“I liked working with people like that,” Mr. DeLissio said. “It really was an exciting time,”
Tastes and the American wine industry changed, and so did the River Café wine list. Mr. DeLissio continued to buy high-end California wines, but as they were getting more powerful and alcoholic in the 1990s, he turned more toward European wines, building excellent selections of Burgundy and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
He fell in love with Spanish wines, and developed a personal passion for Madeira, the Portuguese fortified wine, putting together an extraordinary collection of old and rare bottles.
“Madeira is almost like a conversation,” Mr. DeLissio told me in 2007. “It’s the most thoughtful wine there is.”
Of the California cult cabernets that he collected, he said: “We were the first to put those on, and maybe the first to take them off. The wine list used to be 80 percent California, and now maybe it’s 25 percent.”
He reaffirmed his assessments after Hurricane Sandy, which poured seawater through the restaurant, destroying the kitchen, the electrical system, a new Steinway grand piano and gushing through the wine storage room on the dining-room level, ruining a significant portion of the 10,000-bottle collection.
Some were damaged on the outside, rendering them unsellable. But they were still drinkable, which gave Mr. DeLissio a chance to taste many precious California bottles.
“Quite often, the most expensive, the most allocated, the most highly rated wines were just not worth it,” he said in 2014. “It took Sandy to make me say, ‘Man, what was I thinking?’”