Joseph Delissio of NYC’s The River Café on Drinking Smarter - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Joseph Delissio of NYC’s The River Café on Drinking Smarter

Joseph Delissio’s perspective on the wine market starts with a view from under the Brooklyn Bridge across to Manhattan’s financial district. He first stepped onto the fashionable barge that’s home to The River Café in 1977, and soon became the wine director. His list, constantly evolving and currently hovering at 850 wines, is a significant barometer of wine trends in the Big Apple.

The New Sweet Spot

This has been an interesting year. People are really buying price point more than they ever did. People are drinking as much wine as they ever did, but spending less money.

Our average bottle price last year was between $80 and $120. Now it’s between $55 and $90. It went down 20 percent.

The monster cabs have slowed down. The Montelena Estate, those wines are still selling at $300. The $1,000-plus bottles of wine have dramatically slowed down. Wines that I didn’t sell so much before, dolcettos and barberas and crianza Riojas, they were window dressing, but now I see that I’m selling more and more of them. To me, that’s a healthy change, but it tells you more about the economy than it does about the wine business.

People are drinking a lot more non-vintage Champagne, rather than vintage, or more people are inclined to get a glass of Champagne instead of ordering a bottle.

I’m selling a lot more Chablis, which I’m happy about. I’m selling less Puligny, less Chassagne, less Meursault, so people are going down a level in cost, but to me, for the most part, Chablis may be a better wine with most foods, because they’re not as wooded. Guests are saving money and drinking better, or smarter, or more properly, at least to my palate.

On Madeira

I’ve probably pushed that to some level: It’s overtaken Port to some degree. But it’s because I’m behind it and my staff knows I’m behind it. And so I get them to taste it. You can’t taste Madeira and not understand it. It’s the easiest wine to understand and the one sommeliers spend less time with on their wine list. And talk about real value: You can still get some aged wines—25-year-old Madeiras—for $200.

Madeira is one of the personal stamps of the list. I don’t think there’s anyone in New York that sells as much Madeira as we do. It’s the perfect wine because you open up the bottles and they last forever. After Sandy, The River Café was closed for a time, and when we reopened, those open bottles of Madeira were just fine. Vintage Port, it starts fading after two or three days. We offer two or three Vintage Ports by the glass—I should probably not do that, should probably stick with Tawnies—those bottles will hold up for months—but there are some really great values out there in Vintage Port.

If the sales have increased for Madeira, it’s because we put effort in that area. We have a special dessert, and for a $20 supplement, you get a one-ounce glass of three 10-year-olds: a Verdelho, a Bual and a Malmsey. That started years ago as something we did to coincide with an article that you wrote or the Times wrote on us with Madeira. We expected it to run for a month or two and it’s never been taken off the list, because we sell some every night.

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