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A Connoisseur’s Connoisseur : Darrell Corti probably knows more about food than anybody else in the state

“Oh no,” groaned one of the guests, “do we have to?” A bottle of wine had just been plunked on the table, neatly wrapped in a plain brown bag. Once again it was time to play “Guess the Vintage.”

The mystery wine was poured for each of the dozen invitees. They swirled and sniffed. They hazarded guesses. For this group of august wine experts, it was not a new game. Somebody suggested that the wine came from Napa. Another detected the flavor of the ’53 Medoc.

After 15 minutes they had determined only that it was red, not American, and made before 1935. “Oh, let’s give up,” said wine authority Robert Finigan, “none of us has a clue.” There were nods all around the table as wine writer Barbara Ensrud, wine maker Jack Cakebread and wine connoisseur Narsai David all admitted that they were stumped.

“Not yet,” said a measured voice from the end of the table; it was the first time it had been heard. “I know the wine. I’ve just been trying to decide if it was the ’28 or the ’29. I think it must be the ’28.”

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There was a gasp from the back of the room and winemaker John Trefethen announced the name of the wine he had placed on the table. Fifty-two years after the grapes were gathered, Darrell Corti had not only correctly named the vintage year, but placed the wine within yards of where it was made.

Even the experts are not supposed to be able to do this sort of parlor trick; it is not for nothing that Corti is known as the “walking wine encyclopedia.”

But wine is not his only area of expertise. Corti, who works with his family’s Sacramento chain of supermarkets, Corti Brothers, probably knows more about food than anybody else in the state. He is the connoisseur’s connoisseur. Corti was the person that Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower once turned to when they had questions about food. (“After a while,” says Corti, “they learn things too and they stop asking.”) Food authorities still call him constantly for information and advice. Spend time with him in the wine department at Corti Brothers, and you discover that the ringing of the phone never stops. He answers it to give out wine prices, information about everything from tomatoes to truffles, and to offer recipes in six or seven languages.

Corti can do more than talk about food; he is a splendid cook who constantly has something new up his sleeve. My first dinner at his house was in the spring of 1978. The first course was asparagus, which we ate with our fingers, dipping the fat spears into a pungent mahogany-colored liquid that tasted like nothing I’d ever had before. “What is this?” I asked. “Balsamic vinegar,” he replied, telling me tales of the people of Modena fleeing their homes during the last war, each with a precious little cask of vinegar strapped to the front of his bicycle. A few years later, of course, balsamic vinegar became the rage, but at that point nobody I knew had ever heard of it.

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And he is still ahead of everybody else. At a recent dinner Corti served the Japanese custard, chawan mushi, made with a special twist of his own; it was cooked with truffled eggs. “It’s the best use of fresh truffles I know,” says Corti. To wash it down there was a cold bottle of Dai Ginjo sake. “It smells like cut ripe melons,” says Corti, “and it sells for the price of Romanee-Conti.” Few people today have ever heard of this exotic beverage. A year from now it’ll probably be the hottest drink on the market.

“People always angled to get invited to Darrell’s for dinner,” says winemaker Cary Gott. “In the formative years of the California wine business, everybody wanted his stamp of approval.”

People in the food world angled for his approval too, and if you mention Corti’s name in food circles, you invariably get tales about his incredible palate. There was the famous Wine and Food Society dinner held 8 or 9 years ago at a very fancy Los Angeles restaurant. “We were served a saddle of lamb in black truffle sauce,” recalls a man who was there. “Darrell got his portion and asked the owner what the dish was. The man replied in English, ‘Don’t you know, those are truffles.’ Darrell looked at him and in perfect French said, ‘Those are black olives made to look like truffles.’ The man’s face turned red; Darrell was right, but nobody else had noticed.”

“He’s incredible,” says wine merchant Steve Wallace, who has a wealth of Corti stories. “I was with Darrell in a very dark bar--the sort of place where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. He asked for green Chartreuse. When he got it he took a sip and said, ‘You’ve made a mistake--this is yellow Chartreuse.’ The waiter went back to the bar and returned with a different glass. Darrell took another sip. He looked up and said, ‘This isn’t green Chartreuse. It’s half green and half yellow. What are you trying to do?’ ‘I was testing you,’ the man replied. Darrell looked up and said, ‘Please don’t test me any more.’ ”

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Corti’s own development must have been quite a test for his family. They, after all, ran a supermarket and didn’t want to answer questions about how many stripes there are on gooseberries. At times, they must have wished that he’d just go out and play ball with the other kids. Not Corti; he was holed up with the latest issue of Gourmet magazine. “I was a kid who wasn’t interested in sports,” he admits. “Reading about food became my kind of escapism. I read everything I could get my hands on.”

He read so much--and about such arcane subjects--that the local library became alarmed. “I took out so many books about wine and animal husbandry that the librarians called my mother. They thought I was too young to be reading about those things.”

But Corti was unstoppable. He began pestering his family to sell what he called “interesting foods.” “Who will buy them?” they kept asking. “In 1958, it took me months to convince the deli manager to stock Brie. In those days nobody ate anything like that--we’d be lucky if we’d use one one kilo of Brie a month, and that was when Brie was the real thing.”

It was a thankless task, but Corti didn’t care. When he went off to Madrid for his junior year in college (“Being a Spanish major seemed like a good way to get to Europe”) he came back with 50 cases of spiced figs--much to his family’s dismay. “It was our first food importation. I had to fight to get people to buy the stuff, and then when we ran out people began coming in and asking for them. It was typical.” Corti finally went to work in the family business, and began importing in earnest. “We brought fresh truffles in in 1969 (then they cost $4.19 an ounce). We began bringing olive oil in in 1970.”

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By the time the general public became interested in these foods, Corti Brothers had the best olive oil, smoked salmon and the only fresh white truffles in the state. It was also the place to go for the best Italian wines, ports and sherries. (Corti Brothers still sells the best bourbon I’ve ever tasted, as well as an extraordinary line of single malt scotches and early-landed Cognacs.) “Our first wine importation,” says Corti, “was in 1967. I had 10 cases of vintage Madeira brought in and it cost a thousand dollars. When my father saw the bill he practically died. But it was extraordinary wine--vintages from 1864 to 1895. We ended up making a tidy profit on it, but it was scary.” He looks up and says, “We still have a few of those bottles. Now they’d cost four or five hundred dollars. . . . Each.”

“Darrell’s such an expert,” says Los Angeles Times wine writer Dan Berger, “that you’d think he’d be a hard man to please when it came to California port and sherry. When I asked him to judge California ports at a competition in Riverside in 1983, I was afraid he wouldn’t give any medals. But it was exactly the opposite. He not only defended California winemakers to other judges, he also gave medals for ‘good effort.’ ”

Corti may be a connoisseur but he is not a snob. You can take him anywhere to eat-- and you can be sure that if there’s something good out in the kitchen, he will ferret it out. He did not, he points out, learn everything he knows by saying no.

One thing Corti says yes to is eating in Los Angeles, which he calls “the most interesting food city in the United States.” But if you think you’ll find him sitting down to dinner every night at L’Orangerie, L’Ermitage or the other upscale eateries, you are bound to be disappointed. Where is the first place he heads, straight from the airport? “La Salsa,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. The taco stand? He nods. “I think it’s some of the best food going. You know, simple food is the most difficult to make taste good.”

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Now this is a man who eats truffles for breakfast. Who makes his own caviar. Who entices you to stay for dinner at his house by offering to open a wine from your birth year and, when asked to describe the wine, says this: “When Homer spoke of the wine-dark sea, this is what he meant. It is the color of the sun going down over the ocean. The wine smells like the earth when the sun is shining on a cold day.” This is the man who thinks a trip to Los Angeles isn’t complete without tacos at La Salsa?

Absolutely. Asked for other favorite places, he mentions (besides restaurants “owned by friends such as La Toque, West Beach Cafe, Valentino, Spago and Peppone”) that Phillipe’s French dip sandwiches are “absolutely nifty.” One friend mentions taking him to Tommy’s for burgers, and another says how much he liked Mon Kee in Chinatown when the restaurant first opened. Says Corti, “There are two classes of people in Los Angeles. The first are genuinely interested in food. The others are people who go simply to say, ‘Amuse me.’ Those are the ones who invariably come away disappointed.” He looks up with a quizzical expression, then asks, “And what’s the point of knowing a lot about food if all you get from it is disappointment?”

A Connoisseur’s Guide to L.A.

Ruth Reichl lists 10 local places to take a visiting connoisseur. Laurie Ochoa reports on a restaurateur’s most dreaded customer--the faux connoisseur. And Dan Berger pops off on wine etiquette for the wanna-be connoisseur--it’s not merely a matter of swirling your wine.

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