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Copia restructures to avoid ruin

In a bid to stave off financial disaster, Copia, Napa’s visionary arts and wine centre, is losing a third of its staff and selling off half its land to developers.

The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts opened in November 2001, with extensive funding from Robert Mondavi. Supporters predicted it would become a major force in the world of wine and food.

But over a year ago decanter.com reported that 9/11, the collapse of the dotcom bubble and the slowdown in the American economy had all conspired to halve attendances from the 300,000 expected to 150,000.

Now Copia’s president Arthur Jacobus has told the Napa Valley Register the centre is ‘economically unsustainable’.

Staff will be cut from 85 to 57 – termination notices were expected to go out last Monday – and the operating budget will be cut by US$2.7m to US$10.7m.

The centre also plans to sell 5 acres (2ha) of gardens and car parking to a developer proposing a waterfront hotel.

At the same time, Jacobus said, the centre’s dynamic, interactive centrepiece exhibit, Forks in the Road, which tells the story of American food and wine, may be axed and turned into far more lucrative conference space.

Jacobus stressed the centre will still host art exhibitions and live music, both of which are popular with locals.

Last year Copia was US$10m overdrawn, facing US$68m debt payments with no revenue to continue making payments. The centre needed a ‘bold plan’ to avoid being closed down by its lenders, Jacobus said.

He added that there had been emotional scenes when the announcement was made. ‘There was some bewilderment, some anger. It was really tough,’ he told the Register.

Now it is hoped the restructuring will tide Copia over while downtown Napa is regenerated by investment as a tourist centre.

Copia joins a long list of troubled wine centres around the world. Adelaide’s National Wine Centre of Australia was bailed out by local government too many times and was finally sold to the University of Adelaide for AUS$1m in 2003. It is now a glorified business centre, with wine museum attached.

London’s Vinopolis found it increasingly difficult to attract visitors in the right numbers, and now draws funds from sponsorships, expecting visitors to taste and buy. In 2004 it was selling more absinthe than any other retailer in London.

As one commentator told decanter.com, ‘The trouble is, no one knows what wine centres are for. If you’re in Napa, why should you go into the city to study wine when the world’s most famous wineries are an hour away? Who wants to look at wine in a museum when when you can be sitting at the tasting bar at Stag’s Leap?’

Written by Adam Lechmere

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