Last week’s column featured part one of my interview with Frank Prial, former wine columnist for the New York Times and author of the books Wine Talk and Decantations. His column, “Wine Talk,” which ended in 2005, was the go-to resource to learn about trends in wine making and to read travelogue accounts of his fantastical epicurean excursions.
This week, I pick up with Prial’s comments on the changes he’s seen in fine dining over the decades.
Penniless Epicure: What shuttered restaurant would you say has been the greatest loss for New York during the last 20 years?
Frank Prial: I think one of the great losses was Joe Baum and the whole Restaurant Associates world. So much imagination and creativity went into those restaurants. And the idea of making Americans feel comfortable going into a fine restaurant. Baum, to me, was the beginner of that. If not the beginner, certainly one who did remarkable things to advance it. His first restaurant was at Newark Airport of all places. And it was called The Newarker. This was at a time when people went to airports for fun. He had one at LaGuardia. Then, of course, there was The Four Seasons and Windows on the World. Absolutely spectacular. The idea was that you could be elegant, and you could still be relaxed. I miss those restaurants. They were something really special. You don’t get that much anymore.
PE: Do you think that the recent celebrity chef craze has had any effect on the wine world?
Prial: This whole business of the celebrity chef I find really tiresome. You read the little things in the New Yorker every week in “Tables for Two”—they’ll say something like, “You will remember Jeremy, who came from San Francisco last year, and last spring when he was operating such and such place, then in the summer when he was operating such and such place, and now, this week, he’s opening a really new place called such and such.” And I have some friends who—I don’t let them trap me anymore! I say, “Wait till it’s been there for two months. I’m not going to the hot new little place on East Ninth Street. Absolutely not!” I think the celebrity chef is OK, if he got his celebrity justly. But these young guys who are just trying something new each place they go, then moving on, I find that to be counterproductive, as far as good food is concerned. As far as wine’s concerned, though, drinking wine and knowing a little about wine is cool right now. That’s part of the scene. I don’t think it’s had any effect on the wine business though.
PE: How do you feel about the internationalization of grapes like Pinot Noir and Riesling? Do you believe that certain grapes can only be grown to produce their absolute best product in certain areas, or do you think that’s an outdated idea?
Prial: I don’t think anybody knows yet. Now you can get a Pinot Noir from New Zealand—you can get a Pinot Noir from anywhere! Oregon was really where it started in this country. Then California took it up and wiped out the Oregonians, as far as I’m concerned. But there’s a lot of poor Pinot Noir made in California, too. There’s a lot of junk Cabernet too, though. A lot of junk Merlot. Maybe we should get away, once again, from doing varietals. I don’t know. But we should try to get away from the idea that “Pinot Noir” means a great, great wine. Because it doesn’t. At its best, it’s a noble grape, just the way Cabernet is and Merlot is. But it would be wrong for people to think that because it says “Chardonnay” on the bottle that it’s something special. That’s marketing. I would love to see, with all the technical advancements that we have, someone making great wines that are not so expensive. I think that even with all the modern equipment we have and all the study that’s been done, there is still something to be said for great soil, good grapes and skillful wine makers.
PE: I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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