Copia chairman asks: “Can it survive?”

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

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.
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.

Hex, the Corpse Flower, and Berkeley’s Tree-Sitters: A Summer Sabbatical

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A summer day in Berkeley includes seeing buildings rise and fall at the Lawrence Hall of Science (above) and smelling the “Corpse Flower” (below), whose name and odor both recall Audrey II, the killer plant from another planet (bottom).
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This spring, I mailed off applications for our boys to attend an academically challenging summer school run by the University of California at Berkeley. When the letters arrived in the mail telling us whether they’d been admitted, I opened them with mixed emotions – perhaps even a certain amount of dread.
Both boys were admitted, which made me proud. But that also meant we’d be setting our alarm clocks for 6:30 every morning to make it to their classes in Berkeley, which would begin at 8:30 a.m. sharp.
Since hiring a chauffeur wasn’t in our budget and reliable public transport system between our home and Berkeley doesn’t exist, their acceptance to the program meant that I’d be spending at about three hours a day in the car ferrying them to their respective campuses.
Even though I am now a best-selling author, with the The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty under my belt, and a newly-signed contract for a non-fiction narrative with Grove/Atlantic, I’m still stuck with the school run.
And like many working mothers across the country, my life becomes infinitely more challenging in the summer, at least in terms of finding the time to squeeze in work. (I’ve found the time to write this, for instance, while I’m waiting for one son outside a summer school classroom: I’ve got exactly 18 minutes left before the dismissal bell rings and my writing day ends.)
Even so, I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to spend this time with our boys, unlike so many other working mothers who punch in and out at work every day. Despite my grumbling, I’m grateful for this privilege.
To explain why I don’t mind driving our young scholars every day, let me tell you about how my younger son and I recently spent the morning in Berkeley – he gets one day off from class each week – while my other son was in school.
We started off at the Lawrence Hall of Science, arriving nearly an hour before it opened. We passed the time playing a fascinating game in the atrium (which opens before the rest of the museum) called “Hex.”

Book Reviews … and a Literary Reality Show?

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Mrs. Magoo readies for her closeup; next stop, stardom as a cyber-TV celebrity book critic?
(Photo courtesy Mrs. Magoo)

In the fall of 2007, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) ran a lengthy essay by Steve Wasserman, a former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, titled “Goodbye to All That.”
It offers a fascinating glimpse into the dire state of newspaper book review sections and Steve began by tallying the vanishing coverage at major newspapers. To darken the picture even further, he then went on to correlate that with the exploding number of books published every year.
In the mid-1980s, he reported, about 50,000 books a year were published. Today, the total is three times that number. But the pages devoted each week to reviewing books has steadily shrunk, with entire sections folding in the wake of anemic ad revenues from book-related advertising.

The Wednesday Sisters and the Writing Life

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Meg Waite Clayton and her creation.

For anyone who has ever dreamed of becoming an author, Meg Waite Clayton’s website is a delightful and inspiring place to visit.
Meg is the author of the bestselling novel, The Wednesday Sisters, a book about a group of women friends. They meet at a park in Palo Alto, California, in the late 1960s and form a writers’ circle. Along the way, as the war in Vietnam rages, American astronauts land on the moon and the Women’s Movement challenges much of what they think about themselves. They support each other through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.
I loved Meg’s book in part because I was born in Palo Alto in the 1960s and the book helped me imagine what my own mother’s life might have been like at the time. I also loved The Wednesday Sisters because it celebrates the strong bonds and support that can be provided by a good writers group. And I am lucky to be a member of two such groups that helped me navigate the often treacherous waters leading to publication.
Long before I began the Wall Street Journal article that led to The House of Mondavi, I joined a long-standing group of women nonfiction writers who usually met every two weeks in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. We came to call ourselves “North 24th,” because we’d usually meet north of 24th Street.

King Lear and The House of Mondavi

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Two kings: Ian Holm as Lear and Robert Mondavi.

Photo of Holm from the University of London; photo of Mondavi by Mike Kepka/SFGate.com

What can Shakespeare teach us about a troubled family business?
That’s a question I’ll try to answer at a discussion hosted by a long-lasting and large book group in Burlingame, Calif., this fall. Over the summer, the group has decided to read Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, alongside my book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty.
To prepare myself for the evening, I’ve checked out the DVD of the Royal National Theatre’s celebrated production of King Lear with Ian Holm (which I had the great fortune to see performed in London in 1997) from our local public library. I’ve also checked out the Cliff Notes on King Lear, as well as the text of the play itself (the Pelican Shakespeare edition of the 1608 Quarto and 1632 Folio Texts).

Literary Salons and Book Groups

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Book lover Liz Epstein guides groups through the classics; below, at Book Group Expo, panelists Sara Davidson, Po Bronson and Elizabeth Gilbert interact with moderator Sam Barry — and the book group community.
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Top photo from bookpassage.com; bottom photo from fora.tv

If there is a modern American equivalent to the French salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, it may be found in the thousands of book groups that gather regularly across the nation in living rooms, public libraries, and local coffee houses to discuss literature and ideas – often passionately, and with a great deal of wine and laughter involved.
For those who complain that America has become a nation of non-readers, don’t try telling that to my book group, which began eight years ago and has remained sturdily and stubbornly afloat all this time. Some of our original members have dropped, to be replaced by others along the way. But we’ve almost always had a large group of about eight to 10 members, all of whom are mothers who love books.
I helped found our group with my friend Liz Epstein. Like me, she had recently returned to the U.S. after living overseas for many years. Although we both lived in London during the 1990s, we never met each other there. It wasn’t until our first-borns enrolled in the same kindergarten class that we realized we had a lot in common – including both feeling culture shock after returning home to the states.
The book club we formed as a result helped reduce some of that shock, partly through the friendships we formed but also by reading wonderful British fiction together, such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. Since those early days, Liz has gone on to earn a Masters’ in English Literature and to launch a business moderating book clubs called Literary Masters.

The Gerald Loeb Awards – Bellinis and Cipriani 42nd Street

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Above, the Cipriani 42nd Street was the elegant venue for the Loeb awards; below left, the author and sister Jennifer Flynn Israel enjoy the Cipriani’s trademark Bellini cocktails; below right, The House of Mondavi is showcased during the awards ceremony.
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Photos courtesy UCLA Anderson School of Management

The Gerald Loeb Awards are the Oscars of the financial and business journalism world. And this year’s award ceremony took place in the suitably glamorous setting of Cipriani 42nd Street – the former Bowery Savings Bank built in 1921, just a few years before the market crash of 1929.
Across from Grand Central Station, the Bowery Savings Bank building was designed in the then-fashionable Italianate renaissance style. Now a national landmark with 65-foot-ceilings, soaring marble columns, and intricately patterned inlaid floors that were meant to convey the idea of an unshakeable temple of finance.
It was somehow fitting that this was the setting for a ceremony to honor a group of professionals whose own institutions being shaken as never before. The lifetime achievement award went to Dan Hertzberg, a 30-year veteran of the Wall Street Journal and a legendary news editor. The Journal, of course, was recently bought by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the changes there have been fast and furious.
Likewise, the recipient of this year’s Lawrence Minard award, Frank J. Comes – or, as a video tribute from his former BusinessWeek colleagues dubbed him, “Saint Frank,” – recently ended his 31-year-run at the magazine to join McKinsey & Co. At a time when advertising revenue is shrinking, the economy is in a tailspin, and news delivery is migrating to the web, the print publications that report on business and finance are being forced to radically rethink their business models.