By Erin Hallissy
Photography by Toby Burditt
Darrell Corti '64 arrived at Saint Mary's College in 1960 with something unusual for that era: a 3-foot-square refrigerator for his dorm room.
Inside, the son of a Sacramento grocer kept a constantly replenished stash of salami and pickles, cheese and "anything edible" to counteract the "terrible, just awful" food in Oliver Hall. It served as more than just a storehouse of delectables, however; it helped build relationships with fellow students and prefects like Brother Myron Collins '54.
"How do you win friends and influence people? Feed the prefect," Corti says with a slight smile.
Throughout his life, Corti has won friends and influenced people through finding — and sharing — just the right food, whether it be flavorful Consorcio tuna from Spain, extraordinary Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Italy, spicy mango chutney from Australia or Pacific Ocean sea salt from Japan.
Chain supermarkets and upscale grocers may now stock such items, but Corti was finding and promoting products like them decades ago as a food revolution was brewing around Berkeley, where Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971 and a new generation of chefs and foodies like Narsai David, Ruth Reichl and others introduced the world to California cuisine.
"He is a trailblazer," says David, who remembers that Corti appeared at Berkeley's nascent wine and food society in the mid-
1960s, "a young whippersnapper" who wowed people with opinions and insights way beyond his years.
"For such a young man, it was fascinating how deep his knowledge was of wine and food," David says. "To this day, I don't know anybody who can put together a knowledge of wine from Germany, France, Italy and Portugal as effectively and appropriately as he does."
Waters told the Los Angeles Times recently that she got "balsamic vinegar, white truffles and fantastic olive oils" from Corti, adding "Darrell opened my eyes to products from around the world. He is an amazing person who knows everything about everything. Not just what it is, but how it's produced from beginning to end. That's very unique."
Over the decades, Corti has won respect and recognition for his knowledge of food, which he eagerly shares with anyone who asks, whether it's a customer looking for a bargain or one of the world's top chefs. In 2008, he was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America's Vintners Hall of Fame; he was earlier named a cavaliere (knight) by the Italian government for promoting Italian products.
"I think there are few true public arbiters of taste in the food world, but he is one," says Darra Goldstein, editor of Gastronomica magazine and professor of Russian at Williams College in Massachusetts. "I like that he is opinionated and not afraid to speak his mind."
Corti's Saint Mary's classmate
and close friend Larry Biddle, a nationally recognized education
leader who founded the Jostens Renaissance program to improve academic performance, says Corti's success is founded on his sharing his knowledge and opinions.
"A lot of people think that knowledge is power, but it's not," Biddle says. "It's the use of knowledge that makes it valuable. Darrell understands that and has practiced it since I've known him.''
Corti didn't plan to go into the food and wine business when he entered Saint Mary's after graduating from Bishop Armstrong (now Christian Brothers) High School in Sacramento. He was going to major in Spanish and Italian and then get a doctorate in Romance philology. (He also speaks Catalan, French and Portuguese and can read German.)
"I wanted to go into teaching because if you teach, you get all the holidays off," he says, perhaps remembering the many hours working in his father's store while growing up.
He chose Saint Mary's College after Bishop Armstrong principal Brother Eugene Ward told him and other students (including Biddle) that they could study at the University of Madrid, Spain, during their junior year, under the auspices of New York University.
"It was the fastest way to get to Europe," Corti points out, which was important for a man who had grown up in San Francisco and Sacramento but whose four grandparents were from Italy.
That junior year was a high-water mark in Corti's young life. While many college students now study abroad, it was uncommon then, and the yearlong experience for Corti and five SMC classmates provided opportunities not just to study in Europe but also to explore its cultures — and foods.
Not that it started out well.
"For the first week in Madrid, I cried practically every day, saying ‘what am I doing in this godforsaken place?' I had never been away from home; it was very hot; I knew no one," Corti says.
The discomfort didn't last long. Corti and his roommate Alberto Guidi '64 moved into an assistant biology professor's home where they would live for the year and started classes.
Biddle recalls that Corti quickly absorbed the cultures of Spain and other countries they traveled to during holidays, including France and Italy over the Christmas break.
"He was constantly aware of the finer things, and there are so many finer things in Europe," Biddle says.
Corti, for instance, recalls having New Year's Eve dinner at the three-star Grand Vefour Restaurant in the Palais Royal, which dates from the reign of Louis XV. He doesn't recall what he ate, but "I remember it being special, and I brought back a bottle of the house Cognac."
He also enjoyed the Italian villages he stopped in during their tour in a rented Citroën — he recalls people being very excited about pesche in scatola, canned peaches that were considered a great luxury.
When Corti returned to SMC for his senior year, he retained lessons he had learned in Europe, even using a knife and fork to eat a BLT sandwich or to peel an orange.
"I was a rara avis (rare bird)," Corti says, unconcerned that his classmates thought him odd for his table manners.
Corti enrolled in graduate school after Saint Mary's, but he gave up after one semester and went back to Sacramento to work at Corti Bros., where his "very indulgent" father let him concentrate on adding a well-stocked wine shop — an unusual feature in the mid-1960s. The young man took off in 1967 to Germany and France, exploring the wine regions of the Rhine, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Corti learned as much as he could, talking to winemakers and tasting various varietals and regional specialties.
"With wine, you never stop learning. Every year there's a new vintage," he points out.
The same year, the man who decided not to be a teacher started a newsletter, which he still publishes several times a year, where he educates readers about rare and high-quality foods and wine. Newsletters may include details of an olive oil maker's techniques or the perfect macaroni pastistio to make "the famous baked Greek meat and pasta dish called "Pastitsio."
Brother Myron recalls that Corti came to Saint Mary's in the early 1970s to put on an olive oil tasting, decades before such tastings became trendy in California. He asked Corti why one would taste oil, and remembers Corti told him, "It's a fruit; it's like tasting wine."
Marlena Spieler, an internationally known cookbook author and food writer whose column runs in the San Francisco Chronicle, says Corti always brought wonderful products from his trips to Europe and Asia back to customers.
"I remember the fabulous smell, that salami and herbal and cheese scent," says Spieler, who grew up in Sacramento. "When I made a zillion spanakopita for my first wedding, Corti Bros. was where I got the phyllo dough. I remember the feeling that it was a wonderland of not only delicious things, but good vibes. Corti Bros. runs on a Darrell vibe, which is all about passion and what is really good rather than what is a fashion statement or will sell out and make a lot of money."
Narsai David says Corti always has interesting and authentic products, like tiny pears in a simple syrup in beautiful glass jars from Chile or Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce from China because it still uses the original recipe.
"He finds the best in each of these categories, just because it is the best," David says. "It's impossible for me to pass through Sacramento without stopping to see what Darrell is doing.''
Gastronomica's Goldstein says, "I think of Darrell as both a connoisseur and a tastemaker who has for many years educated the public about food in important ways. Both his store and his newsletter reflect his belief that food is not simply a commodity but something that carries cultural meaning."
In other countries, Corti is as well-known as he is in the United States, especially in Italy.
"I was in Umbria eating lentils and beans and truffled goodies … and the subject turned to their esteemed friend, Darrell Corti," recalls Spieler. "Ditto an olive oil producer in Liguria, who added, ‘Darrell took me to a good restaurant in California!'?''
That Corti would take a visitor to a good restaurant is no surprise — friends say he is a gracious host with Old World manners. His dining room table seats 16, and David remarks, "Everything is so appropriate: perfectly starched linen napery and the right china and silverware for every course.''
Corti says he believes it's important to enjoy food in the company of others.
"It's terrible having to eat alone," he says. "It becomes even more terrible in certain religious orders where you have to eat without speaking. God gave us gifts — why did he give them to us if not for pleasure?"
That hospitality extends to Corti's store, where he operates from a modest student-size desk that is topped with file cards of vendors, an adding machine and business documents. Next to it is a bookcase stuffed with wine guides, reference materials and cookbooks.
Wearing a knee-length blue grocer's coat over his pressed shirt and tie, Corti is constantly busy, answering the phone, talking to deliverymen, putting prices on bottles with a small labeling machine. But as soon as he sees a customer wandering the aisles or looking quizzically at a bottle, he jumps up to offer help as quickly as he would if a famous winemaker or chef appeared.
Corti has tasted every wine in his store, and he can tell customers about them, trying to help them get just what they're looking for. He shrugs off his encyclopedic memory.
"How do people remember something?" he asks, noting that sports fans can dredge up statistics or plays from games that happened decades earlier.
Corti also holds strong opinions and is not afraid to share them. An early promoter of Zinfandel, particularly from Amador County, he created a stir in 2007 when he declared he would not stock wine with more than 14.5 percent alcohol at Corti Bros.
"They make you very tired," he told AppellationAmerica.com. "My idea of a really good bottle of wine is that two people finish the bottle and wish there was just a little bit more. Some of these wines with high levels of alcohol — you can't finish the bottle."
Corti also doesn't understand vegetarians, saying humans should enjoy all kinds of food. He believes Americans throw away too much food because they have never experienced famine, and people take a bountiful food supply for granted.
"We have to have a lot of food (at a restaurant), so we take home some in a doggy bag, which is probably thrown out," he says. "People think every bit of bread they eat should be baked that day, so they throw away perfectly good bread."
That Corti would be offended by people wasting food is ultimately no surprise, as his life has been devoted to seeking out and appreciating the best fruits of the land and works of human hands, whether a simple pear or a complex aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
"Darrell is so open-minded about all sorts of different types of food — Italian and other ethnic, highbrow and lowbrow, elegant and funky," Spieler says. "Once when I visited Darrell I was thinking of tuna, and we opened up and tasted tuna after tuna, each one more brinily delicious than the next, dripping in good olive oil, and fresh as the sea."