Millionaire vintner and philanthropist Robert Mondavi recently saw his $55m dream of an American Centre for wine, food and the arts come true when a Napa Valley attraction opened to visitors. And since November, up to 700 people a day have been shuffling around the architecturally impressive galleries, demonstration rooms and gardens. It is a fascinating venture ­ named Copia after a goddess of abundance ­ and claims to be the first such mixed cultural celebration in the world, including a theatre, classrooms, demonstration kitchens and 3.5 acres of landscaped organic produce gardens based on the 16th century kitchen gardens at Villandry in the Loire Valley. If American cuisine is more a buffet than a melting pot, this attraction is something of a smorgasbord with an interesting array of dishes. As a casual visitor, the experience can, however, be a little frustrating. There is so much going on, careful planning is a necessity. How else could you hope to fit into a single day a class on organic gardening, pizza baking techniques in an outdoor wood fire oven, learn about the social, economic and cultural history of rum while sampling a few varieties, and check out the latest installation art or photography exhibition? And why not finish the day with dinner at the fine dining restaurant named after US icon Julia Child and an outdoor recital at the riverside amphitheatre on the edge of Northern California's scenic wine country? That's not to say that every Copia dish that whets the appetite manages to satisfy. A recent eclectic exhibition of black and white photographs illustrating the theme Let's Have Lunch' was over by the time you got into the swing. Likewise, while the temporary exhibition Active Ingredients wavers between the bizarre ­ take the installation of 20 dripping squares of 800lbs of caramelised sugar on springs; to the intriguing ­ the video of two pairs of strangers talking every week over breakfast at a platform in the gallery built of rice and black beans ­ it also offers its share of the banal ­ refrigerators stuffed with food related items and a wooden kitchen that looks as if it belongs in a caravan. Meanwhile, in places where the centre has attempted to appeal to the less culturally sophisticated, the result is often tedious. The hi-tech equivalent of scratch and sniff that is supposed to evoke childhood memories of bread baking and summer fruits all smell acrid and nauseous. Or take as an example a collection of food packages including Heinz green ketchup. We are told: "If a food can be powdered, pulled, flaked, frozen or put on a stick­we've done it. Some are even edible!" Could the tone be a trace sneering of those who might like something packaged, convenient and cheap? Copia director Peggy Loar rejects any elitism and denies it is an institution to the good life. The element of the exhibition in question is designed to showcase American ingenuity in packaging and marketing rather than talk about the food inside. "The way the food comes about is in our programmes and tastings," she says. And it is these interactive programmes complete with demonstrations and sampling which are proving a hit. Free daily classes covering topics from wine to pruning are packed while longer, fee-based courses also pull audiences from a wide region. "Education is our mission and programmes that incorporate the connections between wine, food and art and place them within their economic, social and cultural contexts are very popular," Loar says. Loar sees Copia as a "place where people will feel better about their lives and their own evolution", and for those who have questions about world issues to do with nutrition and feeding populations. "We may not have the answers, but we will be first point of call to find where to go." It is also a great place to speculate on what a comparable not-for-profit and industry-independent project could do with a similar amount of money to promote understanding of and interest in food in the UK. But there's one problem. Take a glass of Napa Valley wine on to the olive tree dappled patio and the problems of home seem a million miles away. n {{FEATURES }}