Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Four Men and a Little Liquor Store

I've been wanting to write about the Park Avenue Liquor Shop for some time. Edible Manhattan gave me the opportunity. Here's the article:
The Goldsteins' Goldmine
By Robert Simonson 
The deceptively small Park Avenue Liquor Shop dwells in the shadows cast by the skyscrapers of east Midtown Manhattan. Beneath the showroom’s floor lie canyons and towers of another sort. Endless cases of wine and spirits are stacked eight feet high. A narrow avenue runs through them, and radiating out to the left and right are even slimmer side streets, just big enough to permit the passage of a very thin man.
The basement runs under the liquor store—and under Liberty Travel next door—and includes a wine cave that Jonathan Goldstein—a member of the third generation of Goldsteins to run the shop—carved out of what was once a ladies’ bathroom. It’s home to the store’s most prized bottles: a 1961 Mouton Rothschild, a ’47 Cheval Blanc, an ’85 Sassicaia. Bottles of Petrus from ’82 and ’53. There’s no wine under $200, and many more above that price.
This remarkable collection is just a fraction of Park Avenue’s holding. There’s more—much more, thousands of cases—across town in a warehouse that used to house the nightclub Tunnel. The Goldsteins can lay their hands on any of those stocks the day they’re asked for. “You could walk out right now with a case of ’82 Petrus,” says Jonathan, 41.

Requests for rare and pricey wines—and single-malt Scotches, a house specialty—come in every day. They’d flummox many another liquor store, but more often than not Park Avenue can fill the order instantaneously. “There are all these shows on cable about flipping houses,” says Eric Goldstein, 39, Jonathan’s brother; both are sons of patriarch Michael Goldstein. “My father flips wine.”
Michael also flips Scotch. Despite its vast wine holdings (they carry more than 550 Bordeaux labels alone), Park Avenue is perhaps even better known as a destination for the whiskey fanatic. This is largely due to “the List” and “the Wall.” The List is a tally of more than 400 single-malt Scotch whiskeys the little shop has in stock, everything from a $20.50 Speyburn Braden Orach to the $20,000 bottle of Ardbeg Double Barrel, to roughly three dozen different expressions of the Islay whiskey Bruichladdich ($45 to $2,400). The Wall is the long, tall shelving behind the main counter, heavy with hundreds of bottles of Scotch. Arranged into regional categories like Speyside and Highlands, it’s an imposing sight. In fact Park Avenue Liquor Shop has the largest selection of single-malts of any retail outlet in the country. This has helped turn the modestlooking store into a sort of peaty Tiffany’s for malt-obsessed New York tourists.
“We became a destination,” says Eric. “Tourists come in. It’s part of their list of things to do in New York. It pains them that they have to pick a couple bottles. They’ll say, ‘I can only take one or two because my wife will kill me when she sees the bill.’” Jonathan, one of the leading whiskey authorities in the country, adds, “If someone comes here from St. Louis or Pennsylvania, if they see the Ardbeg Supernova”—a smoky Islay Scotch recently ranked the second finest whiskey in the world by famed whiskey writer Jim Murray, “they’ll be shocked that it’s up there and we haven’t sold out of it.”
The Goldsteins are rarely sold out of anything that’s liquid and desirable. Even when Michael Goldstein, 68, doesn’t have a buyer in mind, when he finds a choice bottle, he’ll purchase it. “Sometimes he says, ‘This is a wine we should have,’” explains Eric. Those “should haves” include large-format wine bottles like jeroboams (which hold 4. liters) and imperials (6 liters), collector catnip and a weakness of Michael’s; and half-bottles, which are increasingly difficult to acquire. Park Avenue has a whole wall of them.
For all the elite quality of its merchandise, the Goldsteins’ store has a homey, unprepossessing feel miles away from the affluent, museum-like aura of the brass-trimmed Sherry-Lehmann, the Upper East Side wine landmark. You’ll find not a single glass case, not one padlock. Bottles worth a couple of Benjamins are in easy reach. “It’s not so refined and cold, where everything’s behind locked doors and you can’t touch a bottle,” says Eric. “People want to feel what they’re buying,” adds his father.
The Park Avenue Liquor Shop is, perversely, on Madison Avenue, near 41st. It actually began at 96 Park, near 40th, back in 1934, but hasn’t been on that avenue since 1963, when it moved to 23 East 40th Street. A final move to 292 Madison came in 1975. The name was kept for the sake of continuity and mystique. The shop was founded as a run-of-the-mill liquor store. Michael’s father, Herman Goldstein, created liquor store window displays for Excelsior Window Trimming. In 1955, when he became ill with a heart condition and his doctor told him to slow down, he bought the shop. After Herman’s death in 1965, Michael left his job at Chemical Bank to take over the business. “It was something we had to do at that time,” he explains. “I’m a people person. I enjoyed it.”
Every member of the three generations of booze-selling Goldsteins, in fact, started out doing something else. Jonathan did a three-year stint in trade advertising, then a year in duty-free sales for diplomats, embassies and consulates. “I was the last one to get sucked in,” says Eric. “I was a creative director at McCann-Erickson. Advertising wore me down.”
The secret force in Park Avenue’s elevation from mundane wine shop to liquor mecca was a man named Victor Puppin. Unremembered today, he was the sommelier at the once-famous Brussels Restaurant on East 54th Street, and, said theNew York Times in 1978, the “dean of New York wine stewards” at a time when few men wore tastevins around their neck. Born in Venice, Puppin worked in kitchens and dining rooms across Europe before, in 1930, at age 24, becoming wine steward at the Berkeley Hotel in London. After a short time at the “21” Club, he joined Andre Pagani’s newly opened Brussels in 1946 and remained there for the next quarter century.
Puppin was a close friend of Herman Goldstein. “Victor said, ‘I’m going to teach you the wine business.’” recalls Michael. “He said, ‘It’s much easier to sell a very expensive bottle of wine than it is to sell a few cases of Beaujolais.’” Soon the Park Avenue stock and trade changed from everyday plonk to First Growths. Because New York’s 400 families all dined at Brussels, Puppin was in a position to send moneyed clients Goldstein’s way. “You couldn’t have a better teacher,” says Michael. “He introduced me to high society people.” As a result the Goldsteins also increased their commercial business, selling to the powerful companies where high society members worked.
Michael Goldstein is discreet. He doesn’t name his clients, though he will let on that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was a loyal customer. Another famous regular was Phillip Masterson, a prominent estate appraiser. “In the ’70s, he said, ‘I have this estate. Can you price out the wine for me.’ It happened to be the estate of Ailsa Mellon Bruce.” Bruce was the daughter of the banker and diplomat Andrew W. Mellon. When she died in 1969, she was the richest woman in the United States.
“I started appraising estates for him. Then one day, the law firm where I was handling one of the estates came to me and said, ‘Would you like to buy it?’” Michael Goldstein, remembering the moment, holds a finger over his head and intones the sound “Ding!” Lightning struck. Thereafter, he began buying the very collections he’d just appraised, amassing even richer and rarer stores as the years went on. Soon, he didn’t need any help getting vino collectors into his shop.
“When you have wine like that, people are attracted to you,” he says.
That explains the wine. As for the Scotch, well—Puppin isn’t the only hidden hero in the Park Avenue story. Another is Herb Lapchin, a one-time Park Avenue salesman with a passion for single-malt Scotch. “He just kept taking more vodka off the shelf to make room for more Scotch,” recalls Jonathan, who was Lapchin’s right-hand man and took over the whiskey mission after he retired. “It was like an invasion.”
By the time Americans went nuts for single-malts—starting in the 1980s and an ongoing phenomenon to this day—Park Avenue was well positioned to capitalize on the craze. Park Avenue is now so deep into the whiskey thing that they have several exclusive bottlings from various distilleries that can’t be purchased anywhere else. One is actually called Park Avenue whiskey, distilled and bottled by upstate New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits.
While the Madison Avenue store is often crowded—on any Thursday or Friday, it’s “like Christmas,” says Eric—Park Avenue does maybe 60 percent of its $16-million-a-year business over the phone and Internet.
Faxes comes through all the time. Michael reaches for one while we’re talking. “This is out of Oklahoma,” he says, looking at the page. “Send six bottles of Veuve Clicquot.” This comes from Aubrey McClendon, the CEO and cofounder of Chesapeake Energy, who, in 2008, was the highest-paid CEO at all S&P 500 companies, receiving $112 million. He’s been a great client for years. Of course, the fortunes of great men can rise and fall, particularly in these uncertain times. “Certain great customers are in jail,” jokes Michael.
The Goldsteins also do a lot of business with the wine- and whiskey-mad Far East—a recent $300,000 sale of ’45 Mouton to Hong Kong being a case in point. “It’s easier to ship to Hong Kong than Canada,” notes the bearded, white-haired Michael, shrugging his heavy shoulders at liquor laws.
Oenophiles in Asia, while free with their cash, can be very particular about what they’re buying. Like collectors of action figures, they like things in pristine condition and in their original packaging. “Sometimes people who are buying high-end Bordeaux or Burgundy, they want a photo. They want to know if there are any nicks on the label,” explains Eric. “Appearance is super important.” (To satisfy that need, the Goldsteins set up a makeshift photo studio in the basement, near the cave of expensive wines.)
Despite their great enthusiasm for fine wine and rare scotch, the Goldsteins haven’t thrived for 65 years by being elitists. When circumstances call for it, they are hard-nosed businessmen. The shop may contain the cream of the booze business, but two cheap racks of affordable wines dominate the area near the entrance, and have for years. And if something isn’t selling, out the window it goes. Example: absinthe. A hot commodity just two years ago, you’ll find but a half dozen bottles of the green elixir on Park Avenue’s shelves today.
“We were right in the thick of it when it came out,” recalls Eric. “We probably sold more Lucid than anybody. You couldn’t come up with a better marketing thing than it had: Something that’s been banned for 95 years is now legal. But once people tasted it and said, ‘Oh my God,’ it really fell off a cliff. We scaled back.”
Store manager Scott Abramson, a minority owner related to the Goldsteins through marriage, is an even more severe voice of reason. “Every Monday and Wednesday there’s a new vodka,” he says, staring into his computer screen. “It’s unbelievable. I could take every single vodka off the shelf today and bring in new vodkas tomorrow and probably not lose any business.”
The Goldsteins know every bottle in their extensive collection, because they’ve sampled many of them. A day at Park Avenue can be one long tipple. “We taste everything,” says Scott. “We probably tasted 35 wines yesterday and three were winners.” As a result, having a drink at the end of the day can be like a busman’s holiday. Eric might have a bourbon, “but my wife doesn’t like me to drink bourbon, because of the way it smells.” Michael will indulge in a diet soda. “Does a baker go home and make a batch of cookies?” asks Jonathan. “I don’t think so.”

1 comment:

Manuela Savona said...

Thank you Robert for such a great article about a great family. The Goldsteins and Scott Abramson run an amazing shop, one that's been in operation since 1934, just a few months after the repeal of Prohibition. You've done a terrific job telling their story.