NAPA, Calif. - A year ago, travelers on their way to wine country drove past orchards, cattle and the city of Napa - a commercial center and gateway to the Napa Valley, but not much of a tourist destination.
That changed in November 2001 with the opening of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts.
Named for the goddess of abundance, the 80,000-square-foot center is a unique museum and nonprofit educational institution.
"It's about time we celebrated the food and wine in this country, don't you think? I know I'm proud of it," said Julia Child, who is an adviser and trustee of the center. "It's high time we had something like Copia. We are just thrilled about it. This is a Smithsonian for American food and wine."
Copia was founded by vintner Robert Mondavi, who acquired the 12-acre site on the banks of the Napa River and donated the first $20 million to the $55 million center to "expose the positive roles that wine, food and the arts have played in our lives."
Copia offers an extensive, frequently changing selection of exhibits; wine, food, arts and garden programs; and classes. Nearly 200,000 people have visited Copia, exploring its organic gardens, touring its galleries and dining in a restaurant named for Julia Child, who gave the first cooking class at Copia on how to bake a lemon-meringue pie.
Although Mondavi is responsible for Copia's creation, it is the robust Child who is its patron saint. In agreeing to let Copia name its 75-seat dining room in her honor, she granted the house instant cachet.
When Child recently dismantled her house in Cambridge, Mass., and moved to California, her native state, she donated her famous copper cookware to the museum. It is reverently displayed at the entrance to the center's second-floor, permanent exhibit, "Forks in the Road: Food, Wine and the American Table."
This lively installation, an intelligent look at America's culinary personality, considers our love of high cuisine and convenient fast food, our penchant for change. A wryly witty exhibit titled "New! And Improved!" displays products originated by our on-the-move lifestyle.
Here are the origins of Jell-O and Kellogg's Corn Flakes and the story of Swanson and Sons, an Omaha food company that bought too many turkeys for Thanksgiving in 1954. An employee, having just seen a new type of compartmentalized metal tray for serving airline food, was inspired. Why not cook complete turkey dinners, freeze them and sell them to busy families?
At aroma stations, visitors are invited to sniff scents puffing from tubes and try to identify them. At another interactive booth, you can test your knowledge of the meaning of the information on package labels.
"Imported Tastes" is a series of interviews with Americans from diverse backgrounds about the foods on their family plates.
"America serves up a global buffet with many different cultures contributing to the way we eat. That diversity makes it distinctly American," said Daphne Derven, the museum's assistant director of programs and curator of food. "There are many things that make us all different from each other, but we all eat."
General admission to the center costs $12.50 and includes tours of the galleries and a 3 1/2 -acre garden inspired by the 16th-century gridded gardens at Chateau de Villandry in France's Loire Valley. Copia's flourishing vegetables, herbs, flowers, orchards, vineyards, olive and nut groves are laid out in 30 beds, each with its own theme.
The plantings in the Cultural Garden change throughout the year. In late summer, the plots were devoted to growing ingredients typically used in Hispanic recipes.
Vines heavy with tomatoes, a few of the 100 varieties grown here, rested on trellises made from tree branches. Closer to the ground, tomatillos look like tiny green party lanterns in their paper sheaths. Even the sidewalks are softened by tall grass, Atlas fescue, that spills over the curbs into First Street. It's a stretch to imagine downtown Napa is a half-block away.
Copia offers 200 food classes a year - many of them free - to entice everyone from novice to epicurean. Perhaps as inspiration to the former category, chefs Marion Cunningham and Alice Waters assembled a sandwich from a James Beard cookbook - two slices of firm white bread, mayonnaise, a thin slice of onion and chopped parsley - in the 75-seat demonstration kitchen as part of a cooking seminar at the end of August.
Some of the programs scheduled for next month include daily complimentary wine tastings at the Wine Spectator Tasting Table, a history of the wine-growing tradition of New York state, a look at where turnips, parsnips and rutabagas fit in the Thanksgiving feast, and an exploration of the truth and myth behind the first Thanksgiving and later traditions, like turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie.