The Penniless Epicure: Prial, Part II

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Last week, I 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.

Do you think that the recent celebrity chef craze has
had any effect on the wine world?

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.

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?

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

I couldn’t have said it better myself.