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 insatiable curiosity and his ability to absorb and retain information focused on food from the time he was very young, partly because the subject was so pervasive in his family and in his life.

From an early age, he loved to read food magazines. When he was 7, he asked his mother, Rose, to buy him a copy of The Escoffier Cookbook, a seminal and dense guide to French cooking, which had just come out in English. (He grew up also speaking Italian with his grandparents, and by 12 or 13, he had learned—on his own—to read French.

Rose was proud of her bright, inquisitive son, and supported him when he needed it—such as when his interests took him down the road of animal husbandry and a librarian at Sacramento’s main branch wouldn’t let the 8-year-old Darrell read the books on his own. “My mother had to check the book out for me,” Corti says, “because they said it had animal sex in it.” When his father let him choose where to go on a Sunday afternoon, young Darrell usually wanted to go to the country to look at the cows.

In fact, his passion for animals has never waned. He rescued a dove, which he named Paloma, and kept it as a pet for 15 years. He has two pet parakeets now—both of them rescued—and he’s always loved going to the state fair to see the animals.

But for all his reading and curiosity, Corti says he was an average student, except for when it came to math.

“I didn’t like mathematics,” Corti says. “I still don’t. That’s why I never count cash [at the store]. I fall asleep counting the money. In high school [at Bishop Armstrong High School, which became Christian Brothers], I only passed algebra because of the goodwill of the Christian brother who taught it.” And don’t ask him to do fractions. “Why would you want to fractionate anything anyway?” he says, laughing.

Corti says in high school he was “probably very nerdy. I didn’t like sports. It was a great trial to be in high school as a freshman and have to go to gym class. I never saw any reason for that. My father was very disappointed because he could never play baseball with me.”

But he did know how to trade his high-quality lunches—a piece of frittata, slices of mortadella or prosciutto on thick French bread—for sandwiches of gummy white bread and Made Rite bologna topped with Durkee’s sandwich spread.

“It was so delicious,” Corti says. “We never got this. It was forbidden fruit and it was terrific.”

Corti went to Saint Mary’s College, in part because the school had a program that would let him spend his junior year in Spain, something that was relatively rare in colleges in the ’60s. (The overseas experience helped prepare him for a brief career as a high school Spanish teacher at Bishop Manogue while he split his time between the school and Corti Brothers.)

But unlike many college kids who travel for sightseeing or escape, Corti went for the food and wine and culture—which he absorbed completely the way he had the food magazines and Escoffier and everything else he would experience in his life.

Corti Brothers, meanwhile, had moved to 32nd and Folsom in 1952 and had become a full-fledged supermarket, with a meat department, produce, frozen foods and more, including wine. Corti went to work for his father and uncle upon graduation in 1964, running the wine department. And how did a 22-year-old know enough about wine for such a position?

“I didn’t,” Corti says.

Not that he was clueless. He’d already tried making wine once—“It was a horrible disaster,” he says—and he talked to everyone he could, read everything he could, and tasted every wine he could get his hands on.

He says his father was “very indulgent” with him, letting him bring in products and wines that seemed hopelessly exotic for Corti Brothers customers, “as long as I could sell them,” Corti says.

Frank was a forceful figure—tall, talkative, and proud of Corti Brothers. When Prince Charles visited Sacramento in 1977, Corti Brothers catered a lunch with the prince and then-Governor Brown. Frank’s 2000 obituary in The Sacramento Bee said that the grocer was “indignant” when a paper reported that lunch was provided by “a local deli.”

Corti Brothers “was not just another corner deli, he said,” reported the Bee.

Darrell lived with his parents until he was 28, in part because it was convenient, but mostly because the Corti family was tight. And because the family was so closely tied to the business, Darrell’s ability to sell those new products was all the more important. From an early age, part of the store’s success rested squarely on his shoulders.

But he did sell them—wine, spirits, olive oils and more—in Sacramento and around the state. “I had to put products in people’s hands and say, ‘This is good. Buy this,’ ” Corti says.

He also did something that his store director Rick Mindermann—and others—have described as “pollinating.” Corti introduced winemakers to vineyard owners, helped them establish connections the way he had with Bob Trinchero and Ken Deaver. Corti helped Cary Gott find the land he bought in Amador County in 1971 for Montevina, then helped him figure out what grapes would grow best (Corti pushed for zinfandel and barbera among others).

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.