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Eco-Art in California

The great early 20th-century philanthropists of the East Coast—Henry Clay Frick, J. P. Morgan, Isabella Stewart Gardner—took themselves and their missions seriously. The museums they left behind reflect their loftiness of purpose; Manhattan's Morgan Library, for example, is filled with scholarly manuscripts and fortified against urban chaos. The founders of West Coast cultural institutions, however, were a different breed. Many built first-rate museums; but out on the far Western frontier, living on ranches and beaches and vineyards, they acquired their art in a more relaxed way. And they paid for it with fortunes often made in a similar vein—not the gray fruit of heavy industry, but the harvest of a sunny climate—Norton Simon's food and Robert Mondavi's wine. Except for Henry E. Huntington, a 19th-century robber baron cut from the same dark worsted as Morgan and Frick, they were people of modern times, and their museums reflect the West Coast ethos.

Last November, a museum opened in Napa that seemed to embody that idea—Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts. I'd heard that its founding spirit, the vintner Robert Mondavi, had been characterized on a plaque in Copia's foyer as a "believer in the art of life." Just what the "art of life" might be the inscription didn't say. But the museum's tag line, "Come to your senses," inspired me to drive down the California coast to find out, by visiting it and other collections.

With my companion, Christine, an arts attorney and amateur chef, I flew to Oakland, where we picked up our rental car. We arrived mid-morning and hungry, which anywhere else would be a nuisance but here was an opportunity. Should we eat close by, at world-famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley, or drive on to Napa Valley, where there were even more choices?Ultimately, we decided on Bouchon, in Yountville, a bistro-style relation of the renowned French Laundry. We managed to resist the fabulous fromages, which would have left us too sleepy and sated to appreciate our afternoon destination, a vineyard turned art park called the di Rosa Preserve.

Rene di Rosa, the park's octogenarian founder, says he is committed to "art that mirrors life—my life." This became clear in the tour's first gallery, dominated by "Mother Tina's Car," a 1990 sculpture by Bay Area artist David Best that consists of di Rosa's late mother's Pontiac encrusted with, among other things, di Rosa's baby shoes and table lamps. Outside the gallery, a group of multicolored cow sculptures graze; the metal bovines were fashioned by Veronica di Rosa, the founder's late wife. Amid these dubious creations, however, are gems, many purchased in the 1960's and 70's: vibrant representational paintings by Joan Brown, a delicate Bruce Conner pillow displayed in a glass case, and a Deborah Butterfield sculpted horse. "I'm always buying emerging artists," di Rosa told me. " 'Emerged' artists are more costly." Although his defiance of art-world pretense is initially refreshing, it can also be frustrating. He deliberately omits labels or wall text that would identify artists or contextualize work. In di Rosa's gallery and former residence, his personal belongings, including name tags he wore at benefits and auctions, are displayed as prominently as important photographs by André Kertész and Walker Evans.

At sunset, through a feast of vineyards, we drove from the di Rosa to Auberge du Soleil, where patrons commit to a four-course, prix fixe dinner. This is the opposite of fast food; you adapt to its schedule, and it adapts to nature's, with exquisitely fresh ingredients. We had poached salmon and puréed peas; the chef, Richard Reddington, also transformed rhubarb into an unforgettable île flottante.

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