To those who have led the rise of high-end tourism in downtown Napa, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts is the most successful of failures.
A decade ago, the future of downtown Napa’s tourism business seemed to rest on the gleaming museum to wine, food and the arts. Steve Carlin, who would go on to build the Oxbow Public Market, saw his future in sharing Copia’s mission — even down to sharing its parking lot.
“Napa appeared to be an emerging community, even though it hadn’t happened yet, and Copia was a big part of the change,” Carlin said last week.
Carlin had been on the team that developed the San Francisco Ferry Building into a retail showpiece. Two years later, in 2005, he began planning to recreate its mix of high-end food sellers in Napa’s Oxbow District, next to Robert Mondavi’s shrine to fine wines and cuisine.
Carlin and the other planners for what became the Oxbow Public Market were hardly alone in hitching their dreams to Mondavi’s project on First Street. Hoteliers, restaurateurs and wine-tasting-room owners gradually flocked to a once-sleepy downtown district, hopeful the $55 million museum that opened in November 2001 would give tourists a reason not to pass the city by on their way to the long-established Upvalley wineries and resorts.
In the end, however, those who followed Copia downtown were forced to stand on their own.
The museum closed in 2008 after seven years, beset by low attendance and a multimillion-dollar debt. The hoped-for jewel in a revived downtown has remained empty since — yet its role as a catalyst for high-end restaurants and hotels has continued.
“My first reaction when I moved here was, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’” recalled Kurt Nystrom, who left a Miami museum in 1998 to become Copia’s first chief operating officer.
Robert Mondavi, whose namesake winery accelerated Napa County’s rise to winemaking and tourism fame from the 1960s onward, hoped to use Copia to bring wine country’s allure south to the city of Napa. But Nystrom, in his first few months on the job, feared that the rough Oxbow neighborhood — a collection of modest bungalows, empty lots and decrepit buildings — would have trouble wooing wine country tourists away from the Upvalley.
“I kept hearing over and over, ‘Why are you putting this in the city? No one goes to the city. People come to the Napa Valley, not the city. Everyone drives past the (Highway 29) exits,’” said Nystrom, now chief operating officer of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.
Meanwhile, Harry Price was sitting on stalled plans to bring shops and eateries downtown to a 19th-century industrial site at the foot of Main Street along the Napa River. For years, he had found few to share his vision, least of all bankers to fund it.
“We got into the car and my wife said, ‘Why not do something here where you can make a difference?’” recalled Price of the day he discovered the Napa Mill complex.
By 1995, Price, a developer who had moved to Napa in 1984 and opened an industrial park in American Canyon, had scaled up his ambition for Napa Mill. He dropped plans for a factory outlet mall in favor of a hotel and storefronts for higher-end shops. But financing was painfully slow — until Robert and Margrit Mondavi began publicizing their dreams for a wine and food museum not Upvalley, but in downtown Napa’s humbler environs.
“At that point, we went from being on a curvy mountain road to seeing the hills get flatter, the road get wider,” Price said about his sudden ability to get financing. With a $10 million loan in hand, CDI Companies, in which Price is a principal, was able to open the Napa Mill development in June 2000, more than a year before Copia received its first visitors.
When more than 10,000 people passed through Copia’s doors on Nov. 18, 2001, its place as the rock of a new tourism hub seemed secure. “I believe this is the cornerstone,” then-Mayor Ed Henderson proclaimed at a celebration that featured Mondavi, state officials and the ambassadors of France, Italy and Greece.
A downtown parade led by high school marching bands and the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales led spectators to the museum’s 12-acre grounds, adorned by Copia’s curved-roof modernist structure and fronted with gardens. Visitors dined at the in-house restaurant inspired by Julia Child, Julia’s Kitchen, sipped wines from 100 different vintners, and watched musicians and even a pyrotechnic art piece composed of burning matches.
But the honeymoon between Copia and its visitors would not last long.
Consultants hired by the museum’s board of directors predicted the landmark could attract about 300,000 paying customers annually, according to Nystrom. But only about 230,000 visited in 2002, the venue’s first full year, and attendance fell steadily.
Directors pointed to what they called the unfortunate timing of Copia’s birth, just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks dampened air travel and tourism across the U.S. Critics pointed to what they called tone-deaf missteps in the museum’s early years — ticket prices of $12.50, a controversial Spanish art display that included figurines of people defecating — and confusion about whether Copia’s focus should fall on wine, cuisine or fine arts.
To the west of the museum, Carlin was germinating plans for the Oxbow Public Market. He believed that his food market and Copia could fortify each other.
“At the market, you would have the (ingredients) available and the social experience of great food and wine, and at Copia you would have the educational component, the cooking facilities, the training and Julia’s Kitchen, all coupled together with the gardens,” he said. “For all of us at the time, we thought the combination would be very strong.”
Oxbow Market opened in January 2008, poised to absorb visitors crossing the parking lot from its more famous peer. But all notions of synergy came to a sudden halt 10 months later.
“When Copia closed, one of the first impressions was that if Copia couldn’t make it, how would Oxbow make it?” Carlin said. “We were out there on our own.
“We had to operate completely independently now, and all the things I hoped Copia would bring were no longer going to occur. We couldn’t use the garden space or attraction of special events like Friday night movies, or Julia’s Kitchen. All that was gone.”
With the tap of out-of-towners no longer flowing straight to Oxbow’s doorstep, Carlin turned his attention to Napans themselves — many of whom had felt ignored by Copia. Bypassing traditional advertising, the market ran its own event promotions, circulated a newsletter to shoppers and began a “locals’ night” on Tuesdays offering discounts to Napa residents.
With no central attraction to pull in tourists by the hundreds of thousands, Carlin knew popularity had to be built from the inside out.
“We focus all our attention on the local people,” he said. “We believe that local people have to support (the market) before the visitors can catch on.”
With the prospect of more tourists discovering Napa, the Westin hotel chain in 2006 began construction of a hotel within walking distance of Copia, positioning itself to take in wine-loving tourists.
By the time the Westin Verasa Napa on McKinstry Street accepted its first guests in September 2008, its general manager, Don Shindle, had seen enough of Copia’s travails to try to make the hotel more self-sufficient. Westin managers promoted the Napa hotel’s conference space and restaurant services to attract business and meeting groups.
“Our thought was that if something bad happened there (at Copia), we’d need to embrace the rest of” downtown, Shindle said Wednesday. “It took Copia out of the equation, once we knew it was closing. Everyone here adjusted.”
Al Jabarin had entered the wine business in 1994, but only online at first. After more than a decade running the wine-sales site CalWine.com, he decided to make the jump to purveying wines in person. Copia’s presence on the east side of downtown seemed to indicate the moment was right.
As he prepared to buy a Main Street storefront in 2007, Jabarin’s main worry was not Copia’s financial drought, but Napa River flooding, which had damaged his online sales office on Silverado Trail three times.
Copia’s most durable legacy may have been the push it gave to the city’s flood control project, which was launched in 1998 when voters approved a flood control sales tax, Jabarin said.
“I wouldn’t have invested in (the wine bar) if this project had never gone through,” he said in the lounge of 1313 Main Street, which opened last year. “Without flood control, all progress here is built on soft sand.”
The flood project, though less glamorous than Copia, was arguably a more important boost for merchants like Jabarin, who otherwise would have shied away from properties near the Napa River.
The Mondavis’ promise to pump millions into a riverfront tourist attraction drew enough merchants to follow that example and create the need for improved flood control, according to Jennifer La Liberté, the city’s economic development manager.
“Copia put a flag in the ground to say, ‘This is a place people need to come (visit) from far and wide,’” said La Liberté, who joined the Napa staff the year of Measure A’s passage. “In my mind, it created the impetus for other landowners to invest in the riverfront as well.”
Throughout the 2000s, the tourist path Copia had laid down gradually became more crowded. Adorning downtown were an increasing number of high-end eateries, a restored Napa Valley Opera House and Uptown Theatre, the mixed-use Riverfront complex on the Napa River, and the Avia Hotel on First Street.
For Copia, however, the rise of a new tourist district came too late.
The center closed abruptly on Nov. 21, 2008, after its leaders failed to find a buyer for a complex that by then was $78 million in debt. Cheaper tickets, programming changes and a last-ditch reduction of hours to three days a week could not save the museum, which filed for bankruptcy two weeks later. A liquidation auction this past April stripped Copia of most of its remaining equipment and fixtures.
The one-time hope for Napa tourism sits mute and locked, at the edge of a neighborhood some of its followers credit it with energizing — even in defeat.
“The vision of Copia rubbed off on the area,” La Liberté said. “The notion that downtown Napa can be a destination of wine or food — regardless of if Copia succeeded or failed — people bought into that vision and you see it still.
“So the momentum isn’t lost, and we still have high-quality restaurants and places for people to walk to, taste wine, see art, experience entertainment. Copia set the bar for all that.”
“It was revolutionary, a gutsy idea,” Jabarin said. “I wouldn’t be here now if that project weren’t there first.”