Roberta Morrell’s parents first opened the Morrell (1 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-688-9370) wine shop in a 600-square-foot space on 49th Street in 1947, and in the 67 years since, the retailer has moved around Midtown, occupying addresses on 53rd Street and Madison Avenue before making its way back to its current location on 49th Street in Rockefeller Center 15 years ago.
“Our lease was up, and I was negotiating with my landlord,” Morrell says. “I got a call from Rockefeller Center, and they asked if I would be interested in moving. They wanted to bring New York companies to Rockefeller Center so they wouldn’t get only tourists.” Morrell couldn’t refuse the offer; the address gave her something she’d been seeking for years: two adjoining spaces. “We’d toyed with doing a wine bar, and we’d been contacted by many people,” she says. “Now we had an opportunity to do both.”
The business has changed a lot since the early years. “Petrus was $3.99 a bottle when my parents started selling,” she says. (It’s now more like $1500.) “We have the catalogs to prove it. In the last decade, more and more people are consuming wine — we’re now the biggest wine-consuming nation in the world. It’s part of the lifestyle, finally.”
And that prompted some changes to Morrell’s inventory: “In our wine shop, we’ve moved more and more into the higher end,” says the owner. “We’re not a neighborhood wine shop. There’s a lot of money around, and we get a lot of wealthy people from all over the world. We still carry a fair amount of extremely good medium and lower priced wines, but that’s not our focus.”
The wine bar followed in that vein, offering 120 wines by the glass from higher end bottles not often seen on lists. And 15 years into the lease — with 10 more to go, at least — Morrell decided both addresses needed a refresh. “The wine bar has done a million covers, and it was really falling apart,” she says. So both the bar and the shop closed for six weeks, re-emerging this week with a facelift.
The biggest change at the wine shop is the larger vault made of plexiglass, where Morrell will store its most expensive wines. The wine shop scaled up to 153 wines by the glass, which range in price from $10 per glass to $65 per glass. It’ll also pour rare wines by the ounce and half glass via its Coravin wine system, which allows drinkers to access wines without pulling the cork from the bottle. “It’s a wine-lover’s paradise,” says the owner. “Magnums, double magnums — everything sells.”
The menu’s also had a revamp thanks to chef Juan Carlos Mendoza, who’s been with the wine bar for 14 of its 15 years (though always as a sous chef until now); he’s installed of American fare to go with the list. “I had lunch today, and boy was it good,” says Morrell. She cites the mussels and cold soba noodles as highlights. “We’re not competing with three-star and four-star restaurants, but I’m very happy with it.”
The shop is open Monday through Saturday, and the wine bar is open for lunch daily and dinner Monday through Saturday.