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American Wine

Book Reviews

American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites, and One Man’s Blues

April 11, 2016
Dan Dunn's American Wino is at times both hillarious and heartbreaking.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Dan Dunn’s latest book, American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues. His first foray into the world of wine sounded promising, but could Dunn, whose focus has always been on spirits, deliver a well-rounded wine book about driving from coast to coast to learn everything there is to know about American wine? Could he go from wine novice to know-it-all over the span of this book? Well, not quite, but that’s also what makes this book all sorts of awesome.

While still reeling from the death of his brother and the break-up of his relationship, Dunn packs up his car and starts his odyssey across America. It’s one of those books that follows someone on a personal journey after a huge life event (think Eat, Pray, Love without as much eating or praying and a lot more wine). The first chapter, which has Dunn chatting extensively with his deceased brother, had me thinking this book could go either way.

Dan Dunn's American Wino is a perfect cottage read.

Enjoying American Wino during a winter cottage visit.

Thankfully, Dunn is funny as hell. So funny, that I was laughing out loud as I read this during a recent trip to the cottage, stopping to read passages out loud to Shawn as he drove. I can’t say I always enjoyed Dunn’s humour (he slides into frat boy territory a time of two), but this is a book that could be super depressing given the premise, and it’s not.

And props to Dunn for trying wine all across the U.S. – stopping in states that are clearly not well-suited to wine and giving it a go. He doesn’t like all of the wine he tries, but he does walk away with a huge respect for the maverick winemakers who are trying to make wine in areas that offer less than stellar conditions. And he finds great wines in places you’d expect (California, Oregon, New York) and others less expected (Arizona, Texas).

The stories of these winery visits were what most interested me, but I couldn’t help enjoying his sidebars too—a rant about hipster sommeliers, wine definitions that are not quite accurate, wine pairings for REM albums—there’s some pretty funny stuff here. American Wino is a sad story wrapped up in a very funny road trip tale that has you laughing all the way up to the heartbreaking moments. And it’s those moments that give this book, well, heart. The book would probably have been just as funny without the introspection and revelations about Dunn’s personal journey, but I don’t think it would have been half as good a read.

By the end of the book, I admit to being a tad worried about how much Dunn drinks (in particular given the family history he shares), but maybe that’s taking things a bit too seriously. This isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach someone about wine (although there are some very interesting factoids about lesser known American wine regions), but it’s definitely one I think wine-lovers will enjoy. This funny, heartbreaking wine-soaked road trip is definitely worth riding shotgun on.

I received an advance review copy of this book. Opinions are my own.

Book Reviews

The Wild Vine – Book Review

January 26, 2015

It’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with wine books. In 2014, I read some pretty fabulous ones – The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Wine & War being two major standouts. Another favourite was The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine and I thought it deserved a special shout-out, as I have encountered far fewer people who have read it. That needs to change.

Evan Dawson, one of my favourite wine writers (and the author of the amazing Summer in a Glass), suggested The Wild Vine to me on Twitter when I asked for recommendations for what to read next.  I had recently purchased the book and figured if Evan suggested it, it must be good. Not surprisingly, he was right!

The Wild Vine is the story of the Norton grape, the first wine grape successfully cultivated and grown in the United States. Most wine grapes are of European origin and many believed that U.S. grapes – let alone one from Missouri – would never be suitable for winemaking. An intrepid medical doctor with a major grape fixation proved them wrong.

If you had told me the history of a grape I’d never heard of would turn out to be a page-turner, I’d have scoffed. But after a bit of a slow start (common in wine books), I was completely sucked in to the story of how this grape went from skeptical responses to years of glory and then on to relative obscurity.

Author Todd Kliman has meticulously researched the Norton and you can tell he was completely drawn into this unusual tale. While the backstory about winemaker Jenny McCloud wasn’t as interesting to me as the history, I was impressed with her passion for the grape and her decision to continue to grow Norton grapes and make wine from it. Wine is full of stories of those who persevered when they were told something wasn’t possible (just talk to the original winemakers from
Prince Edward County or read Geoff Heinricks excellent A Fool and Forty Acres for a few examples). This is a case where an obsession with Norton is seen as a bit of folly, but applauded just the same.

The Norton touches on so many things – Thomas Jefferson, German history, winemaking in the U.S., prohibition and more – I walked away from the book knowing so many new things about American history and wanting desperately to try some Norton. So far I haven’t had any luck tracking down a bottle, but that just means Shawn and I need to add a few more states to our travel wish list.

I highly recommend The Wild Vine and look forward to hearing your opinion on the book. Already read it? Feel free to leave your thoughts (or links to your reviews) in the comments.