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thomas matthews' blog

A Pioneer Passes Away

Frank Prial, longtime wine writer for the New York Times, dies at 82
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 8, 2012 1:00pm ET

If there was one wine writer every other wine writer always read, it was Frank Prial. For more than 30 years, his Wine Talk column for the New York Times set the tone and the topics of conversation about wine all around the world.

Prial died Nov. 6, at 82, of complications of prostate cancer. Eric Asimov, his successor at the Times, offers a thoughtful obituary, which traces Prial's life and achievements.

The recently-published New York Times Book of Wine allows us to hear Prial's voice directly, reprinting more than three dozen of his columns, written between 1981 and 2004. (Prial debuted Wine Talk in 1972.)

From his perch at the Times, Prial surveyed the world of wine with a reporter's nose for news, a connoisseur's taste for quality and a scrappy Irishman's disdain for cant and pretension. He enjoyed a good meal and admired a good bottle, but he always championed solid value, honest craftsmen and plain talk. Steadfastly fair and honest, he kept the wine world down to earth.

I met Prial in the early 1980s. I was a wine buyer and aspiring journalist in New York and ran into him now and then at tastings. He was the very picture of a newspaperman, always in a hurry, with rumpled clothes and a gruff manner, but he was unfailingly kind, with a sudden smile that lit up his face when he found something amusing. And much about the world amused Frank Prial.

Prial seemed at times to believe it was more important to deflate pretension about wine than to excite enthusiasm for it. He rarely waxed poetic about great bottles, saving his appreciation for the people who made the wines; his perceptive, generous portraits ranged from suave Remi Krug of Krug Champagne to irascible Walter Taylor of New York's Bully Hill.

In a 2004 tribute to renowned newsman Alistair Cooke, Prial wrote about their last conversation, a few days before Cooke died at 95. "We began with wine; we ended with whiskey. A good friendship." Our conversation with Prial also began with wine, and developed a strong spirit over the years. His voice will be missed.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 8, 2012 2:29pm ET
Frank was a great old-school newspaper man who just happened to like wine. He was smart and unpretentious and told great stories after he had a glass or two. He'll be missed.
David Strada
San Francisco, CA —  November 8, 2012 6:36pm ET
A kind, thoughtful, insightful, and generous tribute to a man who was all of that and more.
Peter Hellman
New York —  November 9, 2012 10:44am ET
You got Frank just right, Tom. As an aspiring wine writer myself, in the late 1970's, somebody suggested that I call Frank at the NYT Paris bureau. I did so timidly, assuming he'd brush me off. Instead, he invited me for a glass of wine at a cellar spot called "Le Franc Pinot,"I believe. We had one glass and then another. Then he invited me back to the pad he shared with Jean on the Ile St Louis. We had a little more wine and soon it was 2 am and the Metro was closed, so they put me up in a dormer room. And I, a stranger.

As a wine writer, even more as a generous spirit, Frank remains a model for us all.
Mara Farrell
New York —  November 9, 2012 3:53pm ET
Thanks Tom for a sensitive tribute. I did not know Frank Prial that well, he was always Mr. Prial to me - but have some terrific memories from the early 1990s when I worked for a number of French winemakers he was especially fond of. We shared many a great wine and meal together. He will be greatly missed.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  November 15, 2012 7:35pm ET
Cheers to you Tom on such a thoughtful piece, Wine Talk was the best Wednesday read in the US. Frank was a terrific journalist and straight forward newspaper guy. I had the pleasure of his company several times and got to judge wines with him too. I appreciate your words to such a great contributor to the subject of wine.

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