Mellows With Age

An old-school Bay Ridge liquor store gets a new lease on life.

The window of Long’s Wines & Liquors is adorned with homey seasonal decorations. As I head for the door, a white-haired woman in fur swings in before me and heads straight for the whiskey. The young guy at the counter is wishing her a good one in that unmistakable Bay Ridge accent—”dese,” “dose,” “dem”—before I’m even done sizing up the store, which is half a block deep, lined with bottles and painted marigold yellow and burgundy.

Beside the cash register is a petition protesting the legalization of wine sales in grocery stores. “If this becomes law, small businesses in every corner of New York will be forced to close,” the sheet reads.

Long’s looks just like the kind of mom-and-pop shop in danger of disappearing along with its aging clientele. And Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge might be a perfect example of the kind of Main Street that’s dying out in small towns across the country. Except somehow, between the flag-flying Irish bar with signs in the window banning tank tops, the Palestinian pastry shop full of honey-drenched delicacies, the view of the twinkling spans of the Verrazano Bridge and the naturally produced New York State wines subtly joining the Chianti on the shelves at Long’s, this still-old-school neighborhood—which was the setting for Saturday Night Fever, after all—has a way of evolving without losing its essential character.

Bay Ridge has historically been one of Brooklyn’s most staunchly conservative districts. In fact, Mike Long, who cofounded Long’s Wines with his brother, is chairman of the state Conservative Party.

Yet in addition to establishments like Long’s that have traditionally catered to the area’s Irish and Italian communities, a significant number of the shops in Bay Ridge are run—and patronized—by people of Greek, Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Jordanian, Korean and Chinese descent. Then there are the few remaining storefronts, like Leske’s Bakery, that reflect the neighborhood’s Scandinavian roots. (It’s no model United Nations, but the stretch between 70th and 86th Streets, by the way, is a chowhound’s wonderland.) This mix of diversity and conservative family values may just be what saves the strip from being plowed under by big-box stores and condos.

Take Long’s: The Long brothers quietly sold the shop to Heather Hamilton in March of last year. Hamilton, a young, cheerful mom from San Diego who lives in Park Slope, has been just as quietly updating the place, nudging it from a liquor store with wine to a wine store with liquor. She holds tastings every Friday and Saturday now, and in addition to the expanding wine selection, you’ll find things like mead and naturally infused vodka—all geared toward the still-conspicuous yuppies and hipsters who have begun to move into Bay Ridge and nearby Sunset Park and Dyker Heights.

While Hamilton’s changes are successfully drawing in vinophiles who would otherwise lug bottles home on the subway from Park Slope or Manhattan, the store continues to serve the rye-drinking retirees who have been shopping here since the place opened in ’83. “We’re going through a transition as a neighborhood, so I’m trying to make it easy for the older customers,” Hamilton says, explaining that Bay Ridge is considered “a naturally occurring retirement community.”

The store regularly sends out a delivery guy with bottles like Canadian Club and Cutty Sark that evoke another era. “Rye is coming back among the hip,” laughs Hamilton, pointing out the Tuthilltown Manhattan Rye, a craft whiskey from a microdistillery in the Hudson Valley, “but around here it never went out.”

Without displacing the liquor, Hamilton has moved more wine up toward the front of the shop, and labeled the racks by origin. She boasts that her collection of Greek wine is larger than anywhere else in the city—other than Astoria, of course. “We have just as big a sales bump around Greek Orthodox Easter as regular Easter,” she tells me. New York State wines don’t get short shrift either.

There’s also an organic section, though the topic is clearly a hobbyhorse for Hamilton. “The wine industry as a whole is moving toward natural winemaking,” she says, “but a lot of winemakers won’t or can’t go through the organic certification process.” Nonetheless, many operate sustainably or are moving toward sustainability, and that’s what Hamilton looks for, instead of certification, from the wines she stocks.

Hamilton’s friendly accessibility to all clients and all tastes carries over to the wine selection. When I ask for two personal recommendations— a splurge and a budget bottle—she grabs “a big wine for someone who likes Left Bank Bordeaux.” It’s a $24.99 bottle of 2005 Echeverria Limited Edition Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile (“a splurge in this economy”). “In the next 10 years,” she enthuses, “wines from Argentina and Chile are going to start competing with the U.S. and Europe—and right now, they’re incredible values.” Then she picks a $13.95 bottle: a Miolo Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir from Brazil’s Vale dos Vinhedos. Hamilton swears it will taste Burgundian, without the French price.

Hamilton’s not particularly interested in dwelling on her favorites though. “I like almost everything in the shop,” she shrugs.

“When a customer comes in, I ask what they like, what they’re eating.” She insists, with the intensity of a woman who has found her true calling, that the most important part of learning about wine is figuring out what you like; “You owe it to yourself!” To get the actress-turned-wine store owner talking, ask to hear about how she went from liking wine to really knowing about it, back when her 4-year-old daughter was a baby and she was looking for a more settled lifestyle.

“On a Saturday afternoon, I would hit the free tastings. You can ask questions and you’re not obliged to buy anything. The owners are just a bunch of wine geeks, plus they know if you learn about wine you’ll be back.” In keeping with that theory, you’ll find an exuberant list of Hamilton’s favorite wine books, DVDs and online courses on the Web site her husband built for the store.

Hamilton’s passion for wine, and her down-to-earth approach, convinced Mike Long when the brothers were deciding among a few prospective buyers. “It was a big deal to sell something he’d worked so long to build,” Hamilton recalls. Now, when Mike walks by the shop (he lives around the corner) he’s pleased to see not only his regulars, but also, as he says, “new faces, people coming into the neighborhood because they find the city too expensive. People from the other end of Brooklyn.”

Despite their political differences, Hamilton counts Mike Long among her friends, and she’s proud to follow in his footsteps. “The Longs wanted it to stay a family business. So I’m trying to live up to what they built, to just enhance and add on to it,” she says.

Pop in on a Saturday, when her sister is helping out, her husband’s in the background and her daughter is waltzing between the aisles, and it’s clear that the new Long’s still has what the old Long’s might call family values. Except now you can sip a few wines at the marble-topped counter for a taste of the values that will likely be bringing thirsty Brooklynites to Long’s for a different kind of Saturday night fever.

The store regularly sends out a delivery guy with bottles like Canadian Club that evoke another era. “Rye is coming back among the hip,” laughs Hamilton, “but around here it never went out.”

New Vintage: Long’s Wines has been passed down to a new generation of Bay Ridge shopkeep, Heather Hamilton, who is just as familiar with organic pinot gris as pints of Cutty Sark.

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Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer, co-author of The Flexitarian Table and a blogger for fitpregnancy.com. She grew up in Park Slope, lives in Sunset Park and regularly eats her way down Fifth Avenue to Bay Ridge.