David Berkley reflects on four decades of wine in Sacramento

David Berkley will co-host the “Legends of Wine” tasting at the state Capitol on Friday, Sept. 16, with Darrell Corti.
David Berkley will co-host the “Legends of Wine” tasting at the state Capitol on Friday, Sept. 16, with Darrell Corti.

He has selected wines for the White House, been profiled in the pages of People magazine and for decades remained synonymous with wine expertise in Sacramento. David Berkley, 72, has achieved “legend” status in the local wine world and beyond.

Berkley started his career as a part-time wine merchant at Corti Brothers, and later captured his own corner of the gourmet market with his David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods. The shop was a key destination for local oenophiles during its 25 years of operation at the Pavilions shopping center on Fair Oaks Boulevard.

Berkley is mostly retired now from the world of wine merchandising, but once again he’s teaming up with his former mentor for “Legends of Wine.” The event, which is held Friday, Sept. 16 on the west steps of the Capitol, features Berkley and Darrell Corti hosting a tasting of regional wines as part of Sacramento’s weeks-long Farm-To-Fork Celebration.

As the event approached, Berkley reflected on his career in wine, from his early days as a wine merchant to saying goodbye to his retailing business. The following are some key comments during a lengthy conversation with The Bee. Pour a glass and read along:

My father was a minister and alcohol in any form wasn’t part of my (early) life. I didn’t taste alcohol until college. I went traveling to Europe in 1967 with a friend of mine, and it was the culture of the people and the influence of wine on the culture, and the influence of the culture on the wine. I got those experiences mostly in France and Italy, that incredible diversity of flavors.

I started in 1973 at Corti Brothers on Folsom Boulevard. When I walked in I thought, eh, this is a grocery store. At that point I was kind of conflicted. One aisle was virtually all jug wines. They were gallons. That was an extremely important part of the wine business in a supermarket. You also have to understand that I was in most situations growing (in knowledge) with my own customer base. The customer was my own opportunity to expand my knowledge through their responses.

The best part of my early career is I had Darrell (Corti) as the sensei, the mentor. We tasted very frequently. But the other part was being exposed to the food side of the business, which became an important part of my own business. It enhanced all parts of my career.

When I went looking for my niche in the business, I found there weren’t that many in this part of the country selling Burgundy. In the early 1980s I was selling Burgundy and learning about it. It’s a very complex region.

In the years I worked with the White House, the first requirement was to make sure the wine selected was complementary to the dish, but also select something that might be meaningful for the event or guest of honor. Yes, it was a lot of responsibility.

Sometimes when I try a wine, I find that I linger over the aromatics. Then, assuming the aromatics are indicative of what the mouth will be in terms of flavor, structure is the most important: tannin, acid and alcohol. Those things have to be in balance.

If it’s summer, I’m drinking pinot noir.

I’m very pleased and at the same time almost in awe of how this community of wine producers that surrounds the Sacramento area has grown. Of course, there’s the continued emphasis of zinfandel from the foothills, chenin blanc from Clarksburg. One of the most interesting things to me is this evolution of some producers recognizing their soils and climate conditions in terms of Spanish and Italian varietals, and the production of wines in the Rhône style. Grenache does very well.

Virtually every county surrounding Sacramento produces wine. When Darrell and I talk about it, it’s really about the legends of the people, and the legends of the place.

I tasted five days a week and maybe six. A lot of samples came through that store and I kept toothbrushes and toothpaste. My dentist and his technician said, “Well, you killed your enamel.” I would’ve been more protective early on if I was aware, but I’m not complaining.

I’m free to confess that I miss the business. I miss the people, too. When I go to Corti Brothers, I spend a lot of time talking to some of my former customers. Then again, I was my own best customer on all things and do admit that I miss the daily access, and not just tasting the products but the information flow (the wine sales representatives) bring and the industry buzz.

The interest and education continues despite being out of the business. I like wandering through wine departments and picking up wines I haven’t tried before. I’m always kind of curious.

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias

Legends of Wine

What: David Berkley and Darrell Corti host a tasting of Sacramento region wines, with cheese and wine-friendly snacks.

When: 6-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16

Where: West steps of the Capitol, 10th Street and Capitol Avenue

Cost: $65