Frank Prial and I were in an elevator together, on our way out of a wine event. This was years ago, when he was still actively writing about wine for The New York Times. Prial was cordial and a bit gruff as we chatted uncomfortably. He had the gravelly voice and the gumshoes of a beat reporter on his way to a crime scene. And he had little time for effete interactions with a wine writer.
In fact, Prial had written a back page story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine lampooning what he considered the ridiculousness of our food and wine writing (a disdain Times reporters seem to share…our having been lambasted recently for absurdly specific wine and food pairings in our tasting notes by Eric Asimov, the current Times wine critic, in his new book, How to Love Wine).
Prial and I talked about the weather, or something equally innocuous.
I enjoyed his gritty style of writing, his careful distance in reportage and his profiles of producers and regions in the Wednesday section of the Times. When he was on, he was one of the best writers on wine we had in the country. At other times, he felt like he was going through the motions to fill the space in the paper with service pieces about Sherry or Beaujolais, or what wine to serve with Thanksgiving turkey…though a similar critique could be made of every newspaper writer in the country. When Prial was at his peak, in the mid-’80s, I read the Wednesday wine column religiously.
There in the elevator, I tried to think of a column to comment on, or a question to ask him that would get more than a grunt. Then as we reached the ground floor, he smiled and wished me well with an unexpected warmth, adjusting his jacket lapels and striding off like a boxer in his black shoes.
Frank Prial passed away on Tuesday, at the age of 82.