Frank Prial was the real deal. If the term "wine critic" makes you picture an effete professorial type swirling priceless burgundy in a crystal goblet with an extended pinkie and a supercilious demeanor, well…you’re sure not picturing Frank Prial. He was stocky and a little gruff; I always thought he looked more like a union boss from New Jersey, or maybe a priest from somewhere upstate (he was in fact born in Newark), than a journalist who spoke fluent French and knew wine about as well as anybody in town. The first time I met him, coming to his office at The New York Times as a youngish food and wine writer from the West Coast, he said, "Let’s go have a drink" — and led me not to the latest trendy wine bar to sample single-grower champagne or some cult cabernet from California but to the bar at Sardi’s, the legendary theater district restaurant around the corner from the old Times building, where he promptly ordered a Manhattan.
Prial didn’t put wine on a pedestal. It was an enjoyable part of life, and he believed — quite rightly — that turning it into an object of worship or into some mysterious substance that only the chosen few could appreciate did a great disservice not just to wine but to humankind. He also believed — again quite rightly — that there was little if any correlation between a wine’s price and how much you might enjoy it.
After graduating from Georgetown University and serving in the Coast Guard, Prial took newspaper jobs in New Jersey and then Manhattan, ending up at the Wall Street Journal and, in 1970, at The Times. He was a general interest reporter at first, but among his specific interests were food and wine, and the paper let him write some pieces on the latter on a trial basis. They were well received, and in 1972, back when Americans were just beginning to discover wine for real, he began writing a regular column on the subject.
The Times likes to reassign its writers to new beats periodically, and in 1979, Prial stopped writing "Wine Talk" to become the paper’s correspondent in Paris — where, of course, wine continued to be a major topic for him. Returning to the States in 1984, he took up the column again and continued overseeing it for another 20 years (after which it became the purview of Eric Asimov, who had long served on Prial’s tasting panels).
Prial was not one of those "hints of honeydew, beetroot, caramel, Turkish tobacco, and aniseed" wine writers. He liked most of all to tell the stories of the men and women behind the wine, and to discuss the history of certain regions or grape varieties and put them into cultural context. When he did describe wines, it was in plain language: a California chardonnay "smelled like spiced meat;" an amontillado had "a honeyed sweetness that [I] liked;" the strangely named Woop Woop shiraz from Southeast Australia was "a classic shiraz with beautiful balance and great structure." That, as far as Prial was concerned, was basically what you needed to know.
In his satirical reference book The Devil’s Dictionary, published roughly a century ago, Ambrose Bierce defines the term "Connoisseur" in part like this: "An old wine-bibber having been smashed in a railway collision, some wine was poured on his lips to revive him. 'Pauillac, 1873,' he murmured and died." I don’t know what the old wine-bibber Frank Prial’s last words were, when he died Tuesday night from complications of prostate cancer, but I kind of hope they were something like "Just one more Manhattan, please."