Jay Goldstein had been a longtime salesman for Empire Merchants — a major wine and liquor distributor in the Northeast — looking after all the firm’s accounts in Westchester County when he received a call from one his merchants, asking if he knew of anyone who might like to buy his liquor store. The store owner explained that his wife had recently passed away and the store in question, a small family business in South Salem — now Salem Wine & Liquor, but also known as Salem Liquors — had become too much for him to look after.
Goldstein went up to see him and a deal was struck.
That was in 2009. Originally opened as a restaurant in the 1930s, the long, low-slung building had been turned into a liquor store by one Si Lavatori in 1966. Years later, Lavatori — the family name is well-known in South Salem — turned the store over to his sister and her husband (the man who later sold it to Goldstein,) before going on to open the town’s Spring Street Market.
Jay’s son Michael was a senior in high school when his father took the store over. “He and I ripped down everything together and we tried to clean it up,” Michael explains. “(The previous owners) were an elderly couple, and they lived in Ridgefield and they used the store as a hangout.” He points to a row of signed dollar bills above the counter, yellowed with age and nicotine. “That’s how much cigarette smoke they had in here. We had to scrub it down, tear up the floors. But people in the town kind of grew up knowing the family that ran it. And the owner was friends with (the actor) George C. Scott, who lived across the street.”
Old photographs in the Goldsteins’ possession tell more of the story — the restaurant in the 1930s, the hotel that originally stood behind the gas station that adjoins the store, and a view of the site in the great blizzard of 1948, among them.
Today, under the Goldstein father and son’s joint ownership, the store punches well above its weight. “We get people from all over,” says Michael. They’ll come all the way from New Jersey, he says, if they see a specific brand advertised that they know Salem Liquors stocks, with local business coming from Ridgefield, New Canaan and Norwalk. The store stands on Route 35 at a major crossroads connecting Ridgefield, Katonah and Stamford, so is perfectly placed to attract customers from those towns and everywhere in between.
“A lot of people just love the atmosphere here,” Michael stresses, “so even though there’s a million places in Ridgefield, we get very loyal, repeat customers here. It’s a little bit of a different vibe from a lot of the box stores.”
In the area of fine wines, the store is best known for its Napa Valley wines and French wines. “We don’t give out their names,” Michael says, “but we have a lot of celebrities that come in here. Newscasters, actors: They just love the place. They go right for the cellar and collector wines.”
“And if they want something special, we’ll search it out,” Jay adds.
While they have not returned to the regular wine tastings they used to hold before the pandemic, the Goldsteins regularly keep a bottle open for customers to try and are all too happy to open a particular bottle for a customer showing serious interest. They also offer a delivery service and supply wine and liquor for parties.
A word about Champagne. It’s been in short supply recently, say the Goldsteins (supply generally being a gripe they will return to, along with the rest of us). And the price, they point out, has increased by up to 50% since the start of the pandemic, so that inevitably, the authentic French bubbly has given way to the less expensive, more accessible Prosecco, which is popular year-round. And because people tend to mix their bubbles with juice, “they don’t always care what it tastes like,” says Michael.
As for personal taste in wine, Jay’s preference is for Napa Cabs. He recalls starting in the business 55 years ago, when the wine would be shipped from California to Port Newark, New Jersey, on the SS Petri, a glass-lined tank ship. “The ship had four compartments, for red, white, Port and Muscatel,” he recalls, with a smile and a hint of nostalgia. “Then they’d run a hose from the ship to where the wine was bottled. Italian-Swiss Colony was the big name then, which later became part of United Vintners.” (Today, the descendant of the original company is owned by the E&J Gallo Winery.)
The Goldsteins offer invaluable advice to customers. “Ninety-five percent of the time they come back and tell us they loved what we gave them,” says Michael, clearly proud of the service he and his dad provide.
Father and son are also great supporters of local causes. They recently donated wine and seltzer for the Lewisboro Playground Extension project and are helping Animal Nation Inc. raise the $100,000 it needs to save its Farm Rescue & Sanctuary, which sits on privately owned land, from being sold. The Wolf Conservation Center, also in South Salem, is another cause they champion. Animal lovers themselves, the Goldsteins are helped in-store most days by Poppy, their Havachon (Havanese and Bichon Frise mix,) who is a favorite with customers and, according to Michael, “one of the more famous dogs in this town.”
Back to the shelves and when it comes to spirits, gin still holds sway, with numerous craft distilleries popping up all over, nationwide and abroad. A new item the store carries is the violet-bottled gin from southern England’s Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” was filmed. The gin, which we wrote about in February 2019 WAG, is made using botanicals from the castle gardens. But Salem Liquors is particularly known for its strong bourbon selection, including many rare bourbons, a section the Goldsteins have worked hard to build up. “Although, they don’t last long,” says Jay. “They come in, they go out.” He points out that any gaps along the store’s densely packed shelves are due only to supply-chain issues, something affecting so many businesses and industries right now.
“When the pandemic hit and there were no bartenders, everyone started flocking to the RTDs — the ‘Ready to Drinks,’” Michael says. These are cocktails in premixed bottles or cans. “It was a whole sector that had never existed in the 11 years that we’d been here pre-pandemic.” Companies had been producing these cans for some time, but until the pandemic they had never been popular, at least not with the Goldsteins’ customers. While admitting he doesn’t know if the trend will last, Michael feels there is a good chance it will. “Right now, we’re selling more High Noon than anything,” he says, referring to the 100-calorie, gluten-free, no-sugar-added cans of “hard” seltzer — vodka mixed with various fruit juices — which have taken America generally by storm. That said, production of High Noon, too, has been hit by a shortage of cans, a situation that has also affected the brand’s competitor, On the Rocks, ready-made cocktails that come in glass bottles.
Other popular libations include sake, sales of which continue to increase, and Japanese whiskey, and the store is one of the few in the region to stock Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, the highly sought-after UK-made gin-based liqueur, infused with herbed botanicals and orange.
But if there’s a spirit of the moment, it is undoubtedly tequila — notwithstanding a growing market too for its sophisticated cousin, mezcal.
“Everyone wants Casamigos, the tequila brand founded by George Clooney, Rande Gerber and Michael Meldman, but you can’t get it right now, so we usually have a bottle of something else open for people to try,” says Michael. And while Casamigos still carries considerable cachet, thanks to the combined power of celebrity and advertising, the younger Goldstein asserts that once people are introduced to an alternative quality tequila, they’re easily converted.
“Only don’t put that in print,” he says. “I don’t want George coming after me.”
Salem Wine & Liquor is at 1156 Route 35 in South Salem. For more, visit salemliquors.com.