In her opening remarks kicking off what is, even for California, a rather unlikely institution -- Copia, a museum dedicated to wine, food and art -- director Peggy Loar tells us that "without food we cannot survive, without wine we cannot endure, and without art we cannot evolve."
Since culture itself is very much in the business of taking that which is an incidental luxury and ascribing to it an institutional necessity, it should be no surprise if culture celebrates all that which might otherwise be taken for granted in the calamity of day-to-day survival.
As such, Copia, "The American Center for Wine, Food and Art" located in picturesque Napa, Ca., represents the ideal by which the craft of human endeavor is transformed into a fine art of idealized individuality, distinct self-expression and authoritative connoisseurship.
Here, the esthetic frame of hierarchical discernment and the moneyed aura of a more poetic privilege serve to validate what merchants, from sommeliers and shopkeepers to maitre d's and art marketeers, have long made a living telling us -- that there exists a secret language of the senses in which discretely coded nuances of taste divine the difference between mere sustenance and esoteric sublimity.
What is great about Copia, then, is more than the whim of a museum that treats fine wine and dining with the rarefied respect due to historical artifacts and cultural treasures. Copia offers an entire elaborate construct of ultra-refined redemption in which our capacity to attribute the qualities of excellence to certain otherwise varied fields of consumption creates the basis for an equivalence between them. By such a museological leap of faith here, wine, food and art are in essence equal terms of the same humanist aspiration.
That these three areas of human achievement are in fact not that similar is of little consequence in the end because the argument for their collective specialness is so compellingly made. In a world where gourmets, masters and critics rhapsodize in their own exclusive tongue of subtleties invisible and indivisible to the rest of society, how can the average insecure listener not defer to such vainglorious presumptions?
Of course, like all of us who presume to a position of authority, Copia intends to educate towards a more sophisticated class of consumer. But at the heart of this ennobling enterprise is the troubling fact that those of us in the arts (as much as others in food, wine, fashion or any other pseudo-scientific sphere of judgment) have taken liberties with the truth in treating what is inherently a matter of subjective taste as a discipline of objective facts.
At Copia, the embrace of subjectivity as a supreme achievement is a great strength -- the symmetry of consensual value by which we come to regard one painting, one bottle of wine, one flavor or one bit of metal dug up from the ground as being qualifiedly better than another. And in presentation as much as pretense, at Copia the emperor's new clothes have never looked better.
Designed by James Polshek and Richard Olcott of Polshek Partnership Architects, Copia stands apart like a well groomed, graciously gardened jewel in the heart of America's spectacularly affluent Napa Valley. With the elegance of nicely appointed dinner table, a single 80,000-square-foot building of polished concrete, stone, metal and glass, Copia rises up as a well-turned dinner toast and a beacon to the good life. Coming in with a $55-million price tag for the building alone, with an ambitious exhibitions and programming schedule that will certainly demand a substantial annual budget, there is something about Copia-- perhaps visionary, perhaps just plain crazy-- that makes it seem like one of those outrageous late night inspirations hatched over some sumptuous 17-course dining experience and countless bottles of superior vintage.
With the impressive octogenarian godfather of American wine, Robert Mondavi, as the founder, leading force and prime benefactor behind this museum, one can at least be sure that few steps were taken in the creation of this project that were not extremely well catered or amply endowed with the appropriate spirits. For a space so committed to the wonderful synergy of getting everything just right (in the way that every perfect host aspires to), it would seem that nothing was spared, nor any detail left unattended in conveying what the mass of collaborating experts deem to be the best of the best.
Everyone should be able to find their muse at Copia. It has impressive rare book holdings on its subject, a gourmet restaurant with an open finishing kitchen, a cooking demonstration studio that makes Emeril's television setup seem like trailer home kitchenettes, indoor and outdoor theaters as well as classrooms, tasting rooms amply supplied with an extensive selection of premium wines and a gift shop so stocked with all the utensils of a food fetishist's desires it is aptly named Cornucopia.
The restaurant, by the way, is Julia's Kitchen, named after "honorary trustee," the celebrated master chef, Julia Child. It drew the attention at the opening of none other than Hugh Johnson, the master of modern wine writing and a man who can sling the prose in thicker slabs of purple than any art writer alive.
Copia also boasts 3½ acres of gardens, divided into 50-square-foot beds. Grown organically, in the tradition of the kitchen garden in which fresh produce and herbs serve the culinary needs of the chef, Copia's garden also boasts plots dedicated to an assortment of cherry, tobacco, apple, olive, violet and like plants that assemble the constituent taste components of a glass of wine. Another plot is a seed-saving garden, dedicated to the preservation of historic varieties, all the rage in contemporary horticulture.
This then would leave us with the art. One might think that an institution devoted to food and wine and gracious living would find wading in the murky waters of contemporary art to be gratuitously beside the point. Or that the gallery, a 1,300 square foot space, might simply be put to use in surveying winding road of edibles and potables through art history.
But Copia has more in mind. At the heart of this great conceit, in fact, is something so dear that only the "a" word will do justice. Copia asserts not simply that food and wine are essential to good living, it maintains that the production and consumption of these basics are in themselves the basic terms of art, or rather, that they are a valid medium for the expressions and experiences we call art.
Copia strives to offer, then, a complete realm of the senses, and art, like the fine food and drink, is part of an overall dedication to pleasure that constitutes a socially elevated esthetic hedonism. And if you're looking for a true case of the Stendahl Syndrome, you don't need to stand in front of a painting until you swoon, just try getting up from the dinner table after some five-hour multi-bottled meal.
No doubt the inclusion of contemporary art here is a reflection of the collecting passions of Magrit Biever Mondavi, wife of founder Robert Mondavi. Luckily, Magrit and Robert made their close friend and favorite artist, Wayne Thiebaud, an honorary trustee at Copia, and delegated the task of organizing exhibitions to professional sensibilities.
In accompaniment to their opening historical and education exhibition on food, "Forks in the Road," Copia's premier art offering is "Active Ingredients," a modest survey of seven (or eight, depending upon if you count the Art Guys as one or two) contemporary installation-based artists whose work deals with the various social and cultural ritual manifestations surrounding the production, preparation and consumption of food. This show was put together by Margaret Miller and Amy Cappellazzo, the experienced young curator recently hired by Christie's as a contemporary art specialist.
The Houston-based Art Guys can be counted on for goofy hilarity, while the Spanish-born Miami resident Miralda manages to turn his curatorial eye to the uncanny within the quotidian. Lee Mingwei, a veteran of exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and, later this month, Rice University Gallery in Houston, has transformed a meal into a process-based performance work redolent of his Taiwanese-American heritage.
Other offerings in "Active Ingredients" include Lucy Orta's polemically politicized buffet for the masses, and a huge caramel sculpture on springs made over five days in Copia's kitchen from 800 pounds of sugar by Gay Outlaw, an ex-pastry chef who lives in San Francisco. Design maven Andrea Zittel exhibited a customized kitchen, while the omnipresent Jorge Pardo provided another bit of his trademark conceptually transparent decorative fluff.
In all, it is hard not to leave Copia feeling as if one has attended a very successful dinner party -- well sated, entertained, slightly hung-over and thinking that a bit of diet might just be in order.
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper magazine.