A few years ago, prompted by circumstances outside of his control—namely, the death of his younger brother—veteran booze and nightlife writer Dan Dunn decided to take a trip.
“I kind of needed to just get out of here for a while and clear my head,” Dunn recalls. “So I got this idea that I’d drive around, ostensibly to become the leading expert on American wine. But really, I was trying to fix myself.”
From his 15,000-mile sojourn came American Wino, a kind of gonzo wine travelogue, filled with Dunn’s unsparing introspection, journalistic curiosity and no-bullshit wit. (It’s currently in development to become a feature film.)
Somewhat ironically, Dunn has, in the years since, become an expert on American wine—if not the leading one, than at least the most likable. In addition to co-hosting a celebrity-studded drinking podcast, aptly named “Drinky Fun Time,” the former Playboy columnist also regularly reviews wine for Robb Report and is working with The Federalist—a “less stuffy” wine brand with a stellar Zinfandel that harkens back to the early days of American wine, which began with Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to open a winery in Monticello, Virginia.
Because ‘tis the season of holiday parties—either those you’ll host or those you’ll begrudgingly attend—we thought we’d call Dunn up and ply him for some essential tips on getting into wine, buying wine, tasting wine and pretending to know about wine at parties.
If you’re looking for a way into wine, start with America.
Obviously, Dunn is biased here, but, as he notes, “reading Italian wine labels is not easy.” And it makes sense to narrow the field of play, at least in the beginning. Particularly because there’s so much great American wine—not just in California, Washington state and Oregon, but places like West Texas, Jerome, Arizona, and Virginia.
Identify the kind of wine you prefer, and go from there.
“Here’s the key, man,” Dunn tells me. “You’ve got to figure out what you like. Go down to the store and pick up a bottle of wine. You go, ‘Okay, this is from the central coast of California, it’s a Cabernet,’ but you might taste the Cabernet and go, ‘This is a little big for me’ or try a Pinot Noir from France and go, ‘Okay, this is way more earthy...’ Identify what you like and where your tastes lies, and then start going out and finding wines from that region.”
It's worth taking notes.
If you see a label on a bottle at a wine tasting or wine festival you like, snap a picture (or, if you’re feeling fancy, use an app like Vivino). If you’re at a restaurant and you dig the wine you ordered, write it down in your phone. And if there’s a critic whose tastes you find align with yours, heed their advice.
“That’s the thing about the beauty of wine,” Dunn says. “I think with whiskies and spirits, even beer, you’re going to get a [critical] consensus. Not necessarily with wine, where some people like big powerful reds and some people like bone dry earthy reds, some people like sweet white and some people like wine that’s really acidic and crisp.”
For that carnivorous holiday feast, you’ll probably want to go with...
A nice red to pair with red meat.
“I think of a fine fillet as a Paul Simon,” Dunn says. “It’s great on its own but if you pair it with the right partner, whether that’s a robust Napa Cab or a curly-haired tenor from Queens, that’s where the magic happens.”
One wine Dunn recommends to try this year is a Corison, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 2014 that’ll run you about 100 bucks.
When you’re buying bubbly for New Year’s Eve...
Dunn prefers to go with champagne (as in, sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France) over sparkling wine from other regions.
“With bubbly, I think the key is you kind of get what you pay for,” Dunn observes. “If you’re buying an eight dollar bottle of bubbly, use it for mimosas...between $50-$100, you’re going to get something good.
As for buying wine as a gift...
Aging—or, the different ways to finish wines—is kind of en vogue right now. For someone who likes drinking but may not be super into wine (yet), a bourbon barrel-aged wine with a pair of nice rocks glasses to sip it in would make for a solid stocking stuffer.
And finally, here’s how to fool someone at a holiday party into thinking you know what you’re talking about...
“I go to a lot of wine tastings, and at these tastings, you’re going to meet a lot of shmucks who believe that they possess God’s own palette. And they swirl [the wine] around and they pronounce it ‘troubling, yet brilliant,” Dunn says.
“There’s some words you can say about any wine. Five simple words, and they’ll never look at you sideways. Those are: 'complex,' 'balanced,' 'layered,' 'intense' and 'well-rounded.' You can use those words to describe any wine. It’s like when a psychic tells you that they sense you’re worried about money or affairs of the heart. It’s just bulletproof bullshit.”
“And then you want to be able to throw out a couple aphorisms: ‘Wine is made in the vineyards, not the winery.’ ‘What does Robert Parker know anyway?’ ‘Oak shouldn’t go into Chardonnay.’ Then maybe memorize a couple vintages you think are great, like a 1982 Bordeaux. Or a 1996 champagne. It’s like saying, ‘Oh look, there’s LeBron James.’ It’s going to stop everyone in their tracks.”
Cheers to doing that.