For decades, the Napa River Oxbow was a backwater dominated by auto wrecking, garbage collecting and funky cottages that flooded every few years.

With the debut this weekend of Copia, a $55 million cultural center, a blighted area becomes Napa's crown jewel, drawing sophisticated travelers from across the nation and the world.

It almost didn't happen.

"Bob (Mondavi) was being wooed by everybody all over the valley to go to a pristine site with rolling grassland or vineyards," recalled Moira Johnston Block, a downtown booster.

Downtown's chances of landing Copia seemed slim, she said. "Why would he want to come to a more or less moribund area?"

First Street and the Oxbow weren't on Mondavi's radar screen in the early 1990s, agreed Joe Peatman, a Napa attorney who sits on Copia's board of directors.

Mondavi did not want his center to add to the Upvalley's traffic woes, but he was wary of squeezing it into a blighted urban area, Peatman said.

He preferred a bucolic site seemingly more in sync with the popular vision of the wine-infused good life, Peatman said.

Several sites near the Southern Crossing were talked about — Suscol Ridge and the Stanly Ranch. The Veterans Home of California in Yountville was also considered.

These locations quickly fell out of favor. Stanly Ranch developers might have accepted Copia, but only if they could also build a resort hotel with housing, Peatman said.

Suscol Ridge, just east of the Southern Crossing Bridge on Highway 29, was a potential political nightmare, requiring county voters to approve a cultural center on agricultural land, Peatman said. "I told them they'd have a controversy that Bob didn't need," he said.

Viewing Copia as an engine for economic rejuvenation, Napa Valley Exposition, the city and the chamber of commerce pushed to bring the center to the Third Street fairgrounds.

In the early '90s, selling central Napa was no easy task, City Manager Pat Thompson said. "Most people would prefer to plop themselves next to the highway. We said that is good, but it won't help downtown," she said.

Mondavi was sympathetic to the city's arguments. "Bob's thinking was that the city of Napa had not yet benefited from the prosperity of the wine industry," Peatman said. He thought that in one fell swoop Copia could change that.

But Mondavi was skeptical that the Expo, with its '50s-style buildings, could be adapted to his vision. "Without tearing down those buildings, you wouldn't have had the first-class thing that Mondavi wanted it to be," Peatman said.

In early 1993, the river mist lifted, revealing a most tantalizing new possibility: the Vallerga property on First Street, north of the Expo.

The site had been approved for 130 condominiums and was in the talking stages to become home of Exertec health club. The neighborhood was blighted, certainly, but the property was bordered on three sides by the river, making it almost an island onto itself.

And at 12 acres, it was big enough to contain Mondavi's vision. "If you wanted to do something in the city of Napa, that was the only spot left," Peatman said.

But how to sell Mondavi on the site?

That's when Dorothy Lind, the Expo's CEO, and Block, a fierce fighter for Napa River renewal, went to work.

"We had to get Bob Mondavi committed to the Oxbow site and get Joe Vallerga willing to sell it," Block recalled.

"We said, 'Joe, you were born on the river. You worked on the river. This is the moment to give a legacy to the city,'" Block said.

To woo Mondavi, the women organized a now-legendary boat trip in May 1993 on two barges, with Mondavi, his wife, Margrit, and state Sen. Mike Thompson among the honored guests.

As the flat-hulled boats chugged upriver from the Fourth Street dock, "we staged a little theater," said Block, who wanted to evoke Napa history for the Mondavis.

A man in loincloth holding a large salmon appeared on the bank. Speaking in an Indian tongue, he cried out, "Welcome back to the river."

The salmon had been donated by grocer Vallerga.

A short distance later, a family dressed as Spanish rancheros, including a woman holding a baby, called out in Spanish, "Welcome back to the river."

The effect was dramatic, said Block, who was moved to tears. "We were getting into the story of this river."

Then, a coonskin-capped figure meant to represent the city's founder, Nathan Coombs, called out in English, "Welcome back to the river."

"Everybody melted," Block said.

At the Oxbow, near the Vallerga property, a Mexican child danced to a mariachi band. Again the message: Welcome back to the river.

"That did it," said Block. When Mondavi finished the ride and prepared to leave, he was overheard saying, "Stop it. That's it. I'm not going further. That's it," she said.

It helped that Mondavi's wife, Margrit, had raised a family in Napa and had fond memories of shopping downtown and using the Napa City-Country Library, Block said.

Two months after the boat trip, Mondavi and Vallerga announced a deal. The Vallergas would sell their Oxbow property for the future home of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts.

Kevin Courtney can be reached at 256-2217 or at

The long road to Copia

* 1988 — Robert Mondavi, a wine legend in his 75th year, has an ambitious idea. He wants to create a small institution to celebrate American accomplishments in wine, food and the arts.

* 1991— Having fleshed out the concept and committed $2 million in seed money, Mondavi seeks a location in the Napa Valley.

* April 1991 — Directors of the Napa Town and Country Fair make a pitch to build the "American Center for Wine and Culinary Arts" at the fairgrounds on Third Street.

* Spring 1993 — The Veterans Home in Yountville and the Napa fairgrounds are announced as finalists for the center.

* Spring 1993 — A new site emerges: 12 mostly undeveloped acres bordering the Napa River Oxbow on First Street owned by the Vallerga family.

* May 1993 — Napa supporters take Mondavi on a river tour of the Oxbow.

* July 1993 — American Center announces that Mondavi and the Vallergas have struck a deal to buy the property for $2.2 million.

* October 1994 — The center hires James Polshek, a renowned New York architect, to design the center. The cost of the center is estimated at $25 million to $30 million at this point.

* June 1995 — Polshek reveals conceptual plan for a modern building with sweeping views of the Oxbow and acres of gardens bordering First Street. The center's board of directors has raised $7 million for construction. Mondavi is funding day-to-day start-up costs.

* November 1996 — Center caught up in controversy after it offered to pay $200,000 for KQED, San Francisco's public television station, to produce a biography of Mondavi for national distribution.

Critics charged that the deal compromised the station's ethics. Because Mondavi was such a big player in the American Center, he was in effect financing a biography about himself, they said.

Because of the flap, KQED killed the project, while insisting that Mondavi would not have controlled the content of the film.

* January 1997 — Napa City Council approves center, saying it will help revitalize downtown. Calls it "once in a lifetime opportunity" to enrich community's economic and cultural life.

* February 1997 — City agrees to improve Soscol Avenue and First Street near the center, install better directional signage and adopt higher design standards for neighboring new development.

* March 1997 — A citizen, Mike Joell, launches a referendum drive to have voters decide if the city should spend $710,000 to support the American Center. His drive fizzles.

* Spring 1997 — Center buys $1 million worth of adjoining properties on First Street.

* May 1997 — Center hires Peggy Loar, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution, to oversee operations. She sends exhibit plans back to the drawing boards, saying they looked too much like a "science museum." She wanted more pizzazz. Project costs now estimated at $50 million.

* March 1998 — Voters pass Measure A, approving local funding of the Napa River flood control project. Flood protection, with its river amenities, will further revitalize downtown, backers say.

* April 1998 — Cluster of farm buildings, some dating to 19th century, burned to clear site for construction. Center agrees to produce video history of the complex.

* March 1999 — Mondavi pledges $20 million toward the $50 million capital campaign for the center. This is in addition to his contribution of some $7 million for start-up costs.

* June 1999 — Ground-breaking ceremony.

* July 1999 — To ease fundraising pressures, the center arranges for the State of California to issue $70 million in bonds to provide money for construction. The center will use revenue from its capital campaign to repay the bonds.

* April 2000 — Julia Child, an honorary trustee, lends her name to the center's restaurant, to be known as Julia's Kitchen.

* January 2001 — Center name is tweaked. It will now be known as "Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts." Copia, the Roman goddess of abundance, will be the center's shorthand name.

* Spring 2001 — Fundraising goal now raised to $55 million to pay for higher costs. Fifty million already pledged.

* Nov. 18, 2001 — The center's grand opening.

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