New York Times
Wine Talk, January 17, 2001
A CELLAR MASTER OF A CERTAIN VINTAGE
by Frank J. Prial
It's easy to get tired of New York in
midwinter: the crowds, the angry drivers, the dirty
snow. Some people head for Miami, Me, I take the A Train
to Brooklyn. With the sun on the water, the Brooklyn
Bridge soaring overhead and Lower Manhattan a thousand yards
away, there is no place like it to see New York. It's a
John Sloan painting and an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem and an
afternoon spent taking it in will get you through to April
better than a weekend in Paris.
In fact, I had a second agenda when I walked
down Old Fulton Street last week from the subway stop to the
River Cage, the restaurant nearly under the bridge.
Someone had told me that the average time a California winemaker
stays at any one job is four years. With new restaurants
opening almost hourly, sommeliers in California and everywhere
else seem to move every six weeks. I've heard that
"Excellent choice, sir" line from wine stewardess I'd
swear were not old enough to drink two years ago. Joe
DeLissio has been the wine director at the River Café for 23
years. That has to be some sort of record, and I was
curious to see how he was holding up.
Mr. DeLissio started out as one of those
"excellent choice" kids: He was 23 when Buzzy O'Keeffe,
who owns the River Café, hired him as wine director. He
has literally grown up with the wine boom.
"My father owned a saloon in
Brooklyn," said Mr. DeLissio, who is 46, "but I knew
nothing about wine, nothing. It was what the guys drank in
my father's place when they were off the hard stuff."
Mr. O'Keeffe didn't know much about wine
either, and the Frenchman who had been buying wine for him had
his own way of adding up bills. "I was working as a
psychiatric therapist during the day and an aspiring rock
musician at night," Mr. DeLissio recalled. "Buzzy
hired me because my mother, who did his books, vouched for
me. Actually, it wasn't hard. I bought the wine and
I sold it. It's like Pete Rose used to say when someone
would ask him how he did what he did -- 'I see the ball,' he'd
say, 'and I hit the ball.'"