For more than 30 years, one man has had the privilege of experiencing the greatest marvels the wine world had to offer, and he wrote about them for the New York Times. That man is Frank Prial, and 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 fantastical epicurean excursions. He was also unafraid to deflate and demystify a great many myths that kept the wine world at an arm’s length from the common man.
A 1951 graduate of Georgetown University, Prial studied English literature and wrote hard news before beginning “Wine Talk” in 1972. I recently sat down with him to discuss his experiences, and to tap into his perspective on the ever-changing landscape of New York City wine and fine dining.
Q: What would you say is the most important change you’ve seen the world of wine go through since you began your column in 1972?
A: I’d say commercialization. It was still something for a relatively small group of people—I’m talking about fine wine. The wine revolution started in this country in the fifties. America has always had a wine-drinking population, but it was never mainstream. The middle class started getting serious about wine, I’d say, in the sixties. Because it was half food, half art. It was a lot of things. And now the biggest change is that it’s become really widely commercial. And the advertising is for a mass-market product, whereas in the past they made you think it was for the elite, that you were taking part in something unusual when you became a wine drinker.
Q: How have you seen the actual taste of wine change in the last three to five decades?
A: They taste better! Winemaking has improved so incredibly that if you had tasted a 1963 wine, you would have said it tasted terrible. But there are no 1963s anymore [1963 was a notoriously poor year in Bordeaux]. Those bad years in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, they don’t really happen anymore because they can manipulate the wine. That’s probably not the right word… It’s the accurate word, but not the one people like. Also, the whole idea of grape selection, cleanliness, reverse osmosis—a million things have been going on that make better wine out of, essentially, the same grapes. But then you’ve also got better grapes. The quality of wine, in general, is better.
Q: Are you a proponent of wine manipulation?
A: Everyone likes to think that the best wines are the ones that are “naturally” made. But I think a great deal of that is a myth. People always did what they had to do to get their wine, and a lot of what they did in the old days was not good. It was illegal. Adding this, adding that… I remember there was a French writer who said that when you drove up through the Rhone valley, up toward Paris, there were days when you couldn’t get any sugar for your coffee. There are books from the 17th century about fraud in winemaking. George Debouef was caught putting one cru into another a couple of years ago. It goes on and on. But generally speaking, I think winemaking has benefited from science.
Q: How have you seen fine dining change in the last several decades?
A: More and more places are saying, “Well, we don’t really need a sommelier.” I look at a restaurant like The Oyster Bar. They’ve got an immense wine list, but nobody drinks 90 percent of it. They drink from a small group of things that they know. And there are no sommeliers there. Also, everything’s gotten more casual. There was a time that if you bought a fish at The Ritz in Paris, you had two guys to bring it out, one guy to take the cover off, another guy who can take the skin off and then two people to debone it. That’s all finished. They can’t afford it. For economic reasons, everything has become more casual.
More from Frank Prial next week in part two of my interview.
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