After helping to jump-start the Napa Valley winemaking industry, Robert Mondavi worked with his wife Margrit to create a food, wine and arts showpiece from seemingly barren ground. On Sunday, the owners of the reborn Copia center paid tribute to its creators – in a way that will face nearly every visitor passing through the doors.
Shortly after 4:30 p.m., two men scaled a ladder up Copia’s square tower, toward ropes that held down the plastic sheets concealing two larger-than-life human figures on its roof. Then, with the artist Gordon Huether giving a five-second countdown to spectators on the mezzanine, the wraps came off on his addition to Copia – “Is That Bob & Margrit?”, a pair of 8-foot-tall figures in white high-density foam depicting the Mondavi couple happily hoisting glasses of red wine, in full view of passers-by 75 feet below.
Even a dank, drizzly and wind-whipped afternoon could not dampen the warm feelings Huether and others shared for the couple who came to symbolize Napa Valley’s rise to vineyard prominence – and who inspired the creation of the original Copia in 2001.
“It’s so wonderful to be a small part of a great thing, and I believe that,” Huether told an audience of more than 110 people in the theater of CIA at Copia before pulling the covers off the artwork. “I hope I’ve done Bob and Margrit some justice,” he said, pointing toward Robert Mondavi’s nephew Peter Mondavi Jr., son Tim and grandson Carlo – all winemakers themselves – in the seats.
The ceremony capped a weekend of special events staged by the Culinary Institute of America, which last year bought Copia after debt woes forced its closure in 2008.
Rechristening the First Street complex as CIA at Copia, the academy opened up the center starting Saturday for a festival of wine and food tastings, chef demonstrations and film screenings. Much of the program served to present the center as a welcoming place to enthusiasts in the future, but the climax was a tip of the cap to Copia’s roots.
After CIA’s 2015 purchase of the vacant Copia building, Tim Ryan, president of the institute, approached Huether about creating sculptures to adorn its successor. A piece paying homage to the Mondavis seemed a natural to both men – but not, at first, its location.
“Gordon told me, ‘What about the tower? I’ve never completely loved that tower,’” Ryan recalled. Nonetheless, Huether went from brainstorm to digital rendering in two days, soon winning CIA’s approval for the prominent perch.
The sight of “Is That Bob & Margrit?” finally on display did not cause Huether to forget his fears, after Copia’s shutdown, of its possible replacement by offices or something far removed from its original mission, added Huether.
“It was so painful to see it close; it was so painful to see it standing empty and have to wonder what it would become,” said Huether, who also created the installation “Fork” – a giant fork-shaped piece composed of more than 8,500 forks outside the Restaurant at CIA Copia.
To achieve the lifelike postures of a couple enjoying their wine and their surroundings, Huether scanned a variety of photographs of Robert and Margrit, then used software to turn the figures to the desired poses, which were then carved to foam with a computer-driven milling machine.
Robert Mondavi died in 2008, and Margrit followed in September 2016 at age 91, shortly after receiving a visit from Huether to review sketches of the sculptures.
“I told her she had to hold on until the opening,” he said. “It was one of the few promises she wasn’t able to keep.”
For Robert Mondavi’s son, the feelings of gratitude stretched far beyond the new artwork and toward all those who helped to bring Copia back to life, and back to its Napa community.
“The vision of Copia was the vision that my father had – he just didn’t live long enough,” said Tim Mondavi of Continuum, the winery his father created after selling his namesake Oakville operation to Constellation Brands in 2004.
“He would be very proud of the realization of his vision,” he told the audience. “Thank you for realizing this important dream.”