New York Times
Wine Talk, January 17, 2001
A CELLAR MASTER OF A CERTAIN VINTAGE
by Frank J. Prial
Continued from Page 1 ...
It was more complicated than he
admits, starting as he did from zero. "At first I
listened to the salesmen," he said, "even if I didn't
like the wine. I figured I didn't know anything.
Eventually, I decided that is was time to buy what I liked.
I traveled to California and to Europe. And it was a lot
easier after that."
DeLissio no longer hovers over nervous guests, recommending Volnay
with the veal. He chooses the wines, buys them, coddles
them. He consults with the chef, Brad Steelman, to
match wines with special dishes, like a Cuné Reserve 1991 with the
has worked with many River Café chefs, including Larry Forgione
and Charlie Palmer. These days he trains others to push the
Volnay. Right now it is Scott Calvert, who has been with the
Café for seven years but sommelier for only a few weeks.
tastes changed? "When I started, about a third of our
liquor business was wine," Mr. DeLissio said. "The
rest was spirits. Now, 75 percent of our alcohol business is
wine. In the 60's our wine sales were almost all
French. So was our wine list. Then I got fascinated by
American wines, long before they were really popular. And
now we seem to be going back to French wines."
DeLissio theory: It's all economics. When French wine prices
go through the roof, American wines become the favorites.
When their prices balloon, the French come back. Wines are
not inexpensive at the River Café but they can be less costly than
at other places around town, particularly at the top end of the
Like Harry's at
Hanover Square, Veritas on East 20th Street and other restaurants
that offer hard-to-find wines at decent prices, the River Café has
a policy of buying and holding rare bottles. Thus, Mr.
DeLissio can offer seven vintages of Château Petrus, six of
Château Rayas, a rare Châteauneuf-du-Pape an nine vintages of Le
Montrachet from Domaine Ramonet. The average price for a
bottle of wine is around $55.
roughly 500-bottle list is not the longest in the city, but it is
one of the broadest. Not many restaurants in New York offer
California cabernets going back to 1969; few iof any offer white
Burgundy verticals from Ramonet and Leflaive, along with red
Burgundy verticals from Leroy and Romanée-Conti. A chateau
Lafite-Rothschild 1982 goes for $1,000, but some restaurants
charge three times that.
large-bottle collection is exceptional as well. How about,
for example, an imperial - six liters - of Beaulieu Vineyards 1991
Georges de Latour Private Reserve? Or a double magnum of the
1974 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon? The cost is
$600 and $1,200, respectively, but these bottles are not for
has an unexpectedly good selection of Spanish wines and
unexpectedly short selection of Italian offerings. Port,
Madeira and Cognac are well represented. The sherries
include a fino flown in fresh from Spain.
the old days, people asked for recommendations," he
said. "Now all they want to know is if it's from a hot
new winery and does it have a high score from the critics.
a wine with some age? Forget it. Everyone wants the
most recent release from some fancy little winery that has no wine
for sale anyway. It's a dangerous trend."
Mr. DeLissio began to oversee the wine operations at Mr.
O'Keeffe's other restaurants, the Water Club and Pershing
Square. And he has formed a consulting business to aid
places whose sommeliers don't have 23 years' experience.
There was a book last year, "The River Café Wine Primer"
(Little Brown), and he writes about wine for Bartender
With all this, I
hope he doesn't leave the River Café. It's comforting
dealing with a pro.