Wednesday, March 9, 2016

American Wino: Dan Dunn's Wine-Soaked Road Trip

You really don’t want to trade tales with Dan Dunn. His stories will kick your stories’ asses, no problem.

I hung around with Dan for a few days in Napa and Sonoma last year. After sharing some wine and some stories I realized Dan is fucking cool guy, and he can rattle off a hilarious story with ease.

You know Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World? Well, Dan is buddies with the real-life dude. Seriously. I didn’t believe the guy when he told me this, but Dan pulled out his phone and showed me pictures. Oh yeah, then we talked boxing a bit (I’m a huge fan). What picture does Dan show me next? No big deal, just him and Sugar Ray Leonard chilling. And I didn’t even get to ask Dan about his stories from the Playboy mansion.

Dan’s a booze and “nightlife” writer and former columnist for Playboy. If the publication has a distilled spirit in its title, Dan’s probably written for it. The titles of his previously published books should give you some idea of his approach to writing: Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour and Nobody Likes a Quitter (and Other Reasons to Avoid Rehab: The Loaded Life of an Outlaw Booze Writer.

A lot of wine writing can be either stuffy to the point of suffocation or uninspired to the point of meaninglessness. Dan’s writing avoids both of these pitfalls. He pretty much gets loaded, waits for hilarious shit to happen, and then writes it down.

I just finished reading his new book American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues, which is quite a romp. If you’re going to pick up a copy when it comes out in April, I have one suggestion: Don’t read this book sober. It was likely written under the influence of one or more substances and should be read under similar influences. “But I can’t read buzzed,” you say? Yes you can. With this book, you most certainly can.

After a series of unfortunate events including the death of his brother and his girlfriend bailing, Dan sets his sights on a trans-American road trip. The goal? Well, to see new places, get drunk, meet some chicks on Tinder, and, along the way, check out some wineries from lesser-known states. (They make vino in all 50, after all.) Dan is no Master of Wine candidate. Spirits and beer are his main focus. So he decides to become a “wine expert” by meeting up with as many winemakers, and drinking as much wine, as he possibly can.

This book is not a reference guide to American wine. It is not an analysis of current winemaking trends in smaller wine-growing states. It’s a personal travel narrative littered with bottles from Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, Georgia, and many places in between.

Dan keeps an open mind about wineries from all over the country, which is refreshing. As a huge fan of Virginia wine (and wines from places like Arizona, Maryland, Pennsylvania and others), I have no patience for dismissals of entire wine regions from self-absorbed oenophiles.

But Dan doesn’t blow smoke up a state’s ass either. Climate, soil, aspect, winemaking equipment and know-how, there are damn good reasons the best wines in the world come from places that have these elements all lined up. But that’s not to say darn good wine can’t come from unexpected places. The story of most famous wine regions started with someone planting vines in a spot other people thought was crummy.

Dan writes: “most of the learned folks I’ve come across are of the opinion that almost all the great domestic stuff comes from one of three places — California, Oregon, and Washington — with New York and Virginia occasionally fielding a winner now and again. As for the rest of the wine, well, they mostly think it’s shit.”

The critics come at these winemakers like rabid badgers, intent on clawing out their eyes and chomping off their privates. And while these plucky pups harbor no illusions of supplanting Napa, Tuscany, or the Rhone any time soon, they’re every bit as serious, hardworking, and innovative as the industry’s heavy hitters. And after decades of relentless abuse (or utter disregard) they just don’t give a shit what you think about them anymore.”

Like me, Dan has a blue-collar appreciation for the farmer-winemaker-underdog. Even if the wine doesn’t taste great, Dan appreciates the gumption: “That takes grit, a large helping of blind faith, and an unshakable belief in one’s ability to endure in the face of near impossible odds.”

But the book, like wine from Florida, has some serious flaws.

I’m not some pearl-clutcher who gets offended easily. (The last time I felt offended was when another metalhead criticized my love of the Polish black/death metal band Behemoth.) But Dan’s writing is often crass for crassness’ sake. Like an adolescent throwing around the c-word every time he gets a chance, Dan gets mired in his own excess. 

The guy actually writes a multi-page dialogue scene between him and his penis. No kidding. And I was in junior high the last time I heard so many references to ballsacks, nutsacks, dickwads, taints and buttholes. He frequently overplays his hand by using too much hyperbole. He compares himself to Bukowski and Dylan Thomas. Luckily for Dan, a good dose of self-deprecation saves him from coming off as a total prick.

Although this could be called a “wine book,” the wineries Dan visits get little more than a brief overview, and the actual wines get a cursory mention. Much of the time, Dan’s fantasizing about hot waitresses or reliving past jaunts. It’s fun to read, but disappointing if you’re expecting to come away with a lot of knowledge about American wine culture.

The road trip structure of the book is jumbled up by flashbacks to childhood in Philly and internal dialogue about his ex-girlfriend. Jumping back in time can be quite jarring for a reader expecting the story to move forward. For example, the chapter on Texas starts off with four pages set in Texas before shifting to 12 pages of back-story in Philly. By the time we jump back, I forgot we were in the Lone Star State. The flashbacks generally take a similar structure. Dan is driving around somewhere and, all of the sudden, we transition to the past via the “Oh, that reminds of this one time when...” method. The flashbacks are frequently funny and often vulgar, but there are way too many to keep the story moving forward.

Some of the most memorable and endearing back-story deals with Dunn’s family. Like the story about his cousin who steps on a Christmas ornament ball, ignores the wound, gets gangrene, and has to have his leg amputated below the knee. I swear, it’s funny the way Dan tells it. His overdue reunion with his mother in Philly is hilarious, touching and sad, and when Dunn deals honestly with his emotions it comes across as authentic.

The book is also packed with side bars, little diversions about particular grape varieties (not “varietals”) and wine terms. Sometimes he goes off on a completely unrelated topic, like the time he channels his inner Key & Peele and embarks on an epic rant about the awesomeness of Liam Neeson.

I obviously enjoyed the book enough to write 1,400 words about it. Even though I only hung out with Dan for a few days, I would vouch for the guy. If we were drinking and fight broke out, I’d have his back. And Dan doesn’t need anything from this lowly wordslinger, anyway. The book jacket is plastered with praise from people who actually make money from their artistic endeavors. (Ever heard of Maynard James Keenan?)

Dan is pretty damned successful as far as alcoholic beverage writers go. He ends his trip as a keynote speaker at the posh Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. He’s slated to speak there again this year, celebrating the launch of his book. So he clearly knows what the fuck he’s doing.

The flaws in this book? They’re like moderate doses of volatile acidity and brettanomyces, off-putting to some, but one could argue they add character. The book surely isn’t corked. As I said earlier, you should read it while consuming large quantities of wine. If you take my advice, you’ll enjoy yourself regardless.


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