody, but COPIA is up to the task. Here, even the most cynical neophyte can become a seasoned swirl-'n'-spitter in but a day.
"Come to COPIA and cross over," Loar implores. "Wine people discover food. Food people discover art. People do come and cross over, and they come to their senses, to eat and be on a different plain, maybe even a different planet. Maybe that's escapism, but this is a good place to escape."
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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.