Wondrous Cabinets (or My Dinner With Darrell)

“…as a smell while it passes and evaporates into air affects the sense of smell,” wrote Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) in the tenth book of The Confessions, “whence it conveys into the memory an image of itself, which remembering, we renew, or as meat, which verily in the belly hath now no taste, and yet in the memory still in a manner tasteth; or as any thing which the body by touch perceiveth, and which when removed from us, the memory still conceives. For those things are not transmitted into the memory, but their images only are with an admirable swiftness caught up, and stored as it were in wondrous cabinets, and thence wonderfully by the act of remembering, brought forth.”

If there ever were an Augustine of the contemporary food and wine world, it is Darrell Corti. And there are no cabinets more wondrous than the shelves of his store Corti Brothers in Sacramento and the memories he generously imparted on a traveling amanuensis who happened to be passing through the California state capital last week.

The night I had dinner with Darrell at his home in Sacramento, he was reluctant to speak of his induction into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. The night before, he had been honored at a gala event in Napa as a “Highly respected and often controversial, wine and food expert… at the forefront of the development and growth of the California wine industry since joining his family’s grocery business, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, in 1964… a catalyst in the re-evaluation and Renaissance of Zinfandel…” and mentor “to a generation of seiminal food and wine professionals…”

It’s not every day that you drink 1972 Louis Martini Zinfandel with a man who was a “catalyst… in the renaissance of Zinfandel.” The wine was light and vibrant, with subtle fruit and gentle acidity, a gorgeous complement to the béchamel and ragù prepared for the lasagne.

“It’s the acidity and the lightness of style that make this wine age so well,” said Darrell. There was no need to mention Darrell’s widely known opposition to the current hegemony of highly concentrated, high-alcohol-content wines.

The night of our repast, Darrell wanted to sample a new breed of beef, “HighMont,” a cross of Scottish Highland and Piedmontese (razza bovina piemontese) cattle. The lasagne were followed by a bollito of beef and salsa verde, paired with a 1999 Stoneleigh Marlborough (New Zealand) Rapaura Series Pinot Noir.

The coda to our meal was a bolo de mel, a Portuguese honey cake, which Darrell was also sampling as a potential offering at Corti Brothers.

Of the many memories that Darrell shared that evening, he revealed that he was among the first (if not the first) to sell Sassicaia in this country. “In 1972, we sold the first vintage of Sassicaia — 1968 — for $6.89,” he said.

After dinner, we retired to the living room where we drank port and perused Darrell’s collection of incunables (I was keen to see his editio princeps of Andrea Bacci’s Historia Vinorum).

Earlier in the day, I met Darrell at his office in the store and we chatted about a stack of tomes he recently received from the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the Vatican’s publisher (I was particularly fascinated by America Pontificia, a collection documents pertaining to the New World issued by the Holy See; “There’s bound to be something interesting in there,” Darrell said). His phone rang and I eavesdropped as he patiently extolled the virtues of bergamot marmalade to the customer on the line. Twenty minutes later, a half dozen jars had been purchased.

O, what wondrous cabinets this man keeps…