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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 28 · Number 1 · Fall 2010

My Davis Dilemma

The fame of the wine program can rub off even on an alum with a degree in literature.

Years ago, while spending a few days in London, my wife and I decided to tour an educational complex called Vinopolis. Dedicated to the history of wine, the huge complex contains displays of the world’s major grape-growing areas. The U.S. section featured an homage to Hollywood complete with movie cameras, and provided a brief chronology of California wine. A large photograph on one wall showed a man on a tractor tilling a field. It seemed to be from the 1930s or 1940s. The caption read, “UC DAVIS.”

Joe Mills

Joe Mills

Usually, I am not jingoistic. I don’t cheer when someone on stage mentions my hometown, but I admit seeing this image gave me a thrill. I felt like calling people over, pointing and saying, “I went there.” Even though I studied American literature, I felt an urge to claim a connection, and enjoy a little reflected glory.

Ironically, I now have the opposite problem. Some time ago, my wife and I, who live in North Carolina, wrote a guidebook to North Carolina’s wineries. As we researched and promoted it, I repeatedly discovered people treated me with more respect if they found out that I have a UC Davis degree. I would explain that I studied books rather than grapes, but this detail seemed unimportant. It was as if they heard “Davis,” and that was all they knew and all they needed to know. They would then introduce me to others as someone who “went to UC Davis.”

I began to consider this my “Davis dilemma.” The misconception made me feel hypocritical, even unethical, so for a while I simply said that I went to the University of California. This, however, made people think I attended Berkeley and resulted in more false assumptions. I tried not mentioning my alma mater at all. If questioned about my background, I would say vaguely, “I have a degree in literature.” When people wanted to know from where, I would respond “Out West” or “California.” This tactic had the opposite effect that I wanted. When you withhold details, people become more persistent in their probing. Eventually they would ferret out my university, and my behavior would be misread as modesty.

Sometimes I attempted to explain the situation immediately. As I shook hands, I would say, “I studied at UC Davis. Literature. I know the university is famous for its viticulture and enology program, but my degree has nothing to do with wine. Don’t think it does, because it doesn’t. OK?” This made me the guy that people eased away from at parties.

I even began to doubt my own career path. Why hadn’t I studied winemaking? Why had I wasted my time in Shields Library with dusty old books by Shakespeare and Mark Twain instead of frolicking in sun-drenched vineyards? Who chooses to explicate poetry rather than ferment grapes?

Of course I know, that had I pursued a different degree, I would regret not having spent enough time reading the classics. I would envy those people who were stretched out on shaded verandahs leisurely turning the pages of plays instead of sweating and cursing in the heat. And I suspect that at wine conferences I would meet vintners who would say, “You went to Davis? Don’t they have an excellent English department?”

Perhaps someday I will figure out how to make my way through the world without trailing clouds of misconceptions behind me. For now, I present the facts to those who ask as clearly as I can. Then, when my workday ends, I go home and open a bottle of good wine and a good book.

Joe Mills, Ph.D. ’98, holds the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. In addition to two editions of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries, he has written three books of poetry, Love and Other Collisions; Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers; and Somewhere During the Spin Cycle.