Prompted by the death of his brother, writer Dan Dunn embarked on a 3 month, 15,000 mile road trip to learn about (and drink) all the wine the USA had to offer. American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man's Blues is part wine guide, part travel memoir, in which Dunn sniffs and sips fine wines with vintners, aficionados and celebrity winemakers including Kurt Russell and Maynard James Keenan of Tool.
Here, Dunn describes the fateful day he drank wine with 'The Hateful Eight' actor in an excerpt from the book, out April 5th.
Santa Barbara County seemed as good a place as any to begin my nationwide oenophilic odyssey. I know a guy who makes wine thereabouts. And that guy is named Kurt Russell. I figured if anyone could bridge the gap between me and wine, it would be the star of Death Proof.
In an industrial park known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, the barrel room for Ampelos Cellars sits inside a large steel hangar with harsh fluorescent lighting, a cold concrete floor, and a single bathroom that’s missing a door. Picture one of those impossibly charming, fairy-tale-looking medieval châteaux that Bordeaux is so famous for. Now picture the exact opposite of that.
This is where Kurt Russell hangs out for fun. And I was twenty-five minutes late.
“There he is, right on time!” Russell thundered as he materialized from behind a barrel row with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. “My man!” Reflexively, I glanced behind me. Nobody there. He was talking to me. Enthusiastically. I was halfway between crapping my pants in fear and having the biggest bro-gasm of my life.
Kurt Russell is in his midsixties, but he looks my age. Unless, of course, I look his age. He’s rugged. Like actually rugged, not ersatz Hollywood well-lit rugged. Jesus Christ, I thought, Kurt Russell might just turn me gay today.
I extended my hand but he brushed it aside, going in for a hearty bro-hug. Jesus, he even smelled like a leading man.
“How have you been?” I managed to ask. You know, since that one and only time we met two years ago for an hour.
“I’m fantastic, buddy. Really am. How ’bout you? You look good. You lose some weight?”
“I guess so,” I said, trying for a wry smile. “The heart-break diet.”
He laughed. A big booming laugh. Then he pulled a wine key from his pocket and plunged it into the cork of a bottle of 2011 GoGi, the Pinot Noir that bears his childhood nickname. “I’ve been on that diet,” he confided. “Sucks. One good thing about it though . . . you get to drink all the wine you want. You ready to do this?”
After half a bottle of Pinot, we got down to business. The first thing Kurt told me about was the process he used for selecting clones. I was aware that a clone is a grapevine replicated from a particular “mother vine.” Basically, a twig of a vine with a bud is cut from the mother vine and then either planted directly into the ground to sprout its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto a specific rootstock. The newly planted or grafted vine is an exact replica of the mother vine. This cloning of vines accounts for a great deal of the spread of wine varietals from one place to another—mainly, from the Old World to everyplace else.
Individual grape varietals—Pinot Noir, for instance—are prized for particular attributes, such as crop size, specific aromas or tannins, time of ripening, low or high sugars or acidity, and sensibility to disease. You might think of them as the different colors of paint that make up a work of art, or the various singing styles that form a choir.
I was pretty pumped that of all the elements of viticulture Kurt could have chosen to discuss, he led with something that I actually understood and could halfway talk about. The key word there being could. Instead, I decided to lead with this . . . “I read somewhere that you turned down the role of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Is that true?”
Kurt looked up from the beaker in which he was mixing wine made from various clones. A 777 with a 115, if memory serves. Clones, like prison inmates and racecars, have numbers instead of names.
Kurt just stared at me, the expression on his face a mixture of bemusement and what looked an awful lot like pity. “I’m kind of a Star Wars geek,” I added sheepishly.
With his gaze still fixed on me, he picked up his glass and took a long deliberate sip of wine. Instinctively, I followed suit.
As he finished with mixing his clones, Kurt poured the contents of the beaker into a glass and handed it to me. “Here, try this,” he said. It was the blend for Jillybean, a wine he named after one of his sisters.
“That’s amazing,” I said, and he flashed that movie star smile of his.
“I was never offered a role in Star Wars,” he said.
“Hmm,” I replied, taking a big swig of the Jillybean. I had assimilated my first actionable piece of wisdom. When you’re uncomfortable and someone says something provocative, fuck your modifiers. Just say “Hmm.”