Talking wine and food with America’s most revered grocer, it is hard to keep up.
A spry 81, Darrell Corti has an athletically agile mind. His knowledge is encyclopedic. His curiosity, voracious. Want to know the profile of an obscure olive cultivar or rare European cheese? Or perhaps about the flavors and shelf price of the first Conterno Barolo Monfortino bottling (1968) he helped bring to America? Darrell will tell you.
From his sprawling Corti Brothers vintage family grocery in Sacramento, Calif., Corti has helped shape the wine landscape for 60 years: bottling wine on both sides of the Atlantic, guiding generations of winemakers and aiding in the revival of California Zinfandel.
His influence extends to all sorts of culinary delights, from antique whiskeys to traditional balsamic vinegar, from truffles to teas, artisanal panettone to pretzels, and olive oils to rare salts.
The list of honors Corti has received from public and private institutions is too long to cite here. Echoing the chorus of his fans, author Ruth Reichl, whose career included years as food critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, says Corti “knows more about food and wine than anybody else in America.”
Most importantly, Corti—who shows up daily to work in tie and pressed blue grocer’s smock—is still at it.
During my recent trip to California, winemaker Tegan Passalacqua of Turley called Corti and his discerning palate “a quality control for the wine industry.”
“Even when you do a good job,” Passalacqua says, “he tells you that you can do better.”
When young winemaker Giuseppe Vaira of Barolo’s G.D. Vajra was developing a lighter, easy-drinking Nebbiolo based on descriptions of the wine in antique works, he flew to California with sample bottles for Corti to taste before the winery tried to sell it.
“He’s done a lot of good for others rather than to promote himself,” says Vaira. “His contribution to Italian wine is hard to measure metrically but is vast and deep.”
The grandson of Piedmontese immigrants and son of a mayonnaise salesman turned grocer, Corti grew up in Sacramento and studied languages. He tried teaching, but quickly discovered he couldn’t support his growing interest in travel and wines and spirits.
“I decided that, as I have expensive tastes, I might as well be able to support them,” says Corti, who has just returned from a 19-day scouting trip to Japan. We are chatting in his above-the-store office, crammed with papers, books and bottles.
In 1964, Corti joined his father and uncle at Corti Brothers and quickly became a player in the California wine renaissance. He was the first retailer to stock emerging wineries like Ridge, Chateau Montelena and Schramsberg. And he invested in Monterey’s Chalone after it was saved from bankruptcy by California Chardonnay legend Dick Graff. (“At the time, it was an unending pit into which one threw money,” Corti says.)
On a scouting trip to Germany and France in 1967, he became fascinated by the wines of Joh. Jos. Prüm in the Mosel and established his own Cuvée Corti with Champagne house Bollinger. Three years later on a trip to Italy, he arranged through a friendly importer to introduce some Piedmont wines to the U.S., including the now-legendary Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino Riserva.
“When I first bought wine from [then winemaker] Giovanni Conterno, he said to me, ‘Signor Corti, I will sell you the wine, but you must promise to store the bottles upright,’” Corti says, recalling Conterno wines that were rustic, with older vintages marred by oxidation-related faults.
“All the Piemontese wineries kept their bottles upright because, when the wines threw off deposits, they would settle at the bottom,” he explains. “The idea of decanting wine was outside the Italian sensibility.”
“We ended up buying most of his ’68 Monfortino. The wine retailed for $6.99 a bottle,” he adds, with a shake of his head. “Now you just have to add several zeroes to it.” (The 2013 vintage, reviewed by Wine Spectator in 2020, scored 99 points and was released at $875.)
Corti is a pragmatist, keenly aware of the vagaries of consumer taste, having learned from experiences like his most famous wine adventure: the one involving Zinfandel, good instincts, luck and Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home.
In the Trinchero family’s official biography, Harvesting the Dream, a chapter titled “Zinfandel and the Corti Connection” credits Corti with educating Bob’s palate to good Zin. Corti, who had sourced Sutter Home wine for Corti Brothers’ jug brand, convinced Trinchero to buy old-vine Zinfandel from the Deaver Ranch in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. Other vintners followed.
In 1972, amid an arms race for bigger Zins, Trinchero used the French saignée technique—making a more concentrated Zin by first bleeding off some juice before it takes on color from the skins. He fermented the pale juice separately but didn’t know what to do with it. Reminded of a French wine called oeil de perdrix, Corti told him to bottle it and agreed to buy half the stock. “White Zinfandel” was born.
Yet it was a dud—until three vintages later when a stuck fermentation left the White Zin slightly pink and sweet. The wine sold out, setting off a craze that eventually turned Sutter Home White Zinfandel into America’s best-selling wine for years.
Corti’s interests are so vast that serendipity often plays a key role in his career, as when his collection of Prohibition hooch led to the first bottles of traditional balsamic vinegar being imported into the U.S.
Though industrial balsamic vinegar was available in U.S. specialty stores in the 1970s, you couldn’t buy the thick, syrupy aceto balsamico tradizionale that was made from freshly crushed grapes instead of wine and long-aged in a series of barrels in homes around Modena and Reggio-Emilia.
For five years running, Corti tried to find a source in that part of Italy, but at the time, he says, “No one would sell it. There was no commercial market.” This was years before consortiums were established to set standards and labeling practices for traditional balsamic from around the two cities, and decades before the EU granted them Protected Designation of Origin status.
Then Corti sold some bottles from his collection of legally distilled, medicinal Prohibition-era whiskey (complete with doctor’s prescriptions) to an Italian broker, who sold them to an Emilia-Romagna textiles industrialist.
The Italian customers were so delighted, they asked Corti how they could return the gesture. Corti asked for a source for balsamico tradizionale. The industrialist sold Corti bottles from his personal stock and arranged another source: Mirella Giacobazzi, matriarch of the large-scale, Lambrusco-producing family.
After importing the first bottles of expensive nectar, he shared them with California’s new generation of chefs and food writers.
Today, as the clock turns past noon, Corti Brothers’ store director Rick Mindermann tells Corti that a shipment has arrived from Italy of 240 Veneziana (panettone-like) cakes. Corti commissioned them from a Veneto bakery using raisins soaked in Vignalta winery’s Alpianae passito, a sweet wine made from dried, aromatic Orange Muscat grapes.
Corti unpacks a cake and cuts slices to sample, offering a pour of one of his favorite whiskies, the smooth, koji-fermented Takamine 8 Years Old, from Japan. Even for someone who normally doesn’t like the hard stuff, this pairing of aromas and flavors is sublime.
So, what interests him most nowadays?
The subjects are limitless. Salt? He has been the first to bring in rare examples from Italy and Japan. Oil? Corti, chairman of the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, has advocated for shorter picking-to-press times and has commissioned a series of monocultivar oils from California millers, including the roving mill known as The Olive Truck. Koji? Don’t get him started.
What really excites him, Corti says, is “anything that is interesting.”