Frank J. Prial, 82, guide to generations of wine-lovers


The New York Times

Frank J. Prial, whose Wine Talk column in The New York Times introduced many Americans to the world of wine in the 1970s, when a new passion for fine food and drink was taking hold in the country, died on Tuesday in East Orange, N.J. He was 82.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, his wife, Jeanne, said.

Prial’s column ran for more than three decades, catering to ever more cultivated wine drinkers. But when he began writing it in 1972, the United States had only just embarked on a food and wine revolution. Postwar prosperity was providing many Americans with the means to travel and sample fine food and wine abroad; Julia Child offered French culture on plates; the sleepy California wine industry had been jolted by the dynamic Robert Mondavi.

Consumer publications like Wine Spectator and Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate had yet to appear, however, so it fell to Prial and other newspaper columnists to introduce readers to the pleasures of Beaujolais Nouveau and fine Burgundy, and to the people, politics, business and culture of the wine world.

Prial asked, for example, how it was that so many émigré families from Ireland found themselves in Bordeaux owning prestigious chateaus. And why had Louis P. Daniel, the proprietor of Le Chambertin, a Manhattan restaurant with one of New York’s best cellars, been largely forgotten when he died in 1998?

When Prial wrote about individual wines in his down-to-earth manner, it was not beneath him to appraise Two-Buck Chuck, the discount wine sold at Trader Joe’s under the Charles Shaw label for $1.99 a bottle. “Someone,” he wrote in 2003, “referred to it recently as the ultimate fundraiser wine — perfect for large groups of people who really don’t care what they are drinking.”

Prial was never averse to poking fun at those who took wine, and themselves, too seriously. One target was obscure wine vocabulary. “Winespeak,” he wrote in 1987, “can be traced to the gothic piles of Oxbridge, where, in the 19th century, certain dons, addled by claret, bested one another in fulsome tributes to the grape.”

Francis Joseph Prial was born in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 4, 1930. He graduated from Georgetown University in 1951 and served in the Coast Guard during the Korean War. He was a reporter for The Newark Evening News and The World-Telegram in New York (both papers have since closed) before joining The Wall Street Journal as a feature writer.

Prial joined The Times as a reporter in 1970 and began his column on a tentative basis after writing articles about food and wine on his travels to France with his wife. “We’ll try it for a couple of months,” A.M. Rosenthal, then the managing editor, told him, Prial recalled in his book “Decantations.”

In 1977 the column became a mainstay of the paper’s newly introduced Living section, aimed at an affluent and growing readership interested in food and wine. The column also began appearing on two Sundays a month in The New York Times Magazine.

Prial, who had continued to be a news reporter while writing the column, dropped Wine Talk in 1979 to become a correspondent in Paris. He resumed the column in 1984 and retired in 2004. Fluent in French, he was made a member of the Legion d’Honneur by the French government.

Besides his wife, the former Jeanne Shook, Prial is survived by three sons, Frank Jr., Mark and Dunstan; and seven grandchildren.

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