The Tastemaker

He’s been called the Indiana Jones of the culinary world and the man who “knows more about food and wine than anyone else in America.” How did the son of a Sacramento mayonnaise salesman become a buttoned-up grocer while leading a double life as a globe-trotting gourmet? Just who is Darrell Corti and why do so many important people think he has the planet’s greatest nose for quality?

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Corti’s palate, his ability to focus on flavors, then identify them using his vast catalog of the wines and spirits he’s tasted, indexed and stored in his brain, is legend. There are many stories of Corti recognizing an obscure grape varietal or a 50-year-old wine—down to the vintage—or a component in a gin. Experts, outside of James Bond, aren’t really supposed to be able to do that.

Wine merchant and longtime pal Steve Wallace, who owns the celebrated Wally’s Wine and Sprits in Los Angeles, has observed Corti’s talent firsthand. He tells about a bar they dropped into 20 years ago where Corti ordered green Chartreuse, a French liqueur that dates back to 1764. It was too dark to see their drinks, but Corti took a sip and told the waiter there was a mistake because the drink was yellow Chartreuse, a slightly sweeter version. He sent it back.

The next drink didn’t make Corti any happier. “He told the guy, ‘This still isn’t green Chartreuse. It’s half green and half yellow. What are you trying to do?’ ” Wallace recalls. “The waiter said, ‘I was testing you.’ ”

Corti’s palate, and its reputation, was one of the reasons he connected with people in the California wine world, going back to 1964 when he took over Corti Brothers’ wine department at the tender age of 22.

“It was a small collection of people in the industry in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Cary Gott, who founded Amador’s Montevina Winery, went on to manage major brands like Sterling Vineyards and Mumm Napa and now runs the consulting company Vineyard & Winery Estates in St. Helena.

“Darrell was one of the smartest in the group,” he says. “He listened and he learned. He got himself into the position of being able to help you make decisions: what to plant, how to operate. He essentially did what my whole company does now—teach people how to start a winery.”

And he didn’t just advise new wineries, he supported them through Corti Brothers. From the mid-’60s through the ’70s, Corti Brothers was the first store anywhere to carry the wines of Ridge, Caymus, Schramsberg, Cuvaison, Harbor, Chateau Montelena and others. Those are some of California’s cornerstone wineries. (It was Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay that won the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris blind tasting that was the basis for the movie Bottle Shock. It pitted California wines against French and stunned the wine world when Napa Valley wines were voted the best red and white.)

In 1966, Corti became a partner with wine pioneer Richard Graff in the founding of Chalone Vineyard in Monterey County. In the ’6s, he also met Charles Myers, a home winemaker who would start Harbor Winery in West Sacramento, and consulted with some of the biggest names in California wine, including Bob Trinchero.

Trinchero, still a close friend of Corti’s, is a Vintners Hall of Fame inductee and co-owner of Trinchero Family Estates, the fifth largest wine company in America, according to Wine Business Monthly. Trinchero says Corti’s “done more for the success of the Trinchero wineries than anyone outside the family.”

They met in 1962, when the entire Trinchero empire was just one struggling winery in Napa Valley named Sutter Home. Bob Trinchero was the winemaker, and his father, Mario, oversaw it. Corti went to Sutter Home to bottle something called Tosca brand wines, which he sold as a Corti Brothers wine. (In 1967, they started bottling wine under the Corti Brothers label, and Corti still has wines made for the store occasionally when he finds wine or grapes he considers exceptional.)

Corti and Trinchero talked, tasted and did business together. “Darrell was a fountain of information for me. He really gave us our heading,” Trinchero says.

And in 1968, at age 26, Corti set off a chain of events that would change the consumption of wine for millions of Americans.

Corti loved the zinfandel that Myers was making from Ken Deaver’s vineyard in Amador County, so in early summer, he and Myers took Trinchero to meet with Deaver and look at the vineyard. “We went up on this hill under a great big oak tree,” Trinchero says. “Darrell took out a tablecloth and laid it over the hood of the car, then laid out the food. We had a great time.” Trinchero ended up buying 20 tons of grapes from Deaver and made it into a national-class zinfandel that The New York Times called “one of the landmark wines in the postwar development of the California wine trade.”

Then in 1975, a happy accident occurred when Trinchero’s normally steely, bone-dry white zin didn’t ferment completely, and instead came out a bit sweet and a little pink. Corti thought it would sell well and carried it in his store. He was right. In fact, it flew off the shelves. Over the next few years, Trinchero kept it pink and sweet on purpose, increased production, and turned Sutter Home White Zinfandel into a national phenomenon that opened the door for millions of Americans who hadn’t been wine drinkers before. Its sweetness and flavor made it accessible in a way that a California wine never had.

“We sold 1.5 million cases in 1985,” Trinchero says. “It saved zinfandel, and it saved our winery. None of that would have happened without Darrell.”

In recognition of contributions like this one and many others, Corti was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame, which celebrates the California wine industry, in 2008, alongside Ernest and Julio Gallo. He is the only merchant among its 43 members, effectively making him the most influential retailer in the history of California wine.Store director Rick Mindermann started at Corti Brothers as a bagger in 1978. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

To foodies, he is a rock star and his store is hallowed, and fertile, ground. “True story,” says W. Blake Gray, a San Francisco-
based wine writer and chairman of the group that elects Vintners Hall of Fame members. “[A few years ago], I asked my wife where she wanted to go for her birthday. She said, ‘Sacramento—I want to go to Corti Brothers.’ ”

Yet Corti himself takes the view of the folks who just see him as the man in the blue grocer’s smock in the Corti Brothers wine department, and the store as just a friendly neighborhood market. Ask him about foodies and wine lovers trekking to Corti Brothers as their culinary mecca, or about what he knows and where he’s gone and what he’s done. He’ll give you the answer he’s been giving for decades.

“Really,” he says, “I’m just a grocer.”

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Darrell Corti was born in 1942 (he turns 70 on April 3) and grew up in Tahoe Park. Five years later, his father, Frank, and uncle, Gino, founded Corti Brothers on 8th Street between I and J in downtown Sacramento.

Frank and Gino were the children of immigrants from the region around the Italian coastal city of Genoa—and they were born and raised in San Francisco. Frank, the older brother, had been working for mayonnaise maker Best Foods, and when the company sent him to Sacramento, he saw a need for the kind of Italian delicatessen and specialty foods store that was common in San Francisco’s North Beach.

“One of my earliest memories was, in fact, the smell of food,” Corti says. “I remember this pungent smell walking into Corti Brothers.” That came from the mix of spilled oil, sawdust and wood floors. It’s an old-school deli smell.

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.