Great chefs and major hurricanes have come and gone at The River Café, but this Brooklyn institution continues to reinvent itself. Set on a barge docked under the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s one of the most romantic dining rooms in New York, with one of the best views of the city. Joseph DeLissio has been the wine director here since 1977, certainly the longest run at any major restaurant we know in New York. Recently, he hired Roger Dagorn, MS, another legendary sommelier who’s worked at Chanterelle, Porter House and Toqueville. “Between me and him, I think we have a century of experience,” DeLissio says. “I hope he’s influencing all of our other somms.”
How did you go about paring the list down to the 800 labels you have today?
I try to represent the country that represents the variety the best. We’ve cut back on California cabernet and I only list one California sauvignon blanc [Frog’s Leap]. We used to have some fringe things, a few bottles of Chile and Argentina; we’ve cut that off. I wanted to strengthen the main areas: France, Italy, Spain, Germany. We offer a lot of cabernet on the ‘California Classics’ list, but only seven on the regular list. Now we have more pinots on the list than cabernets.
Your top-selling list is dominated by pinot noir: Domaine Eden from the Santa Cruz Mountains ($85), Merry Edwards from the Russian River Valley ($97) and Mongeard-Mugneret’s Savigny-lès-Beaune Premier Cru ($115).
I think, outside of the really expensive California cabernets, we probably sell more California pinot than cabernet, and that’s very different than in the past. We’ve got the Foxen on now; and we have sold the Peter Michael and the Kistler [pinot noir]. There’s a necessary spot for them on the list; both are high in alcohol, hard on the wood, and people like that style—the people who are excited by the Bourbons and gins—so I include a small proportion on my list—maybe ten percent. A lot of the millennials who drink those big, strong wines, they don’t order a second bottle. The people who order a second bottle are drinking Chianti, Rioja or lighter pinot noirs.
And when they do order cabernet?
I have noticed an uptick in Bordeaux. Third growths, fourth growths, classified growths but lesser ones. Bordeaux has started inching up a little. People started thinking of California as cabernet and not Bordeaux. I have three half bottles of Bordeaux. Half bottles enable you to sell things that maybe you might otherwise sell less of. We have Clos du Marquis, Echo de Lynch Bages and Les Forts de Latour—higher priced half bottles but they do move. We sell more second bottles of Bordeaux than cabernet or zin.
With Roederer Brut Premier among your top-selling bottle and glass sales, and Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé your best-selling new addition this past year, Champagne does well for you.
The River Café is a celebratory restaurant. You add Sunday and Saturday brunch into that and Champagne sales are always pretty high. And as for the Gratien Rosé, I do see a trend with rosé Champagne being more accepted and chic. For a long time, it was considered a lesser Champagne. We offer nine rosé Champagnes by the bottle—just because the owner likes it and I like it.
You have two village-level Chablis neck and neck in your top-selling bottles list—Piuze and Drouhin Clos Vaudon, both 2015s, both $66 to $68.
It shows you something about the price range and about Chablis. The Piuze is an underground, newer thing, the Drouhin is older. A lot of guests want something different and new, a lot want the comfort food. On their own, guests tend to go with the Drouhin. We have to recommend the Piuze; I think it has a little more purity to it, but Drouhin does a good job with Chablis in that price range.
On Blandy’s Madeiras as your top-selling after-dinner wines.
We’re a Madeira destination; we promote it. We stopped doing Vintage Port by the glass; if it stays open, it deteriorates. You get tired of throwing out or serving slightly faded Vintage Port. I’m going to do an experiment with Vintage Port, preselling glasses to guests when they sit down—telling them we will only open one bottle for the night, that it’s a special thing.