Edward Clarke says wineries are like Oxford colleges

Earlier this month I spent an intense afternoon inside a stately cowshed in the company of Sergio Abbona.

I took him to be just another local farmer. He’d come down to the small town of Dogliani in the north of Italy to drive us from a restaurant to our car so that we could follow him through desolate hills of vineyards to his farmhouse. It was a bleak enough New Year’s adventure. But I began to feel gratifyingly distanced from the emails that kept popping up on my smartphone from frantic academic administrators in Oxford until we found ourselves gloriously out of reception altogether and with nothing to worry about but some grissini and nine different bottles.

It was only later that evening when I presented a case of his wine to my well-informed father-in-law in Turin that I understood the renown of the man to whom I had been speaking. Locally speaking, I suppose. If you have never heard of Abbona I challenge you to find a bottle of his exquisite Dolcetto di Dogliani in the UK.

I thought we got along because our houses are the same age and because our lifestyles are so different, and because I was so enthusiastic about his wine. He laughed when I used the wrong Italian word to describe some of my students in Oxford, making them sound more hideous that they actually are. Now I see that he’s met plenty of tourists like me before.

Inevitably, I told him of my vision of establishing a farm in the Langhe to teach old and new literature as well as good farming practices. Inevitably he was utterly baffled by the idea, replying simply that ‘the ground is low’. He told me that he had no time for literature whatsoever, and went on about the difficulty of keeping it all going as a small producer and how American families who sometimes come to help with the harvests only last a week usually. Virgil may well have been right to celebrate the life of farmers as ‘happy beyond measure’. But their sleep is ‘free from anxiety’ only after hard physical labour.

I started to think about my visiting American students in Oxford in a new light. Some of them look pretty tough to me and ready for rural exercise. Perhaps I could convince them to journey to Italy and pay me to work on my visionary farm.

In fact, I see many similarities between the loose associations of wineries around different towns in the Langhe and Oxford’s colleges. There’s probably as much wine consumed in either region. Everyone is concerned about the quality of what’s produced in each case. I believe that Abbona’s wine is so good because it’s still harvested by hand, for example. Although obviously Oxford graduates are not wine, I like to believe that I remain relatively traditional in my methods of growing, harvesting and maturing my undergraduates.

But I would also like somehow to teach them to cultivate the land as well as their minds. I’ll have to learn myself first though. Perhaps I can convince Abbona to put my family up for a week one harvest. That’s probably all we will last.