We had the pleasure of interviewing Darrell Corti, Head of Corti Brothers in Sacramento and in his own words "just a humble grocer". A modest man, Mr. Corti is unassuming to a fault. After all, this is the man that has in the same sentence between described as a food world legend and the man with the planet's greatest nose for quality.
We discuss his passion for Californian wines, the challenges in selling single malt Scotch in the 70s, fond memories in whisky and also hear about some future whisky selections!
Wine is at the heart of who you are. When and why did you first get interested in wine, and how has that interest lasted so long?
I have been interested in wine since I was very young. This coming from the influence of my maternal grandfather who made wine at home in San Francisco and whose wine I had bottled in the early 1960s. I was terrible at sports and had to be good at something!
You have travelled the world on your quest to find excellent local food and wine producers. Which are your favourite memories from those travels?
Too many to recount. But Corti Brothers has been the first customers in the US for a lot of different wineries and wines. Wines such as Carema of Luigi Ferrando and Monfortino of Giovanni Conterno are only two Italian ones. In 1969, we were the first to import unfined and low alcohol Fino and Manzanilla Fina from Lustau in Jerez. At that time they had to be called “Light Fino/Light Manzanilla Fina” since the standard was not at 15.5% but at 17%.
Upon joining the family business, you used it as a vehicle to champion and promote Californian wines. What piqued your curiosity and interest in California’s wines at the time? Did you have a favourite producer?
I really do not have a favorite producer. But since we made wine in California, it seemed to me to be worthwhile promoting it. This happened as I got out of university in 1964. Some things happened also before this time. And very few people were promoting California wine at the time. It was interesting to suggest different things to winemakers and see their reactions.
One of the hallmarks of your career was your stance on refusing to taste wines above 14.5% ABV. Have your opinions changed on this at all?
They have not changed at all. But the industry’s take on it has!
What led to you first taking the bold decision to select and independently bottle Scotch whisky in 1978?
It was something that very few people were doing and some friends in the British trade had bottling possibilities. Prices were very low for some whiskies and it seemed a shame to let them go to waste. Esquin Imports in San Francisco had done somewhat the same in San Francisco with items bottled by Averys. It seemed a logical situation since Esquin had given up spirits. A problem in those days was selling the stuff! Not finding it.
In an old price list for Corti Brothers, you said “nothing comes as close to wine in complexity, distinction and sheer difference as does malt whisky”. Can you expand on this? How did your interest in wine translate into Scotch whisky?
Just reading old British wine books, like Simon or Saintsbury, malts had their place and reason for existing. Why not offer a vision of this to our California market? Plus, they were good tasting! Unfortunately now, some whiskies are sold just because of their age without a thought on the product as a drink. There is probably more money around than sense!
What was the first/most memorable “great” whisky you tasted? Your epiphany?
I really don’t remember, but we had at home some pre-war Pinch which I liked very much. If a blended whiskey tasted like this did, what would its components taste like?
The Corti Brothers collection of single malt whiskies is now regarded as one of the most highly prized series in terms of quality and variety. In your opinion, what specifically has captured the minds, hearts and tastebuds of whisky connoisseurs and collectors?
I have no idea. Probably the fact that they are now rare and sought after. Even selling the bottles at lower prices than the already reasonable “normal” prices, not much movement was had. I guess we might have been a bit too early. They took time to sell through, giving very little hope for future sales. The market was very shallow then.
How much awareness did you have of contemporaries like Samaroli who were doing similar things to yourself in Scotch whisky?
I knew of him from visiting upscale restaurants in Italy. In the late 70, 80s and 90s in Italy they were de rigeuer in these restaurants as after dinner drinks. Now this trend has rather died down, but the attraction has not. It was also that he was doing something that few others in Italy were doing and it was exciting.
These first releases for the Corti Brothers were bottled by the English wine merchant Avery’s of Bristol. Can you tell us about this relationship?
I knew John Avery from his visits to California in search of California wine and since they had a bottling line that was idling much of the time, why not ask. Asking, we received. Some very lovely products: A “clear” 10 year old Highland Park and a wonderful “Wedderburn” Rum that we bought at various ages.
You also collaboratively released some spectacular whiskies with your good friend Narsai David in 1983. Can you tell us how this started? Was there much difference in terms of personal preferences?
The fact is that Narsai was the one who went to Scotland and tasted the whiskies. I have never been to Scotland. He and his family had gone and tasted at Cadenhead, sent back the tasting notes and ages of the whiskies and I just selected. At that time Narsai had his restaurant and wanted to offer malts together with the early landed Cognacs we offered. As I said, the products were not very expensive and they were unique and British merchants seemingly wanted to clear out their stocks. Meeting Jon Barrett of the Bristol Brandy Company in Bristol was also a help since we bought lots of Hine and Delamain Early Landed from him which we still sell. In fact we were for a long time the only purveyors of this type of Cognac in the U.S.
Which are your favourite Scotch distilleries? And do you have a favourite distillery you believe is under-rated but produce great spirit?
I refuse to answer this since it would be churlish and contumelious of me. When whiskey is good, it is just good! We have purchased some young whiskies from Wolfburn and we are patiently waiting to get them bottled at the appropriate time. Should be very good!
Can you select a few personal favourites from the Corti Brothers whisky collection?
As I wrote above, the “clear” Highland Park was/is probably my favorite. I have never seen another offered, but probably difficult to come by.