Frank J. Prial: a tribute
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.