Known as "The Professor" by his colleagues in the food and drink world for his vast expertise, Darrell Corti is a second-generation Californian who now runs his family's business, Corti Brothers, a celebrated grocery store in Sacramento. A graduate of St. Mary's College in Moraga, Calif., Corti was a catalyst in the re-evaluation and renaissance of zinfandel and other wine varieties grown in the Sierra foothills of California, and has been a leader in advocating wider use of Italian varieties of grapes in California. He sits on several tasting panels for regional, state, national, and foreign wine competitions, and is a member of the American Society of Enologists and Medical Friends of Wine, among other professional organizations.
Among his many honors are the Bacco d'Oro, awarded by the Italian Government Institute of Foreign Trade in recognition for his work promoting quality Italian wines; a knighthood in the Ordine al Merito della Republica Italiano, awarded by the president of the Italian Republic; a spot on the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America. He is also an inductee in the Institute of American Vintners' Hall of Fame, Class of 2008, as well as the Italian Trade Commission’s Hall of Fame. Corti has recently been named to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "Kitchen Cabinet for their American Food History Project.
What's your earliest food memory?
This goes back to grammar school days, when my maternal grandparents would be in Sacramento and after school, my grandmother would make us "Uevu sbattueu," essentially a zabaglione, made in a coffee cup, with one egg yolk and two tablespoons of sugar, beaten in the cup until it turned white, about 20 minutes, and then the cup is filled with reheated leftover coffee from lunch. It has the three major food groups: fat, sugar, and caffeine. This we had upon arriving home from school, which was a block away. The scent still thrills me. Sometimes, we would have different dishes because a friend of my grandmother's, Catarina Ferrando, would come up. She was a marvel at making the most delicious dishes out of thin air. One especially memorable one, when I was about eight years old, so 1950, was a shoulder of veal, very cheap then, cooked with a whole head of chopped celery. There was some finely chopped garlic and some onion and marjoram, but the whole head of celery was put in with the browned veal and then some water, salt, and pepper, covered, and left to cook slowly in the oven, producing the most wonderful scent, until the meat was cooked and the celery reduced to a mush which was then passed through a sieve. So the dish was nothing more than that. The meat sliced and served with the light purée-type sauce. Sometimes we had it also with fresh pasta rolled by hand.
Did you always intend to go into the family business, and if not, when and why did you decide to do so?
I think it was thought that I would go into the family business. But...and this is a big but, it is a difficult business, this retailing. Holidays were a problem for me. I would have preferred to have the days running up to the holidays off, to be able to enjoy them. Everyone else did! So after spending my junior year in Madrid, since my college major was Spanish, when I left college in 1964, I said I was going to get a Ph.D in Romance Philology. The summer and year after college disabused me of this notion, since teaching is not quite as remunerative as business. So I told my father that graduate school was for the birds and that I would come into Corti Brothers. This would have been in 1965. In the meantime, I had already started doing things at Corti Brothers in wine and we signed the first Fair Trade contracts with several new wineries at that time.
What's the hardest thing about being a food and wine retailer in 21st-century America?
Just the sheer number of things available is almost overwhelming, also, the amount of supposed "knowledge" out there. Then the competition from ever larger-growing businesses that becomes interlocked and creates the disappearance of traditional products that are not sustainable according to the methodology of "bean counters." Then, there is the real lack of passion on the part of a lot in the industry. It's just a stepping stone to something bigger.
What are the food or drink products that you're proudest of having introduced to American consumers?
Zinfandel, aceto balsamico tradizionale, and Catalan olive oil.
What figure or figures, in the food and/or wine world or otherwise, have you learned the most from?
Which volume of the book do you want? Roy Brady, Elizabeth David, Gerald Asher, André Tchelistcheff, Barney and Belle Rhodes, Maynard Amerine, Jim Guymon, Len Evans, Harry Waugh, several personages in the Port and sherry trade who might be embarrassed if mentioned, and lastly, my father, Frank. Here I might add my sister, Illa, my partner in Corti Brothers, a born teacher, who taught me a great deal.