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Your Education on:  WINE



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New York Times - WINE TALKThe New York Times
Wine Talk, January 17, 2001

by Frank J. Prial

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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."

Mr. 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 buffalo steak.

Mr. DeLissio 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.

Have 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."

The 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 price list.

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.

The 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.

The 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 ordinary mortals.

The Café 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.

"In 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.

"Suggest 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."

Recently, 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 Magazine.

With all this, I hope he doesn't leave the River Café.   It's comforting dealing with a pro.


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Joseph DeLissio's book has also appeared in the following articles: 

The New York Times Beverage Media 06-00 Little Brown and Company - News of Books
Staten Island Advance FOODday 040401 Wine Enthusiast Magazine 03-01 BARTENDER Magazine - Summer 2000

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