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Q & A: Darrell Corti
By Marguerite Thomas
Oct 2, 2007
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To describe Corti Brothers as a good food and wine store is like saying that Notre Dame Cathedral is a nice neighborhood church.  Indeed, Corti Bros. is a gastronomic shrine to its loyal customers, offering to the epicurean faithful an array of soul-soothing and palate-pleasing fare that ranges from Argumato Lemon Olive Oil to Japanese finishing salts to the rare XSR 120 White Port.

The store, which bills itself as 'a fine wine and gourmet foods Italian grocery store' opened in Sacramento, California, in 1947.  It is run today by Darrell Corti, a descendant of the founders.  A soft-spoken man, Corti surprised many friends and colleagues last spring when he announced that his store would no longer be stocking any table wines that had a content of more than 14.5 percent alcohol.   This was his personal response to the broad rise in the alcoholic content of table wines, but it created a considerable tempest in the wider world of wine connoisseurs -- even Robert Parker weighed in with a rousing indictment of Corti's stand.  (Anyone who has not followed the particulars of the controversy can track it fairly easily on the Internet.)

Darrell Corti is a man of considerable wit and encyclopedic knowledge of things gastronomic. If you go to www. cortibros.com and read through a few back issues of his newsletter, you'll get an idea of the impressive breadth and depth of his interests.  The store over which Corti presides is known for its old-fashioned deli, its superb meat and grocery departments, and for its well-stocked wine department, with its emphasis on Italian selections.  Among his many admirers is Jancis Robinson, who has described Corti as 'A formidable taster and intellect.'  Robinson did, however, voice polite criticism of Corti's denunciation of high-alcohol wines.

With his close-cropped graying hair and benign facial expressions, Darrell Corti seems a mild-mannered, somewhat scholarly fellow.  But beware that mischievous twinkle in his eye -- nd don't act like a fool, for he won't suffer you gladly.  

Q: Let me start by assuring you that I'm not planning to ask you to discuss the 14.5% alcohol issue at any length.  There's been so much press (and especially blog coverage) about it that I'm sure you're tired of the whole topic by now.

A: You're right!  The only people who keep that alive are wine writers.

Q: Are you saying that wine-drinking consumers aren't interested?

A: It's just not that complicated for them.  I've got a whole file of messages from people who wrote in to me to say thank you.  I think they understand that the Emperor has no clothes.  Our customers tend to appreciate honest wine that goes well with food.

Q: You wrote in one of your newsletters that Jadot Beaune Boucherottes is 'not a cheese Burgundy, but a food Burgundy.'  Can you elaborate a little bit on that distinction?

A: It's the kind of wine that in Burgundy one would drink with food.  A wine that goes with food is meant to be enjoyed, not worshipped.

Q: Do you think our taste in 'food wines' has changed?

A: I think there are a lot of people who now find the kind of wines I'd classify as food wines too thin, too lean.  We've distorted the taste of a lot of people who drink wine.

Q:  They're looking for bigger, richer wines?

A:  That's right.  And sweeter wines; they're definitely looking for wines that taste sweet.

Q:  I read somewhere recently that people who drink a lot of diet soda -- which is very, very sweet -- develop a taste for ever sweeter drink, and food as well.  I suppose that in some way this is true of wine, too?

A:  It is absolutely true of wine.  Take Chianti Classico for example, which should not be a very dark, overtly flavorful, heavy wine.  Good Chianti is never boring or tiring.  It's well balanced, but it has a delicacy of flavor that makes it such a drinkable wine.  That's why it's so good with food.

Q:  Do you think your customers have become more interested in selecting the right wine to go with the right food than they used to?

A:  Yeah, I do.  They'll come in and say, 'I'm doing this dish -- what kind of wine goes with it?'  Or something like, 'I'm doing a really good steak tonight, what wine should I get to go with it for around $35?'  They aren't asking complex questions, and they aren't looking for complicated answers.  The first thing I do is try to find out what style of wine they like, then recommend something.  I might even suggest something they might not necessarily come up with on their own.  A cold summer soup, for example, can be tough to find a wine to match.  So if they're having a cold vegetable soup like gazpacho, I might tell them to try a Fino Sherry with it.  It's not brain surgery.  Brain washing, maybe…

Q: You've written that people should be more adventuresome in their wine choices.

A:  There are all sorts of wines that go with all sorts of foods.  We don't always have to drink what's recommended by experts.

Q:  Experts like wine writers, for example?

A:  Experts just recommend what they think they should recommend, but there are so many other possibilities.  We usually think of white wine with fish for example, but I recently had salmon with black bean sauce that needed a red wine.  That black bean sauce just cried out for red wine flavors.  Another example: We don't necessarily think of aged Riesling as a food wine, but it can be wonderful with food.  I was visiting (German wine producer) JJ Prum a few years ago, and he drank his Riesling with everything, including roast deer with sour cream.  Now that was an unexpected combination, but it was delicious!

Q: You are one of the few people I know who is equally interested in and knowledgeable about both food and wine.  Most people have a passion for one more than the other. Take, for example, your riff  (in the Corti Bros. newsletter, Fall 2005) on the differences between salt cod and stockfish (bacalà, bacalao, brandade, stoccafisso, etc.), a product that you describe as not a 'fast food,' but most definitely a 'slow food.'  But there's a food that's challenging to pair with wine!  Years ago I was served a Mediterranean dish that featured salt cod with potatoes and olives.  The dish itself was great, but the Chardonnay that was served with it developed a metallic taste when juxtaposed with the fish.

A: Salted fish turns white wine bitter.  You want a very light red wine with it. One of those fine little reds from Portugal would be good -- a red Vinho Verde. The French have a lovely way of describing wines that are good with food: frais et goulyant, they call them, 'fresh and gulpable."