Monday, November 12, 2012

Frank Prial: Blunt But Fair, And Often Funny

Frank Prial, The New York Times, 1989
Surprisingly little comment has followed the death last week of Frank Prial, whose column Wine Talk appeared for three decades in The New York Times starting in 1972. I suspect this lack of reflection is the offshoot of a wine-writing community generally so new to the craft that Frank Prial's work, including a collection of his essays published under the title "Decantations," just hasn't been part of its grounding. Frank Prial had retired in 2004, when many of today's wine commentators were just starting to discover blogging. They may have seen his columns as dated, not contemporary enough to provide them with much of a frame of reference. They might be surprised by just how relevant his columns remain even several decades after they first were put to print.

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.


  1. Mike,
    I completely agree that Frank Prial's passing has been sadly overlooked. He was a great guy, and an interesting and seminal writer about wine for the American public. All the mindless babbling about wine online didn't really stop for a moment at his death, and that's shameful. Good for you for taking the time to consider his legacy thoughtfully.

  2. Hi Mike,

    I'm a blast from your past. You and Frank were among the first wine writers to endorse our crazy new wine that nobody thought was going to go. You both saw it as an opportunity to expand the wine aficionado envelope to the average American who, in those days, preferred beer. You were with the Bee and Frank was with the NYT's. Thanks to both of you for your support in those early days! Michael Houlihan, Founder, Barefoot Wine.

  3. Hello, Michael. Great to hear from you. I look forward to the Barefoot book my former Bee colleague Rick Kushman is about to publish.

  4. He was a legend- and a real journalist to boot. Sad to know so many wine bloggers/reviewers don't know of his work or his influence on the evolution of wine writing as a whole. I had the pleasure of meeting him a few times over the years and he spoke to me as respectfully and openly as he would a seasoned colleague- as a young and inexperienced (albeit passionate) wine lover at the time, that spoke spades about his character. I'll always remember his humble and down to earth nature. Nice tribute.

  5. Mike,
    Thanks for a nice post on Frank Prial.

    I'm not sure what your policies are regarding posting links in your blog, but I agree that Prial deserves attention, and here is my appreciation of his work:

    Thomas Matthews
    Wine Spectator

  6. Nicely done Mike, Like you a well spoken newspaper man that you read to the last word. Wine Talk was one of the few great Wednesday reads in the USA. Cheers to you for the fond memory of a true legend Mr Frank Prial. I still miss reading his column...Tim

  7. Thank you, Thomas. And in your commentary you nailed him perfectly in your remark about the "scrappy Irishman's disdain for cant and pretension." I like links, the more the merrier in the chain of communication, I say. Unfortunately, I can't get the Wine Spectator link to highlight as it should; however, I've no problem getting to your remarks by copying the link to browser, so maybe others will follow suit.