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Frank J. Prial: a tribute

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Frank J. Prial’s death on Tuesday has been widely reported, including in The New York Times, where he worked as wine critic almost continuously for 32 years. (The obituary was written, fittingly, by his successor, Eric Asimov.)

For the Times to have hired Prial to write a regular wine column back in the Dark Ages of 1972 is astonishing. He was, I believe, the first wine columnist of any American newspaper (correct me if I’m wrong, please), and there was no assurance than anyone would even read him. As Thomas Pinney notes in “A History of Wine in America,” Prial himself wondered “Would there be any reader interest?” He doubted, too, that “there was enough going on to sustain a weekly column.”

Imagine that! Prial worried that so little was happening in the world of wine, he wouldn’t be able to patch together enough information once a week. Now, here we are in the wine blogosphere, where plenty of us write everyday and manage to come up with items of interest, although not always of newsworthiness.

Of course, Prial soon found out there was lots to write about. As he wrote in his memoir, Decantations (2001), “California…soon provided a steady stream of good stories.” He hanged out with August Sebastiani and “Bob” Mondavi in cafes where “the people frequenting them grew grapes or made wine,” and he watched, with evident disdain, as the scene changed to “bistros and the people in them have titles–director of this or coordinator of that–but no juice stains on their shirts or dirt under their fingernails.”

This mounting disillusionment with the California wine scene found its way into print. By the early 1980s, Prial’s infatuation with California had worn thin. In a column he wrote in 1981, he called California Chardonnay an “overbred dog…too aggressive, too alcoholic…showoff wines made by vintners who seem to be saying, ‘I can outchardonnay any kid on this block.’” Later, he turned apoplectic in his critique, not only of the state’s wines, but of the emerging class of mavens who lavished such praise on them: they “ape the jargon of the trade and feel special when we exchange arcane trivia about grape crushers…American wine,” he lamented, “is on the brink of becoming inbred precocious.” And he issued this warning: “One day the rest of the country, bemused and probably irritated by all this, might just shrug and walk away.” A year after this fulminate, Prial wrote one of his most famous and controversial columns, “A dissenter’s view of California wines,” which begins with a dirge for California red wines: “They…seemed to have lost some of their charm…”.

You can call Prial prescient for being among the first to criticize California wine for their size/power/mass/flash/richness. Certainly his point of view now is widely shared, not just in New York but in Europe. Yet isn’t it odd that it was this very California-ness that inspired such change throughout European wine country–a move toward richer, riper, fruitier wines?

Frank Prial, who retired from his column in 2004, would have made a good blogger, by the way. He wrote passionately and fearlessly, and you could always sense the real person behind the words. He invented a style of wine writing that was intensely personal, yet immensely educational, and that was always fun to read. He wore his passions, including anger, on his sleeve. Here’s to Frank J. Prial, wherever he may be.

  1. Listening to his little segment on WQXR (NYC) back in the late 80s/Early 90s was a catalyst in raising my intellectual interest in wine

  2. The first few years I was a judge at Andy Blue’s San Francisco International Wine Competition, Frank Prial was also one of the judges. Wow, did I feel in over my head. Mr. Prial was everything in person that he was in his column–articulate, thoughtful, funny, smart and charming. I did not have the good fortune to judge alongside him. I was new to the competition, and he was, well, Frank Prial. (My first year I judged with another opinionated wine writer, the late Steve Pitcher.) But my wife and I did sit next to him at the judges’ dinner and that was the kind of fun, and the kind of honor, that makes this business a joy.

    What Mr. Prial accomplished at the New York Times set the stage for almost every other print critic who has followed. Had he failed, I wonder how long it would have taken for wine to become as mainstream as it now seems to be in America. But there’s no way he could have failed. He had passion and talent and a wonderful, powerful voice.

  3. I think it is a bit misleading to simply say that Frank was hired to do a wine column in 1972. I remember having lunch with him in the early 70′s, probably ’73 or ’74, and as I remember it, he was still a reporter who covered the street, crime, the city never sleeps, that kind of stuff, and the wine thing was a sideline to his main job as a reporter. I may be wrong about this, but my impression from that first lunch was that the once a week column was more something Frank was trying to prove would work than the Times wanting that much to have a wine column.

    At that time Frank’s wine knowledge was mostly European (like the entire East Coast at the time) and though he was a heck of a nice guy, a man’s man, and a great source of info about what was going on in town, I think it took him quite a few years to take California seriously. But the fact he did and wrote seriously about us, helped ease that East Coast European bias.

  4. Ditto on all you and Ron said and he was a writer’s writer. A class act in every way and one of the heroes of the past in wine…yes it was 1972 and actually along with Gerald Asher made a profound difference in my life of wine. Great guy, great journalist and we can all be thankful he was at the NY Times for such a long period. Missed… a true wine warrior.

  5. Steve–Very nice tribute to Mr. Prial, whose on and off love affair with CA wine was very helpful in opening up the East Coast to CA wine.

    One small addition, not meant to take anything away from Mr. Prial’s significant contributions, is to note that Robert Lawrence Balzer (L A Times Magazine , Nathan Chroman (L A Times) and Hank Rubin (S. F. Chronicle) predated Mr. Prial as regular newspaper columnists.

  6. Eduardo Cue says:

    I met Frank Prial at a party in Paris back in August 1980, just weeks after I moved to France. We hit it off and for the next 15 or so years saw each other regularly, usually over lunch.

    Frank was wonderful company, the opposite of what most people image a wine critic to be. He was charming with a fabulous sense of humor, easy going, and above all he refused to take himself seriously. One time I mentioned to him that I would like to finally learn something about wine but that I found the subject (if not the drinking) daunting. “It will take you about 15 minutes,” he replied with a laugh.

    Although known as a wine critic, Frank Prial was the epitome of a street reporter, a quickly vanishing species in journalism. He knew how to talk to all sorts of people, wrote extensively about New York, reported from the United Nations, and travelled the world as a correspondent.

    While based in Paris he wrote about musicians in the métro, French politics, and culture. His most memorable story may well have been the portrait of Malcolm Miller, the legendary British tour guide at Chartres Cathedral. Written in Frank’s humorous and light style, it brought Miller and his passion for Chartres to life. That was many years ago, yet I am certain that most readers of the piece remember it.

    I consider it a great honor to have counted among his friends, and raise a glass of rouge in his memory.

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