I remember when Copia opened in 2001, two months after 9/11. The construction had gone on for years, and reports were that every aspect of the project was over budget. The brainchild of Robert and Margrit Mondavi, the center, named after the Roman goddess of wealth and plenty, was intended as a gathering place for art, wine and food-lovers. The concept was indeed visionary, but it was plagued from the start by poor timing, a struggling economy and an ever-changing strategy that was both confusing and confounding to the public.
Fast-forward through bankruptcy and years of ghostly vacancy, and a glimmer of light seems to be emerging from what has been blinding darkness. Copia’s new owners, the Culinary Institute of America, purchased the building in 2015 and reopened in 2016, with new, Disneyesque statues of the Mondavi founders poised sitting on the edge of the building’s roof. The CIA strategy, which is to house their business school on the premises while also attempting to honor the original vision, seems to be gathering steam. If my recent evening’s experience at the complex to hear Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and organic farmer Bob Canard give a talk called “Dirt to Dish” is any indication, then the answer is a definite “maybe.”
The evening was the second in what the CIA hopes will become a monthly series of discussions in which luminaries from around the globe will come and speak on timely topics such as climate change, organic food and farming, innovative business practices, and even the role of technology in the ever-changing world of food and wine.
“We really see Copia as having a special role in our overall mission — which is to engage with the public, consumers and enthusiasts in a meaningful and timely manner,” said Thomas Bensel, managing director of CIA California, which includes the Greystone campus in St. Helena. “As a part of that, we will be conducting these discussions on a monthly basis, holding interactive classes with food, wine and gardening, showing films, plays, music, and other programing that will highlight all the activities that our schools are involved with, and even hold special events, both private and public. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but we are all excited by the possibilities.”
And there were a lot of other folks excited by the activities and offerings of that evening, too. The restaurant was booked solid, according to the hostess, a lively wine-appreciation class was going on in one of the glass-enclosed conference rooms and throngs of people strolled about the multimillion-dollar structure that overlooks the Napa River. Many of the visitors that evening were apparently Alice Waters fans, as evidenced by the tightly gripped copies of “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,” Waters’ new memoir, in their hands. They were hoping to get an autograph from the famous chef, whose Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley and more than a dozen cookbooks helped usher in the modern era of California Cuisine.
The glimmering wood walls and comfortable seating in the packed auditorium made me think of what it must feel like to be a college student who enters some newly constructed, ultra-well-funded lecture hall at Stanford. But those in attendance that evening were well past the college age, and the sea of gray hair (mine included), gave me pause. Since this was a talk by two self-proclaimed “old hippies,” one should expect such a gathering. But it got me thinking.
In 2016 the millennial generation bypassed the baby boomers, which had been the largest generation in American history. Now this new, social-media-savvy cohort is replacing the boomers at the impressive rate of 10,000 per day. Any new business is destined to fail if it does not understand the impact of a changing demographic, especially one that is as fiercely distinct as the millennials and the “Next” generation who are hot on their heels.
The talk was entertaining, thoughtful and felt like a call to action, although when I was driving home that night I had a hard time coming up with what exactly I was supposed to do. To listen to Waters talk about her desire to bring organic, locally grown foods to all of California’s school-lunch programs was inspiring. And hearing Canard talk is similar to attending a sermon given by a fervent Pentecostal preacher who sings the praises, not of the Holy Spirit, but instead of compost and the “cosmic forces” within plants, earth and animals. There was even a short film that struck a hopeful note about climate change, urging the viewers to understand that compost can help atmospheric carbon be absorbed by plants and the earth itself. If we could just support local farmers, teach children the value of eating locally grown food and compost more, the world would be a better place. I wanted to stand up and yell, “Amen!”
But then I took a deep breath and imagined what my 27-year-old son, who teaches as an adjunct lecturer for what is nearly minimum wage, might say. Would he tell me that his generation “knows all this already.” Might he chortle that he’s “heard such talk since I can remember.” That “In the future schools will evolve into something else,” and that “most food will be plant-based or synthetically grown in vats to deal with overpopulation,” or that “a cartoonish film about absorbing enough carbon to make a difference in my lifetime is laughable.”
I decided that I wouldn’t mention the talk during our next phone call. I was happy just to stay in my blissful, happy, hopeful state of mind while I drove home.
Certainly the new owners of Copia have considered these changing demographics: They run numerous campuses of one of the world’s greatest culinary schools, but this new endeavor might be a bit different from what their experience has been up to this point. First, the economic conditions are changing and a slowdown is, if not guaranteed, at least highly likely, which will fuel the younger generations toward frugality. Next, the millennials do not seem keen on being lectured to by the old guard. They’ve spent so many years in school, gathering debt, that they tend to skip such events. Sure, they’ll watch a YouTube TED talk, but most likely, instead they’ll listen to a podcast or follow their favorite culinary inspiration via Instagram. When the millennials go out, they do so in groups and often drink and eat in moderation, and they are skeptical when it comes to marketing hype or anything that speaks to antiquated roles, be it gender, class or race. These propensities of what is quickly becoming the group in charge are not all in alignment with the Napa Valley’s recent past.
Copia’s new owners have procured a valuable piece of real estate at what was a good price. They have young people in management positions and are surrounded by a community that wishes them wild success. Their restaurant and gardens are becoming destinations in their own rights, but without embracing the future I am afraid Copia could return to its recent past, with its founders unhappily glaring down from the rooftop.