|Frank Prial, The New York Times, 1989|
Yes, Frank Prial was more Old World than New World in both his style and his taste in wine. (Nonetheless, in one of journalism's more curious twists, Wine Talk was suspended for a few years in the 1970s when he became a Times correspondent in...Paris.)
While his views and his tastes tended to be European, he didn't ignore wines and wine developments elsewhere about the globe. He picked up early on the phenomenon of California's Two Buck Chuck, and his resulting column was classic Prial - richly informed, lively with telling quotes, historically framed, and perked up here and there with his sly humor, which alone separated him from most of his wine-writing contemporaries. "Someone referred to it recently as the ultimate fund-raiser wine - perfect for large groups of people who really don't care what they are drinking," he wrote of the Two Buck Chuck lineup.
He treated California as fairly as he did any other wine region, but his way of being both newsy and blunt occasionally nettled California vintners. After he sharply criticized William Hill Winery for a series of blind tastings it was staging to show that California cabernet sauvignon could be superior to their Bordeaux counterparts, William Hill himself responded with a long, detailed, balanced and thoughtful defense of his strategy. To his credit, Prial devoted an entire subsequent column to Hill's views.
But no column may have rattled the California wine trade more than an essay he wrote in the fall of 1981. Bearing the headline, "A Dissenter's View of California Wine," it took the state's winemakers to task for a wide range of alleged sins, from its winemaking style to its marketing ploys. Of heavily oaked, high-alcohol wines just then gathering momentum among some critics and consumers, he wrote, "There should be a special warning label that says: 'This wine was designed for competition and is not to be used for family dining.'"
Why was so much fuss being made over California wine, wondered Prial. Yes, we all recognize that the dog can bark, but what does it have to say, he suggested. He was hopeful that in time American wines would be quite good, but his optimism was countered by a fear that winemaking and wine drinking in the U.S. was on the verge of becoming inbred and precious. The lingo was arcane and hyperbolic, he fumed, and he speculated that Americans eventually would find the scene so grating that they'd throw up their hands over all the silliness and walk away from it before it realized its potential. Since then, American wine has improved substantially, and the trade now can boast of quite good wines not only from California but from several other states. To my knowledge, Prial never updated his sweeping take on the American wine scene, but I suspect he would acknowledge that much progress has been made and that he was regularly enjoying its shining examples, though he still might have fretted about how insular and dear the country's wine culture can be.