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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But Corti doesn’t want that burden. He’s already enough of an “out-sticking nail.” And it may be the one thing he does not talk about articulately.

“Being a celebrity is not a very comfortable thing. Sometimes, it’s a little bit, sort of, too much,” Corti says. “When I go to a restaurant where I don’t go very often, I would just like to be a customer.”

So how does that square with the Darrell Corti who sometimes walks into the kitchen of a restaurant and tells the chef what he thought of the meal, for better and worse?

It’s complicated.

Rick Mahan, chef and owner of The Waterboy in midtown and OneSpeed Pizza in East Sacramento (both of which are regular stops for Corti), first met the grocer in a restaurant kitchen in 1985. Mahan was cooking at Paragary’s Bar and Oven in midtown and heard that Corti was in the dining room.

“I was totally intimidated,” Mahan says. “In my effort to not overcook his chicken, I grossly undercooked it. Darrell came walking into the kitchen with his napkin tucked into his shirt. He handed me the plate and said, ‘This is undercooked.’ That’s it. We got it cooked right for him.”

But Mahan got to know him better on future visits and learned, he says, more from Corti than any other person in his career. (Corti is also a terrific cook himself.) “He’s never not returned a call, which is quite remarkable considering how many people want his time,” says Mahan.

That’s a story chefs all over Sacramento tell. Kurt Spataro, co-owner of Spataro Restaurant and Bar and executive chef of the Paragary Restaurant Group, says, “At some point you start thinking, ‘What would Darrell think of this dish?’ and use that as sort of a guide.”

That’s why all those chefs showed up to support him in 2008. But what’s this shy, non-self-promoter doing barging into kitchens? He’s teaching. He can’t help himself. If there’s one universal Corti descriptor, it’s “teacher.” His nickname with friends so often becomes “professor,” though with Andrews, it was the Italian version, “Il Professore.” (“He thinks about things as a scholar,” Andrews says.) Information—facts, perspective, history, connections, origins—it’s nearly sacred to Corti. For him, there’s almost a moral obligation not to hoard it.

There may be another force at work, too. Friends of the Corti family say Darrell’s mother was a fabulous cook, but when the meal was served, the discussion sometimes turned to the menu and technique analysis. This was a food-oriented family. The comments weren’t mean or complaining, but they were thorough.

Perhaps because of his upbringing or because of his intellectual confidence, he can come across to some as a curmudgeon. He is, in fact, strong-willed, does not mind disagreement, is pained by misinformation and by show-offs, and he does not back down.

“He doesn’t suffer fools,” Reichl says. “He’ll get up at some convention, somebody’s giving a talk, and just tell them that they’re wrong. People are always putting really bad information out there, and he won’t sit still for it. He really cares. It drives him crazy when someone says something stupid about food. That’s where I think the curmudgeon reputation comes from.”

“He’s comfortable believing in himself,” adds David Berkley, who worked for Corti from 1973 to 1984 in the wine department before opening his own market. He was also a White House wine consultant for four administrations.

Curmudgeon, by the way, is the wrong word. That’s something Corti would bring up. Word origins and meanings matter. It’s a word that implies a grouch, a bad-tempered, difficult person.

“He’s one of the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet,” says wine shop owner Steve Wallace. “He just knows a lot. Some people are bothered by that.” Corti says he knows he’s made some people uncomfortable with his directness, but he says what he is, is a realist.

“There are people who ask questions and they don’t like the answers,” he says. “They ask, ‘Can I do this?’ and I simply say, ‘No.’ Most of the time I’m right.” 

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By the mid-1980s, Corti Brothers had expanded to four stores—in South Sacramento, at Arden Fair, at Birdcage in Citrus Heights, and since 1970, at 59th and Folsom.

But the grocery world began changing dramatically in the ’80s. Chain supermarkets were inundating Sacramento. When Corti Brothers opened at Birdcage in 1975, there were only a few supermarkets within a five-mile radius. When they closed the store in 1989, Mindermann counted 26. In part because of that competition, and because Arden Fair was remaking itself, Corti Brothers dropped back to the one East Sacramento store by the end of 1991.Corti riding a taxi boat through Venice, Italy from the airport last March (Photo courtesy of Darrell Corti)

In the 1990s, and even more, the 2000s, TV was helping turn America into a nation of foodies and it was minting celebrity chefs. Northern California wineries multiplied and winemakers were the new stars.

As the culinary press grew, so did the number of writers and journalists seeking Corti’s counsel. “When I was editing Saveur,” Andrews says, “certain subjects would come up and I’d say, ‘Here’s the number of Darrell Corti. Just don’t call a few minutes before lunch, because it’ll take a while.’ ”

Reichl tells a similar story. “When I was at the LA Times [from 1984 to 1993], I called him all the time for advice,” she says. “Tell me about this, tell me about that. I could call Darrell about anything, and he just knew, and he was always unbelievably forthcoming.”

One absolute truth about Corti: If you ask him a question, be sure you have time for the answer. He doesn’t mess around with partial explanations.

Despite the clamor of culinary media and celebrity, proof that Corti still had national resonance came in 2007. For a back-room tasting with his staff involving some particularly high-alcohol zinfandels (they reached about 16 percent), Corti wrote a line on the tasting sheet that said, basically, “please tell suppliers that if a wine is over 14.5 percent alcohol, we will not taste it for consideration of resale.” He considered those wines out of balance. The Sacramento Bee’s Mike Dunne heard about the notice and wrote about it on the paper’s website.

The story reverberated through the wine world. Some newspapers and wine media dubbed it Zingate and said Darrell Corti had drawn a line in the sand against high-alcohol wines. Robert Parker, widely considered the most influential wine critic on the planet, said on his website that Corti’s thinking seemed like “a police state’s mentality.” Britain’s Jancis Robinson, maybe the world’s second most influential wine critic, wondered why Corti couldn’t just sell the wines in a special section.

Corti said he was just doing what he had done with scores of other products through the years—selling what he considered the highest quality.

And he does occasionally carry a few higher-alcohol wines, beyond special or fortified wines intended to be above 14.5 percent. “Those are wines that I happen to like,” he says. “I make the law. I can break the law.”

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.