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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For all his experience, talents and spirit, he acknowledges that he was no match for his sister Illa when it came to staff management. Illa, who had once been a schoolteacher, oversaw the store’s day-to-day operations from 1989 until she died from breast cancer in 2005. “Illa ran Corti Brothers like she ran her classroom,” Corti says. “She could make a class of preschoolers do what she wanted. That’s really pretty good. That’s what she did here.”

Through the ’90s, brother and sister essentially ran Corti Brothers, though Frank and Gino remained the official heads until 2000 when Frank died at age 84 and Gino retired. (Gino died in 2006; Darrell’s mother, Rose, in 2010.) Darrell, Illa and her husband Allan Darrah officially took over at the end of 2000, and Illa worked nearly until her passing.

And her influence was far deeper than operations. She helped push Corti forward publicly, she helped foster his relationship with Mindermann, and she became the store’s grounded, emotional center. Corti still misses her and says the store does, too.

“I’m not a good Illa,” he says.

That, as much as anything, explains why Corti says he’s just a grocer. He grew up in Corti Brothers. It’s his whole life, his harbor, and his connection to his family that is gone now. Just as it was when he started, the business and the family are still bound together for Darrell Corti. Now, his staff and his customers are his family.

He is proud that there are so many employees who have worked there so long, like Mindermann, meat department manager Mike Carroll, a 33-year employee, or deli manager Linda Wright, who’s been there 35 years. Others have been there more than two decades.

Why have they stayed?

“I don’t know,” Corti says.

“I’ll tell you why,” Wright says. “Although it sounds corny, it really is like a family here and Darrell is in the center of it.”

“He knows why we’re here,” says Mindermann. “He doesn’t really say it, but I know Darrell loves me, and he knows I love him.”

That’s another complexity of Darrell Corti. For all his initial brusqueness, people commit to the man because he’s fascinating, because he is constantly teaching and because, once he commits back, he gives them so much.

“I’m not sure he wants to accept the responsibility, but I consider him my mentor,” says David Berkley. “How do you measure what I learned from him?”
Corti Brothers and Corti are alike in another way. They are rarities. Corti Brothers is one of the last of its kind, an independent, single-store supermarket. It faces a world that gets more competitive almost daily. Specialty food markets continue to pop up, chain grocers are moving into gourmet foods, and stores known for quality food and wine like Fresh & Easy grocers and locally owned Nugget Markets have plans for sites within two miles or so over the next year or two.

And the celebrated grocer is certainly the last of his kind. With no children, he is the only Corti left at the store. “That’s a big problem,” he says of the lack of a succession plan. “Maybe Corti Brothers has to become something else. What it has to become, what the name will be, I don’t know.

As long as I’m around, it’s Corti Brothers.”

And Corti does plan to be around a while. And why not? He appears 10 years younger than he is, with thick, silver hair, and the square jaw, high cheekbones and solid good looks of an Italian movie star playing a grocer.

Besides, where else would he go, he asks. With no family to take over once he’s gone, the likelihood is that Darrah, Mindermann and maybe other top managers like Carroll will band together.

“If I have any say in it,” Mindermann says, “it’ll always be Corti Brothers.”

In the meantime, Corti is at the store every day—seven days a week—when he’s not traveling to speak to a group or teach or find something new. And he’ll be wearing a dress shirt and tie and a blue grocer’s smock.

“He’s protecting his father’s business,” says Carroll. “That’s really important to him. This is his place. He cares about his family’s business. Darrell wants to do things right.

He’s proud of what Corti Brothers is, and he still wants to make his father proud.”

Images of Darrell Corti through the years.