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 passion for Italy was readily apparent when a young Biba Caggiano moved to Sacramento in 1969. “I would go to Italy twice a year and I’d tell Darrell, ‘I just got back and I loved this or that,’ ” says Caggiano. “Darrell would say, ‘Oh, I can get you that.’ Those things wouldn’t have come to Sacramento without him.”

“Darrell is very Italian,” she says.

Apparently the Italian government agrees. In fact, not only was he inducted into the Italian Trade Commission’s Hall of Fame for opening up the American market to so many Italian winemakers, growers and merchants, but in 1992, the Italian government made him a Cavaliere—Italy’s equivalent of knighthood—for his work as an ambassador for Italian food and wine. “If that were Britain,” says his longtime friend and nationally regarded wine expert David Berkley, “we’d be calling him Sir Darrell.” 

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In many ways, Corti and his store are one. And that goes beyond the coincidence they’re both having big birthdays. (Darrell turns 70 and the store 65 this year.)

Even at 70, Corti still travels for products, and also as a sought-after judge and speaker for food and wine competitions and symposiums. In the past few years alone, he’s been to Chile, Argentina, Sicily, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

In fact, walking down the aisles of Corti Brothers is like flipping through Darrell Corti’s passport. There’s the Hungarian and Spanish paprika (mild, smoked, bittersweet or hot); salts from Japan, Italy, France, Hawaii, Argentina and the United Kingdom; honey from Chile, France, Italy and from Cistercian nuns at the Redwoods Monastery in Humboldt County (in plain, ginger, lemon and orange).

This summer, store patrons will find evidence of his September trip to Hungary and the Republic of Georgia on aisle 3: Georgian capers, which are part caper, part pickle, a bit vinegary, a little briny, and thoroughly delicious.

Most people bring back souvenirs and tchotchkes from their travels. He brings back Cambodian gourmet peppercorns (red, black and white).

The products on the shelves are lined up so straight, it’s like they were set with a laser. Look at Corti. He stands erect, always wears a tie, is precise and polite. 

Both the man and the store have an old-school—though not old-fashioned—sensibility that seems to resist change. Corti, for example, doesn’t own a cell phone and only recently took to e-mail. And the store clock, meanwhile, is the same one that’s kept time for shoppers since 1970, with lines marking the hours instead of numbers. The typography on the aisle signs is so old that it’s got an undeniable retro-cool vibe to it in this Mad Men-soaked culture. There isn’t a DVD rental kiosk anywhere in sight.

The large deli in the middle of the store has big slabs of meat and blocks of cheese because everything is hand cut. Corti Brothers’ deli has 185 cheeses it slices daily for orders.

The wine department—that nationally renowned front corner—is small and cramped with shelves close together. Strangely, in the middle of the wine shelves, sits a small, battered, wooden desk. It’s where Corti can often be found, easily accessible to anyone with a question.

Though genuinely shy, Corti relishes in helping customers find the right vintage or regaling them with historical facts or tales about a certain product he carries.

“The man is an amazing omnivore of information,” says Narsai David, the former Berkeley restaurant owner who’s currently the food and wine editor for KCBS radio in San Francisco. “It’s almost inconceivable how broad his knowledge is. He can talk to you about Japanese single-malt whiskeys as easily as he can about classic Australian wines or wines of the 19th century or Spanish olive oils.”

Mindermann, who started with Corti Brothers as a bagger in 1978, and now, as the store director, is essentially Corti’s aide-de-camp, still considers himself a student after 34 years. “Whenever I’m with him, I still say to myself, ‘Learn, learn. Soak it up,’ ” he says.

In the virtual culinary time capsule that is Corti Brothers, it’s Mindermann who has brought the store into the world of websites and video, which includes Corti TV, a site devoted to all things Darrell, and a Facebook group called “Darrell Corti will always know more than you about food and wine,” founded by former employee Gretchen Allen and powered by Mindermann.

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As a personality, Corti is as complex as some of the wines in his store. He is at once unabashedly shy and unapologetically outspoken.

“Yes, I’m shy,” he says. “I would rather sort of fit into things than stand out. It’s not the Japanese idea that a nail that sticks out gets pounded down, because I’m a very out-sticking nail, but I don’t like the attention.”

That might seem hard to believe if you’ve seen him charm a crowd talking about Chilean wine or Italian olive oils, but watch him after he walks off the stage. He doesn’t wade in. He moves quietly to the periphery of the crowd and tries to blend in. He’ll gladly chat, but he doesn’t really initiate, unless it’s with old friends.

He also resolutely resists self-promotion. That reluctance is a trait that has his friends and fans shaking their heads. They say he could have become a national figure, probably with a TV show and TV income, not someone quietly venerated by wine and food insiders.

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.