Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘American Wino’
352 pages, softcover, $16.99
Dey Street Books, 2016
Like some of the high-octane beverages he’s made a career of writing about, Dan Dunn is an acquired taste.
Writing columns at the Aspen Daily News, then blogging as “The Imbiber” and penning books like “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,” Dunn is a brash and profane Philadelphia-bred bro working the booze beat with a gonzo flare.
But what happens when that guy comes up against a horrid personal tragedy makes for a surprisingly fascinating, funny and sometimes moving reading experience.
Dunn’s new book, “American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues,” opens with the author grieving the death of his brother, Brian. A “thrill artist,” he’s killed after a jump off of the Santa Monica Pier. Dunn introduces Brian in a characteristically off-kilter scene, in which a woman he’s brought home mistakes Brian’s ashes for cocaine or heroin and snorts a bump.
In his mourning depression, Dunn hatches a plan: a massive solo road trip, caterwauling around America’s wine regions and ending at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival. Despite making a career out of alcoholic expertise, it turns out, Dunn knew little about wine — he could fake his way through tastings, Dunn writes, armed with the names of a few grapes and hackneyed adjectives. The big road trip, he hoped, would educate him into something like a true connoisseur. Along the way, he thought, he might emerge from the dark wake of his brother’s death and the end of a romantic relationship.
“This is not a tale of a man drinking himself to death,” he writes. ‘This is a tale of a man drinking himself to life. I hope.”
What follows is a travelogue of tastings and 15,000 miles of long lonely roads — among his wine mentors are the actor Kurt Russell and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan. But the wine often takes a back seat to regional observations (Dunn has a keen eye for the bizarre), notes on music and his titular blues. Dunn’s cynical and sarcastic Philly bro voice stays in tact amid the soul-searching and creates some hard-earned pathos. In the end, Dunn is good company, and his “American Wino” is a winning memoir of a man humbled (a little) by catastrophe.
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The late Norm Macdonald did stand-up in Aspen from the old days of the HBO Comedy Fest to the 2020 Aspen Laugh Festival.