One of my favorite authors (one of my heroes, really) is Anne Lamott, who wrote in "Bird by Bird": "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better." She writes that way, and ever since I read that quote, I've been on the lookout for other writers who have embraced the freedom of owning their stories. I'm inspired by their authenticity.
I've found one of those writers in Dan Dunn, the author of "American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man's Blues." It's a book I included as my to-be-read book when I recommended summer reads for food and wine lovers last month. I was looking forward to living vicariously through Dunn as he visited wineries all throughout the U.S. I had no idea just how vicariously I'd be living while reading this tale "of a man drinking himself to life," as he writes in the first chapter.
Let me set the stage without giving too much away. Dunn, who has written extensively about beer and spirits, realized his wine knowledge was a little weak. He knew enough to B.S. his way through a tasting, but he wanted to learn more. Plus, he wanted to get away from living in L.A. Recent personal experiences had left him in despair, so he did what any brilliant drinks writer would do. He convinced a publisher to let him write a book about traveling the country and drinking wine in places you would never think made wine.
I would combine my ignorance and sadness into a massive Big Gulp of despair, then pour it out my car's window across America's highways as I plundered its precious purple bounty.
With plenty of evocative writing like the quote above, "American Wino" is part travel/wine memoir and part personal journey memoir that should be read by lovers of Kurt Russell, excellent writing, wine and life. (That's pretty much all of us, right?)
Russell has his own winery, and it's Dunn's first stop on his tour of American wineries. Dunn's man crush on Russell equals my own crush on Russell, and he spends a couple of pages in the chapter discussing why it's good that Mark Hamill and not Russell played Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars." Interspersed between describing his man crush on Russell and his thoughts on Hamill, he does get to the wine. And, as Dunn learns about wine, so do his readers. We learn about selecting clones (a grapevine replicated from a particular "mother vine") and get a glimpse into the way Dunn's mind jumps from one thing to another — Russell to clones to "Clone Wars" to "Star Wars" to Hammill — yet he always manages to loop back to the point.
For me, this is the best way to learn about anything — through a very interesting story. Sure, I could google vine clones, but why learn from a Wikipedia definition when I can learn about them and how Russell reacts when someone says to him, "I read somewhere that you turned down the role of Luke Skywalker in 'Star Wars.' Is that true?"
Learning about wine
Dunn begins his travels in California and then heads to Oregon — both states where we already know there is good wine. Montana is where we start learning about wines from places we didn't know made wines, such as Michigan, New York, South Jersey, Virginia, Georgia, Texas and New Mexico. Dunn may not always like the wine he tastes, but he always has a high opinion of the winemakers and what they do with what nature gives them. He understands grapes are finicky fruits. They don't grow well everywhere, so if someone is doing their darnedest to create the best wine they can with the fruits they're given, he's on their side.
He did find some surprises along the way, like Michigan, where it turns out they make excellent ice wines and some not-too-shabby Vidal Blanc.
He likes some of what's happening right outside my front door here in South Jersey, too, and rightly assesses it's not the quality of South Jersey's wines that are a problem, it's South Jersey's general reputation.
The most eye-opening states for me were Texas and New Mexico. I had no idea how much wine those two states were producing.
By the time Dunn makes his way back to California again, readers have a good idea of what wine is being produced across the nation and are introduced to many unfamiliar native grape varietals, wine terms and even which wines pair with R.E.M.'s 10 best albums.
Learning about life
Dunn didn't simply hop in his car one day and head off on his tour of American wineries. First, he sold most of what he owned and gave up his apartment, essentially becoming homeless, before heading out on his journey. It was a quest for both wine knowledge and peace (or understanding, closure, whatever you may call it) that anyone would desire after having several personal, heartbreaking, tumultuous years.
The time he spent in his car with his thoughts and ghosts, the time he spent talking to winemakers and other wine professionals, and the time he spent with the people he met along the way seems to have done him a lot of good. Reading "American Wino" can do the same for readers who allow themselves to live vicariously through Dunn's words. They may learn some wine knowledge or they may get a little peace, understanding, closure, whatever. They'll certainly enjoy an entertaining read.
One last thought on the writing
If I told you any specifics of the first two pages of the book, I would be robbing you of the laugh-out-loud shock value of the incident Dunn describes. Remember, I said he seems to have embraced the freedom to tell his stories. What I can tell you is that by page three, readers have a very descriptive idea of who Dunn is and what he's willing to reveal about himself and those personal experiences that left him in despair. (Readers also know by page three that if this book was being read out loud, it would definitely be NSFW.)
Whether he's writing about his interactions with wine, winemakers, women, Carl Vehicle (his car, which he lives out of during his journey) or his family and life growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, he's honest, skillfully descriptive, sentimental, sometimes vulgar and hilariously funny.
"American Wino" book cover photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins