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Memories of Copia, and a lesson well learned

July 30, 2009 |  1:16 pm

Raab-mulberry-01

Our recent story about Napa at a crossroads -- and the efforts to revive Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts -- brought back some fond memories for one reader. Mel Raab and his wife, Jan, visited Copia a few years ago on their first visit to Napa, and their garden has never looked the same. Here, he recalls that magical night when he became a mulberry farmer -- and his hopes for Copia's revival:

Copia's gardeners were startled by the dark red dripping down my arm, but all I wanted was more information on the tree I had just been standing under.

Here's how the night started:

As we pulled up into Copia's lot, we eyed grapes on haphazard vines clawing their way up the surrounding fence. If this is what passed for weeds in Napa, we couldn't imagine what Copia's gardens would hold. We noticed the manicured gardens fronting the two tracts near Copia's main building. The weather was inviting and the gardens vivid, so before going deeper indoors to Copia's formal exhibits, we stepped among the careful plantings.

Copia's gardens are laid out with a strong sense of urban planning. Regular plots, held in place by a grid of paths, were populated with complementary species of food-bearing horticulture. Herbs, berries, edible flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and revived heirloom varieties were carefully situated with consideration for access to sunlight, visual layering, color cooperation, admirer's surprise and neighborliness underground. There was no doubting the meticulous design effort that went into specification of each plant, its placement, orientation and environment.

More immediate, and a bit intimidating, was the condition of each plant and tree. Not a single torn, chewed or withered leaf. Not a single squirrel-nibbled, crow-pecked or larva-tested fruit. No disease. No debris. No spiderwebs. No dust. Though outdoors and exposed to the elements, it was as if Copia's gardens were living under glass. Jan reached up toward a ripe, glowing Vermeer peach, just to see if it was real, and giggled as she petted it. A gardener paused to look on with pride before resuming his work.

We were on our honor in Copia's garden. Invitations were beckoning all around, but we knew we had to keep our hands in our pockets. After all, wasn't Copia a museum? Imagine our confusion when we happened upon a relatively inconspicuous plaque along a minor path encouraging us to use all our senses when appreciating the garden.

All our senses? Wait a moment, is taste a sense?  Let's count them and see . . .

Empowered by our private directive, we tested our new freedom on a blueberry. It was firm, tasty and fresh -- different from what we buy at the grocer. Then we waited to be shooed from the garden and banned from the premises. Nothing developed, except our desire to sample more. We agreed to limit our sensing to the unusual.

The tree was certainly unusual. It grew a scatter of finger-length berries along its old boughs. Most berries were red. Some were black. One of the black ones looked a little dilapidated. When I reached up to touch, it disintegrated in my hand, sending a dark, bloody gush of juice down my arm. I used the approved method to appreciate the berry and its juice. Soon, a rapidly escalating sourness had me frantically scanning for the nearest bin, but a powerful sweetness took over, and I got giddy from the experience. Holding my dripping arm aside to avoid stains, I wandered to the maintenance area to ask available gardeners the name of the tree I had just been standing under.

The first-aid kit was put away when it was clear there was no need for paramedics, and I was generously given the information that would guide me to re-create a little bit of Copia's gardens in my own backyard.

Back home, my neighborhood's squirrels, crows and mockingbirds don't give me the respect they reserve for Copia.

And my young mulberry tree is caged for its own protection, each berry an inventoried reminder of how Copia lead me to learn that what starts with nature is improved with nurture.

Copia boasted the business of sustenance and the pleasure of food. I hope it is able to flower again next season.

-- Mel Raab

Photo: A carefully tended mulberry in Mel Raab's yard. Credit: Mel Raab

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