Joseph DeLissio of Brooklyn’s The River Café on Rioja and California Cabernet - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Joseph DeLissio of Brooklyn’s The River Café on Rioja and California Cabernet

There are some interesting parallels in your lists of top-selling wines by the bottle and by the glass. One is in Rioja, with Marqués de Cáceres at the number two spot by the bottle, and Murrieta’s 2005 Castillo Ygay in fourth place by the glass.

The Murrieta is the only Rioja we offer by the glass. I’ve always been fond of Murrieta and I just got a chance to taste the 2004 Gran Reserva: It doesn’t happen that much any more that you really get excited about a wine. I bought a bunch of that. I like to get people a little more substance when they’re ordering by the glass. The Cáceres is a little more traditional; it sells on its own.

The interesting thing is that we’re still strong with Spanish wines, we have a lot of the other wines but Rioja is the king of red wines in Spain. I’m a traditionalist by nature. It used to be that Rioja tasted like Rioja. Now there are many wines that I can’t tell if they’re from Spain or Italy or California. It’s getting harder and harder to see the difference between winemaking regions. When a wine does show that difference, it sticks out in your mind more. We’ve turned so many people onto Murrieta (it was out of the market for a while); I get calls a few times a week from people who want to hear about the wine they tasted.

Then you have a Sancerre among your top-selling bottles and a Marlborough sauvignon blanc among your most popular wines by the glass.
Sancerre by the glass has been very successful, but it also sells strongly by the bottle. It’s great for so many different applications.

We are quite an international restaurant, so I do feel an obligation to showcase wines from different regions by the glass. The Crossings pleases most people who have it. And it’s cheaper than Sancerre.

How is it that a Chablis is out-selling your most popular California chardonnay, from Napa Valley.
Chablis may be the highest-selling chardonnay. But in general, I would sell more California chardonnay than Burgundy. We’ve got three different Mt. Edens, Solitude from Carneros. And Chateau Montelena makes a good chardonnay. But those big, cult chardonnays? If there is a category of wine where I have seen customer enjoyment decrease, it is that style of chardonnay. A lot of second bottles don’t get ordered; it’s not uncommon to see people not finish it. I blame the media for that style of wine. Meursaults and Chassagnes can be big wines, but to me, California chardonnays seldom have the complexity, nuances, acidity and age-ability of Burgundy.

What’s happening to [chardonnay] is what happened to red zin. They’ve become so big and powerful and opinionated that people don’t enjoy them as much. They’re not elegant wines, for the most part. That’s not a blanket statement, but the vast majority of those expensive cult chardonnays are being enjoyed less and less.

Honestly, I think it’s a healthy trend. People are really enjoying sauvignon blanc now. We have to credit New Zealand with that—they were so well priced and people got used to that price. You see them everywhere now. That’s a whole different taste direction, motivated by the fact that it was good wine and inexpensive.

You’ve listed three pinot noirs among your top-ten most popular wines: A wine from Burgundy, one from Russian River Valley and Oregon.
Pinot has become accepted as the red wine—it’s gotten so huge. They are lower in alcohol, not so different from Rioja in many stylistic comparisons.

I would say price plays a big role in the decision with pinot. If people are spending over $100 on pinot, 90 percent of what they’re ordering will be French. If they’re spending between $70 and $100, that will be mostly California.

[In general,] people in the know about wine, if they find [California and French] wines in a similar price range, they’ll go with the French Champagne, red or white Burgundy. But when it comes to choosing between California cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux, that would be a split decision. At $60 to $120, I would say Bordeaux doesn’t dominate those sales. Among consumers, there’s a bigger acceptance of paying more for California cabernet—$80 to $140. I think California cabernet sauvignon is accepted as a closer standard to Bordeaux, price-wise and quality-wise, than chardonnay or pinot noir .

I still have some of the older cabernets from Mayacamas, BV, Inglenook and Heitz on the list. Those wines lasted. So many of the contemporary wines, how can they age with all that alcohol and all that fruit? We’ve gone backwards. With all the attention that California brought with the rich, ripe, extracted wines, the subtle, intelligent girl in the corner doesn’t get much attention—especially with the drinking public. It used to be there was a progression of taste. But with the people in their thirties and forties, I don’t see that progression continuing. I don’t think they’ve graduated, and that may be because the majority of wines out there in the price range aren’t educational tools anymore.

Has an Aussie shiraz always been the least-expensive wine on your list?
It has been for a while—that Lindemans has always been one of them. And I sell a fair amount of it. Some people just want to have a glass of wine. Or they’re on a budget. They’re not looking for something sophisticated. My job is to make every consumer comfortable ordering a bottle of wine. We’ve also got the Cune Gran Real Crianza at $40—a lovely wine and I sell a lot of that too. There are a lot of people who just want an inexpensive wine.

What do you see happening with after-dinner wines?
I sell so much Madeira. That’s an area that should have a lot of potential growth, because when people are exposed to Madeira they want to drink it. And I can’t say the same for Port. We probably sell little bit more of the Tawnies and LBVs than Madeira. I used to sell a lot of bottles [of Vintage Port]; that doesn’t happen anymore.

You note that the prices on your wine list have increased a bit.
In all honesty, The River Café is a little unique: The vast majority of our guests are tourists, 70 percent (well, 68 to be exact), and the last two years have been record years for us. I’m not raising prices just to raise them; wineries are increasing their prices now. Two years ago, if a wine went up in price, I would take it off and put on something else. Now there is some acceptance to passing on the price increase. If I like the wine enough then I’ll take it on and increase the price. That’s a sign of the economy getting a little more grounded.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

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