It was built like a museum, with no windows and lots of walls. Now home to The Culinary Institute of America in Napa, the Copia is being transformed into a food and wine center in the heart of downtown Napa.

The Copia is now open to the public with wine tastings, cooking classes, and a retail store. It recently hosted the Napa Valley Film Festival, and the restaurant will be open in December.

“The building is in incredible shape,” said Thomas Bensel, managing director of the CIA’s California campus. “When you walk around the place, you really realize what can be done. It’s a huge space with great potential.”

“The other CIA,” with its landmark Greystone campus in St. Helena, paid $12.5 million for Copia in 2015, according to county documents. Renovations to the building—which include lots of windows—will be in that ballpark as well, Bensel said.

Located at 500 First St. in downtown Napa next to the Oxbow Public Market, the 80,000-plus-square-foot Copia building now has a 280-seat theater, a 100-seat demonstration kitchen and theater, and an outdoor, terraced amphitheater with seating for 350 for dinner and 600 for concerts.

The center will serve as a gateway to greet and initiate visitors to Napa Valley as much as it will serve the community, Bensel said.

Originally, Copia was the dream of late wine icon Robert Mondavi who opened it as the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in 2001. The complex closed in 2008 amid bankruptcy and sat vacant until the CIA purchase.

The CIA will be breathing new life into the building with the institution’s Food Business School, the world’s first business school for food entrepreneurship and innovation, will also be headquartered there.

Wine tastings will rotate every six months with wines from Napa, Sonoma, and elsewhere in California. It will also be an opportunity for small wineries with no tasting rooms to gain exposure, Bensel said.

On the second floor, a 13,000-square-foot, glass-enclosed teaching kitchen is under construction, with completion expected fall 2017.

Further additions will include a museum of historical cookware will pay tribute to the late Charles E. “Chuck” Williams, founder of the retail chain Williams-Sonoma. An extensive array of kitchen items he collected within his lifetime will be on display. Williams died in 2015 at age 100, and the museum is made possible by a gift from the Williams estate. It is expected to open in spring 2017.

The Wine Hall of Fame currently on display at the Greystone campus will also be moved to the lobby of the Copia building. The CIA at Copia in Napa will also be collaborating with institutions such as the University of California Davis for 12 industry conferences a year, as part of its Strategic Initiative Group.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.