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Copia chairman asks: "Can it survive?"

Despite my intention to take a summer sabbatical, an investigative story that appeared on the front page of last Sunday’s Sacramento Bee brought me back to my keyboard. The story raises some new questions about Robert Mondavi’s philanthropic legacy, a subject I explored in The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.

copia.jpg Sparse crowds at Copia have contributed to its financial challenges. (Photo from Sacbee.com - Owen Brewer / Sacramento Bee file, 2002)

An enterprising reporter for The Bee named Andrew McIntosh broke the news that Copia, the nonprofit brainchild of Robert Mondavi devoted to wine, food and the arts in downtown Napa, was bailed out by a state-owned bank that might now be liable if the center fails to recoup its losses. In the mid-1990s, Robert Mondavi had donated $20 million to found Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Ever since the 80,000-square-foot building opened in 2001, the center has struggled with low attendance, financial troubles, and a confused mission.

McIntosh reports that Copia has been losing between $4.2 million and $12 million a year and now has a deficit of $14 million. Special fundraiser dinners held between 2002 and 2006, such as the one to mark Julia Child’s 90th birthday and Copia’s Bacchus Gala, lost a total of $679,000, according to the story. As Copia has sought to boost its revenues, it increased the number and size of its profit-making endeavors, such as sale of food and wine and private events. That triggered questions from the IRS about how Copia was using the space and facilities built with tax-exempt bond money.

Gerry McGuire, who became Copia’s president after the firing of his predecessor Arthur Jacobus (see blog posting “Coping – or not – at Copia”) is taken to task by the Bee for apparently misstating the nonprofit’s financial condition. As McIntosh writes:

“After his appointment, McGuire told the Napa Valley Register that Copia had broken even for the first time in 2007. Yet a review of its financial statements indicates large losses and negative cash flows for that year.

“Asked to reconcile the two, McGuire told The Bee that he had meant to say that Copia 'almost' broke even if you match operating revenues against expenses, numbers that exclude its debt service costs and its bond payments.

“McGuire also said Copia is in discussions with a major real estate developer to build a retail center and four-star boutique hotel nearby. McGuire wants to increase online sales from Copia's gift shop and said he is exploring a deal with the Food Channel to syndicate the center's DVD productions on wine and food.

“But, board chairman (Joseph) Peatman acknowledged, the struggle to break even continues.

“‘The whole concept to have Copia as a museum for wine, food and art was flawed,’ he said. ‘The focus now is: Can it survive? It's been pretty much insolvent since the beginning.’”

The comments on the story posted on The Bee’s website are eye-opening. There’s the inevitable resentment directed toward Napa and the food and wine snobs it attracts (with Copia described as “a tribute to spoiled rich folk,” one reader wrote), as well as questions about Robert Mondavi’s motives (another is titled “Tax write-offs under the guise of Noblesse Oblige.”) But perhaps the most stinging is from the reader who asserts it was a lousy idea to begin with that doesn’t deserve further taxpayer support: (“Copia was a flawed concept and it should be allowed to fail.”)

Copia’s own chairman, as quoted above in The Bee story, seems to agree with the last comment – if not with the failing part, then with the idea that Robert Mondavi’s vision of a museum devoted to wine, food and art was ill-conceived, if well-intentioned. But I can’t help wondering if Copia’s chairman would have made such a declaration while Robert Mondavi was still alive.

The article is another reminder of how difficult it is to capture the personal magnetism and passion that drove Mondavi. In person, he was an unparalleled advocate for “the good life” – but institutionalizing that message, so far, seems to have failed.

1 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

There's always a new twist in the Mondavi tale.

This story has more legs than the 1999 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kemble Scott Author SoMa