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?

(page 4 of 7)

That was something Corti did throughout California, but more in Amador than anywhere else because he saw so much potential there. Through the years, Corti encouraged, and sometimes scolded, winemakers there to try for better quality and not just settle for mediocre wines. And he carried their wines, talked up the region and the vineyards, helping to bring in better and better viticulturists and winemakers.

On the food front, his connections, his “pollinating” was helping fuel that California revolution. And his impact expanded in 1967, when he started a newsletter (a rarity for a market then) telling stories, histories, small facts and big details about his new products, those wines and spirits and olive oils and more.

The newsletter originally went out to just a couple hundred people, but by the mid-’80s, it was reaching thousands across the country, including people like Russ Parsons, now the food editor of the Los Angeles Times, who was living in Albuquerque at the time. He and his foodie pals would get in a van and drive the 1,000 miles to Sacramento and Corti Brothers to stock up and to talk with Corti. “It was like going to see the Grateful Dead,” Parsons says. “He’s had a huge influence on what we eat and drink and how we cook now.”

“Out of a small grocery store in Sacramento, Darrell Corti had turned on an entire food community in New Mexico,” Parsons says. “Our community then was probably a couple dozen, but now it’s thousands. Multiply that by community after community. Most of those people now may not know what Darrell has done, but talk to anyone back then, he was ‘The Dude.’ ”

The newsletter continues today. Reichl calls it illuminating and one of the most interesting newsletters in the business. “It’s wonderful and it’s always surprising,” she says.

“If you want a great soy sauce, he not only has it, he’ll tell you everything about why it’s great.”

And what part of that fits “just a grocer?” All of it.

“My idea was to offer something different,” Corti says.

••••••••

In 1967, Corti took his first of many provisioning trips to Europe. That first one was to France and Germany, mostly exploring wine regions, but he was always looking for foods to bring back. Master sommelier Doug Frost has called him the Indiana Jones of the culinary world, a description that isn’t far off the mark. He’s fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, French and Latin and has a working knowledge of Japanese, Greek, Mandarin and Portuguese.

In fact, the more he traveled internationally on the store’s behalf, the more Corti’s reputation and respect in the wine regions of Europe grew, but few people back home in Sacramento realized that, not even his father.

In 1969, though, Darrell took Frank with him on a trip through France. It was the first time Frank had been to that country and seen his son in his element outside the wine department or a Northern California winery. They went to champagne houses and some of the great chateaux of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Everywhere they went, Darrell, still a young man, was greeted by France’s elder wine statesmen as a peer.

It was a revelation for Frank. He proudly talked about it for years, say friends. Frank told stories of the trip and boasted that his son was an important figure in the international wine world.

Corti often took friends with him on his adventures, and in 1985, led a trip to Italy with Steve Wallace, actor Danny Kaye and a few others. Wallace, through his Los Angeles store, had become friends with Kaye, who was a talented cook and oenophile.

“We learned about Parmigiano-Reggiano, he took us to the production of prosciutto, of pasta, of balsamic vinegar,” Wallace says.

But Kaye, high-energy guy that he was, even at age 72, got impatient. He wanted to go other places and complained about the pace and agenda. “Darrell said to him, ‘Let’s sit down over here,’ and they went outside,” Wallace says. “And Darrell said, ‘You’re with me, I’m not with you. If you don’t behave, you’ll go home.’ Danny said, ‘I’ll behave.’ That was it. They stayed good friends.”

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.