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Gourmets' god-parents at Gendler's


Jerry and Rosalyn Zeffren, owners of Gendler's Wine Cellar in Rock Island, operate what is considered by aficionados of the vine to be the oldest and finest wine shop in the Quad-Cities.

ROCK ISLAND -- A red house on 5th Avenue in Rock Island is home to one of the Quad-Cities' most venerable cultural institutions. You won't find art or literature on the shelves at Gendler's, but something many people find equally essential to enjoying the good life: fine wine.

Gendler's Wine Cellar, 2518 5th Ave., is the Quad-Cities oldest and finest wine shop. The owners of the quaint little establishment -- actually, the exterior is more cordovan in color, but it's always referred to as ``red'' -- are Jerry and Rosalyn Zeffren.

The Zeffrens are the unofficial god-parents to several generations of local gourmets. They also deserve to be honored as senior diplomats to the U.S. wine industry. Their interest in American wine goes back to a time when domestic vineyards were struggling mightily to win a measure of respect from the haute vintners of France.

The Zeffren family has been in the food-and-beverage business in Rock Island practically forever. Rosalyn's father, Max Gendler, a native of Russia, opened the first Gendler's in Rock Island in 1916. Dwight Eisenhower was president when Jerry and Rosalyn developed a serious interest in wine. On a trip to Europe in 1959, they were advised to avoid the water and drink wine instead. By the time they returned to Rock Island, they'd crossed a commercial Rubicon in their minds.

``We had already been exploring wines at home, but it wasn't until that trip that it became a passion,'' Jerry said in a 1996 interview to mark Gendler's 80th anniversary.

The Zeffrens began to share their passion with the Quad-Cities, but the fine-wine business was hardly an overnight success.

``At the very, very beginning, there was almost no interest in wine at all,'' Rosalyn said. ``I can remember being thrilled to take in $9 a day. We were starting from virtually nothing.''

The Zeffrens added wine and cheese to the mix to help draw in customers, and the area's first gourmet food section became part of the area's first wine shop.

The business grew over the years, along with the California wine industry.

``The California wine scene really took off and continued to do so over the next 30 years,'' Jerry said. ``In the mid-1960s, there were just a few California wineries. Now you hear of a new winery almost every day.''

The Zeffrens founded Gendler's Red House Wine Club in 1974 to educate customers and offer members discounts.

Today, most grocery and liquor stores have a wine section, but visiting them is a thin experience compared the Gendler's. The selection of wines is guaranteed to pique the interest of experienced wine tasters, whether you're looking for a mellow merlot, a complex cabernet or a crisp Vouvray or Poully-Fuisse. And there's plenty of friendly, no-hassle help for novices at Gendler's, too, including advice matching wine and food.

-- By Mike Romkey (February 9, 1998)

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