Stop, Listen, Learn

Napa’s Copia lays the foundation for exploring wine country

Accurate measurements become critical in blending wine.

Michael Kleinschmidt

Ninety-two percent of purchased wine is poured within two hours. Californian zinfandel and Italian primotivo grapes share primary DNA markers. Julia Child’s husband outlined pans on a pegboard so she would know where to return them after use.

I learned these things on a trip to Napa Valley. In fact, I learned all of this — and more — at one stop: Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts. Located in downtown Napa, the nonprofit operation makes an ideal place to begin a wine country tour.

Named for the Roman goddess of abundance, Copia began with a concept by Robert and Margrit Mondavi, who acquired 12 acres and donated $20 million to get the center started. Early board members included such luminaries as Julia Child and Alice Waters.

The 80,000-square-foot building, which opened in November 2001, comprises an 80-seat theater for cooking demonstrations; a tasting bar where visitors can purchase a designated flight or select their own; an interactive exhibition exploring different aspects of American food culture; rotating exhibits relating to wine and food; educational kiosks; a gift store where shoppers can scan a wine bottle’s bar code to find out about the winery and the wine; a chocolate-focused café; Julia’s Kitchen restaurant, which features an exhibition kitchen and offers dining inside or on the patio; a display of Julia Child’s awards and the pegboard wall of pans from her Massachusetts home kitchen; and, the newest addition, themed wine stations.

Outside is an amphitheater and 3.5 acres of edible gardens — divided into 50x50-foot beds to replicate 16th century European gardens — demonstrating a range of horticultural styles and types of plants. Included are 100 varieties of tomatoes, more than 75 types of peppers, and 10 types of garlic. There’s also a fun and educational kids garden.

Chefs at Julia’s Kitchen (the only restaurant authorized to use Child’s name) can be seen in the gardens collecting ingredients for their dishes. In fact, the gardens provide 80 percent of the restaurant’s edible needs. Copia even has had olives from its gardens pressed to make olive oil.

Numerous activities enliven the center: cooking demonstrations and tastings, wine lunches and dinners, classes and workshops, book signings, Friday night movies, concerts, wine-tasting festivals, and monthly themed events. The Taste of Copia lunch — each Friday and one or more weekends a month — includes three wines paired with three courses, a cooking demonstration, and garden staff talking about the produce.

Thanks in part to the changing themes, about 31 percent of Copia’s 195,000 visitors in 2006 were repeat visitors, and 15 percent were members.

Peter Marks, senior director of wine and food, agrees that Copia makes an excellent first stop for touring wine country. Tasting-room novices, he says, can attend a 30-minute Wine 101 class that includes tasting etiquette, an insider’s list of “don’t miss” wineries, and a Wine Country Passport with special offers and discounts.

Whether people visit Copia at the beginning or the end of their stay in wine country, however, Marks hopes they walk away with at least one concept.

“The main thing is to think a little more carefully about what they put in their mouth,” he says, adding that such a philosophy helps them appreciate Mother Nature’s bounty. 

“Wine and food not only nourish us,” he says, “but also bring a social context to our lives.”

We’re All Winemakers

My favorite part of visiting Copia was the wine-blending seminar: a hands-on learning experience that taught me (1) figuring out how to use one varietal’s characteristics to enhance those of another varietal takes concentration; (2) making a wine formula is a lot more fun than my chemistry set ever was; (3) failure is not an option; and (4) it’s good to have plenty of napkins handy.

I and my co-winemakers were supplied with five wines (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec, and petit verdot); notes on the typical qualities of each varietal; three empty glasses (for our three attempts to find an ideal blend); a measuring flask and siphon tube; water and crackers to cleanse our palate; pen and paper; and a “cheat sheet” revealing the percentages of the varietals used by powerhouses such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Jordan, and Opus One.

As if the pleasure of the blending process wasn’t enough, Copia took our favorite formula and blended a full bottle of wine with our personalized label (we picked a template and name for our wine) and we got to install the cork and foil cap. I wondered if professional winemakers felt the thrill I felt holding a bottle of my own blend; I suspect the really good ones do.

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