At last, Copia was filled with the one thing that has been mostly absent for eight years: visitors.
Past the gardens in front, through the long-locked front doors and down the formerly empty corridors, guests made their re-acquaintance with Copia for a fundraiser concert at its grassy amphitheater overlooking the Napa River. There, they saw one of the first fruits of the building’s takeover by the Culinary Institute of America a year ago.
“Good evening, everybody, and welcome to our new backyard!” Thomas Bensel, managing director of CIA’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, greeted a crowd of more than 450 spectators in the amphitheater.
Turf-covered stone terraces cut into the hillside behind Copia’s metal-and-glass main hall now ringed the stage, giving music fans a platform to enjoy a program of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and classical pieces while a 90-degree afternoon gently settled into a balmy moonlit night. As the grassy arc filled with hundreds of spectators enjoying glasses of cabernet and small plates of hors d’oeuvres, the edifice by the Napa River began to reclaim its place as a hub for fine wine, food and arts — to the pleasure of many who had visited Copia during its seven-year run on First Street.
“I did lunch at Julia’s Kitchen, I did a couple of events, and I missed it,” said Gay Hirahara, a Napa resident who reserved an early seat with her Ohio friend Gene Keesy. “It’s a beautiful property and (CIA) is a perfect fit.”
Saturday’s musical social also was like a visit with a familiar friend to David and Zarah Ross, who already plan to have dinner at Copia’s new restaurant and sign up for some of the CIA’s earliest cooking courses there.
“We were original members in 2001, we took the classes, went to the lectures — and then the economy tanked and Copia closed, and we’ve been waiting for this ever since,” David Ross recalled as night settled over the amphitheater.
“We came to all the outdoor concerts, the cooking demonstrations; I was a member even before this opened,” said Angela Mink, who was joining two friends to celebrate the birthday of a third at the concert. “I loved this place, it was a huge part of my life and it left a void when it closed.”
The event, a benefit for the Friends of the Napa River, gave spectators a close-up look at the onetime showcase for the Napa Valley wine industry, a curving and low-slung structure that has been mostly dark since a debt-ridden Copia closed in 2008.
Its revival began in 2015, when the CIA purchased the complex for $12.5 million and announced plans to convert it into the CIA at Copia, a satellite of the academy’s Greystone campus in St. Helena. Over the succeeding months, leaders of the renowned cooking academy outlined plans to reshape the dormant center with demonstration kitchens, a Vintner’s Hall of Fame, a museum of cookware and tableware, and a new restaurant where Julia’s Kitchen once operated.
Also a part of CIA’s plan was a reshaping of Copia’s performance bowl, which was simply a sloped semicircle of grass until the academy terraced it in a project completed two weeks ago. The benefits were immediately apparent Saturday, as spectators comfortably took their places on arcs of padded wooden chairs — or at tables placed at the front of the venue for VIP guests.
To reintroduce the bowl, the culinary institute chose to invite Friends of the Napa River, the group that has advocated for restoring habitat and improving flood protection on the city’s central waterway, which runs directly behind Copia.
“This was something where we felt that as a kickoff for our amphitheater, there couldn’t be a better organization than Friends of the Napa River,” Bensel said before the performances.
The amphitheater will continue to evolve, as CIA plans to install a canopy-like shade structure over the bowl. Other parts of Copia are planned to open in stages, including the theater, a kitchen and lifestyle store, gallery kitchens upstairs, and the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum featuring the kitchenware collection assembled by the late founder of the Williams-Sonoma company.
A slate of chef’s classes and wine tastings is set to begin at CIA at Copia on Monday, Oct. 17. The facility also will be available for weddings and business events, and may host 25 to 50 musical performances a year, according to CIA spokeswoman Anne Girvin.
But even with classes, tastings and meals waiting in the wings, something of Copia’s old atmosphere already was in evidence on Saturday – from the wines being poured to the dishes prepared and served by CIA staff, to a musical program ranging from Gershwin and Irving Berlin to Tchaikovsky and finally to “Moon River.”
As the singer Kellie Fuller crooned the words “We’re after that same rainbow’s end, waiting ‘round the bend, my huckleberry friend …” under a clear half-moon sky, she added — on the spur of the moment — a final twist to the cheers of her audience:
“Napa River … and me.”