Unlike Rod Phillips (see above), New York Times wine critic Prial can be both stiff and fawning, but he brings to his reporting two invaluable qualities: he’s been on the beat for 30 years, and he keeps an eye skinned for the beat less beaten.
For his first book since Wine Talk (1978), Prial gathers pieces that he’s contributed to his “Wine Talk” column over the last 20 years. Status-conscious to a fault and given to a degree of toadyism—“urbane doyen,” “golden Lexus,” and “a double magnum for $8,000” fall from his lips like crumbs from dry toast—he can also be lazy, as when he builds an entire article out of pull-quotes from A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals. Fortunately, however, he has much of interest to say about the culture of wine (he doesn’t waste much time with tasting notes), informative and fascinating things that allow wine’s bigger picture to take shape. There is a terrific column on the Irish immigrants to France, the “Wild Geese” who lent their names to Lynch-Bages and Leoville-Barton. There is time well-spent with small producers, including an extended article on the garagistes of France and cult wines and custom-crush operations of California, and three good columns on Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, who is always happy to administer some much-needed oxygen to the rarified world of making wine. Prial is good at the odd angle—how “alternative wood products” are used to put the oak in Chardonnay, or how the Scots make wine out of silver birch—and his moments of humor come like fat drops of rain after a Sonoma summer: One January (“the time of year when even normally prudent people lose all sense of caution”), he makes a prediction that “Four more bottles of wine bearing Thomas Jefferson’s initials will mysteriously turn up at a wine auction in Zurich.”
Like a good newspaperman, Prial deploys his nose for the story before taking in the bouquet.