Who doesn’t remember their first time? And when was yours? What bottle converted you from a wine drinker to a wine lover? Transformed you from a wine aficionado to a sommelier? As the years continue to pass by, there’s often a period one reflects back on fondly and for many, there’s that paramount moment, that instant when it all changed and your life from that instant on would be different. To recall, that single sip, that first glass, could have altered your feelings toward wine and open you up in such a way, that you take it in and truly appreciate the ‘genuine passion’ it took for that wine to reach you – from vine to splendor.
I’m going to share with you my own personal journey into when and how I fell in love with wine and the exact moment when I knew, it was something special. While I was in college I needed a part-time job to help pay rent and put food in my belly. At that point in my life, the wine was just a liquid that I didn’t care anything about and I certainly had no concept of why I’d want it to. That was until I landed a part-time job, which unbeknownst to me at the time, would be an education and journey into wine that would inevitably turn into what is now my enduring passion, but I’m getting to that.
My friend David was leaving to go away to college and his boss at the place he was working at asked him if he knew of anyone who could take over his position. David called me up and told me he was taking off for school and that if I still needed a job, to go down to his work and talk to Harvey. Hell yes, I needed a job and got down there before they gave the gig to someone else. I talked with the manager and within 20 minutes I was hired. Little did I know things would never be the same for me again.
My friends, “Welcome to ‘Morry’s of Naples’. At the time, it was one of the oldest businesses in the Long Beach area of Naples – a neighborhood built on three islands located in Alamitos Bay. The islands are divided by canals, lined with stunning multimillion-dollar homes and waterfront mansions that unabashedly open themselves to the bay. Remember the opening scenes of Gilligan’s Island where the S.S. Minnow is cruising out of a small harbor for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour? Well, that’s Alamitos Bay.
This is where I spent most of my childhood. This was my home and there’s no doubt, “it’s my town” and at times like this, it’s what I miss most – the nostalgia. When I write fiction, nearly all of the stories take place in Long Beach; mostly Naples and Belmont Shore; the seashore area just over the little bridge from Naples’s on 2nd Street. When I was a kid Morry’s was where everyone went to. It was the neighborhood market, the deli, the place you stopped at when you just needed to pick something up and most famously it had one of the largest selections of rare liquors, micro beers (way before it was trendy) and fine wines. When heading off for an afternoon of sailing or going to the beach with friends, we’d stop at Morry’s, fill up our coolers with gourmet food and drinks and ask Harvey (2nd generation and the son of the original owner) to put the bill on our family’s monthly tab. It was the BEST!
When I started working at Morry’s, what I knew about alcohol was how to get drunk. And hell, I figured that out in high school. The truth is I knew nothing about the finer ways to indulge. I was hired as a cashier and stock boy and I did the occasional delivery, which usually meant I was transporting beer kegs that at times, required me to tackle numerous flights of stairs, which still haunt me by the way. And for whatever the reason, this position was bestowed on me, who was at the time a young poet and writer, full of angst, looking for himself in all of it and from time to time, looking for love. And love is exactly what I found at Morry’s, just not quite in the way I was expecting. But I’m getting head of myself here, so let me take a step back.
Morry’s was established in 1938 by Morry Rabin and I can tell you, prior to my slapping on that Morry’s name tag, my position had been held by many other local Naples lads of whom there were probably over 100 before I got there. I can only hope they had half the experience I did.
Morry’s wasn’t ‘just’ a liquor store, far from it. And to tell you the truth, it didn’t belong to ‘us’ or even the Rabin’s, not really. It belonged to Naples and the people who lived there. It was their place and they counted on Morry’s, they counted on us. And yes – I’m going there; “it was the kind of place where everyone knew your name.” Locals would come in if they forgot to get cat food, needed some aspirin, a bag of potato chips, a candy bar, cocktail napkins or an expensive gift. The liquors lined the wall when you walked in; hundreds of bottles ranging from Jamaican Rums, distinctive Gins, unusual Vodkas, special Tequilas and strange bottles like Pear or Asparagus aperitifs. Before Chinaco Tequila sold the rights to a larger U.S. producer, the distiller would come up from Mexico and sell 50 bottles to Morry’s. Each bottle was hand numbered and the waiting list to acquire even one bottle was lengthy. To this day, it’s my favorite tequila; one of the best ever made. Even now, with the production quantity being in the thousands, the quality is still fantastic.
The famous ‘Liquor Wall’ as it was affectionately referred to, was behind the counter and was built in 1950 by Morry’s brother Freddy and that’s where we housed ‘the good stuff’. Imagine knowing that just 2-feet behind me were bottles worth thousands of dollars and included the world’s best signal malt scotch and famous cognacs, the favorite of which was the Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac that everyone loved to look at. Back then you could get a bottle for about $900. We knew, if we weren’t paying attention, we could bump into one another or worse, bump into ‘the wall’ which would have certainly brought that costly liquid tumbling to the ground. Fortunately, in all the years I worked there, that never happened and I only ever dropped one bottle of expensive wine and one case of case of beer. The wine glasses, however, did not fare so well and many were sacrificed over the years. Once you entered the store and got beyond ‘the wall, you could head towards the back where we had a small deli that made truly superb sandwiches. We even had even had the famous Joe Jost’s pickled egg recipe; Joe Jost – another Long Beach landmark. In the middle of the shop were about five or six coolers that housed the beer. Morry’s carried the everyday beers, Bud, Miller, Corona. But the lineup for microbrews would make a cicerone drool. I had my first taste of Chimay one night after working an extended shift and I fell in love with real Belgian beer right then. To compliment all of the beers we offered, there was a selection of gourmet snacks, chips, foreign cheeses and we even had a fresh made soup du jour, a small salad bar and a wonderful selection of caviar. But what stole my heart, what I ultimately fell in love with and would come to learn so much about during my time there was the wine. And that could not have been more unexpected.
Of everything, Morry’s carried, their wine selection was the largest. They listed everything from Chateau Latour to Manischewitz. The Saki area was impressive, with its nice molded and aged mature bottles. There were wines from every part of the world and the collection that Morry’s had procured, was nothing short of inspiring. I fell in love with Hungarian Bull’s Blood which is Eastern European mountain wine, exquisite Australian Shirazes, bold Spanish Reds that could not be found anywhere else and of course all of the Grand Crus from France.
The wines that undoubtedly turned me on the most were the ones from California and of which, Morry’s carried every major and many minor producers. Harvey Rabin along with his wife Cherie took over the family business from his father Morry. Cherie personally knew many winemakers and was able to acquire very limited case runs on many labels that are now considered cult wines; Marcassin, Screaming Eagle, Opus One – the list goes on. We had wine rooms in the very back of the store as well as having beautiful bottles scattered about the store and there were always a special going on marked by eye-catching displays, and the varietals and vintages that filled Morry’s were very impressive, to say the least. Although I could have gotten by with just knowing the basics, I opted for the opposite. I was like a sponge and wanted to learn as much as I could and as a result, throughout the day when people would ask for wine recommendations, I was able to give them suggestions most appropriate for what they were looking for and was happy to do it. I loved when they’d come back days later and tell me how much they loved what I’d suggested for them.
Ken Rabin was Harvey’s son and was one of the managers at Morry’s and when it came to ‘who’ could actually recommend wines to the customers, he was adamant that you could only give suggestions if you really knew what you were talking about. A big part of knowing what to recommend had to do with knowing how to pair wine and food, how to consider what was appropriate for a particular event or as a gift and even to be discerning when it came to price points. That took me many years, but I’m a stellar student, I have a mind like a trap, I’m very patient and as a result, I got there. And when I did, I was confident, comfortable and it was a natural fit. But trust me, I did not get there by luck, I did the work. On the rare occasion that Cherie was out of town, I would host the wine bar. It was a small room in the furthest back corner of the store and was aptly nicknamed ‘The Backroom’. When it opened in 1980 it was the only thing of its kind in the area. Cherie ran the ‘The Backroom’ and let me tell you, she knew her wines. In the mid-2000’s, it was remodeled into one of the nicest wine bars I have ever seen.
Everything I learned about running a business, about working with people, about supporting employees and above all else, that great ‘customer care’ is the heart and soul of a company – I learned by working with Harvey. I can also blame him for starting my now 20-year love affair with wine.
Years after my days at Morry’s, now a married man and running a business of my own; my wife and I opened a small used and rare bookstore on the other side of Long Beach. Bixby Knolls to be exact, which in its hay-day (in the 50’s and 60’s – pre-shopping malls) was the preferred shopping and dining destinations for anyone not wanting to go into LA. Having heard I’d started my own business just a couple of miles from where he lived, Harvey stopped by one day to say hello. He asked me how it was going and I told him things were great and felt compelled to thanked him for hiring a punk kid like me and for teaching me the ropes and then told him that whether he knew it or not, he was teaching me how to be a successful entrepreneur and that he personally showed me what it looked like to enjoy the hard work that went along with business ownership, the absolute need for a killer work ethic and above all else, what it looked and felt like to have genuine passion for what you do. I said, “Harvey, my biggest take away was this, if you don’t love it, don’t do it!”
My last stretch with Morry’s was part-time in the late 1990’s. I combined it with my full-time gig at a graphic design firm. At that point, I lived a few towns over, about 20 miles away but I still managed to do a few hours a week. I wasn’t quite ready to give it up and the truth is I just kind of loved it. It wasn’t just one thing but every little thing, from the people to the friendships and ultimately learning about and falling in love with wine. And of course, Naples, with that neighborhood feel, seeing everyone I grew up with day in and day out. It always gave me a ‘Mayberry’ kind of feeling and at Morry’s you just felt like family. The Rabin’s, all of them; Harvey, Cherie and their kids Madeline, Annie and Ken were great to me and they treated everyone who worked for them that way too. I will always thank them for my love of wine, my continued thirst for knowledge and my ever expanding palate. It was there, at Morry’s that it all started and I’ll be forever grateful.
In 2009, following some building makeovers and a few business concepts that did not pan out, combined with the changing times and the arrival of the big box stores selling wine at ridiculously low prices, Morry’s sadly closed its doors After 70+ years. However, for those of us lucky enough to have reconnected with them, thankfully the family still uses their wine knowledge and are still sharing their love for what was started so many years ago. Annie (daughter of Harvey and Cherie) is involved with the Organic Wine movement and other wine ventures. Ken (son of Harvey and Cherie) has moved to Finland with his kids, where he’s keeping Morry’s tradition alive and well.