Bevy of bivalves
“Scam” is such an ugly word, so loaded with implications of illegality and wrongdoing. So I’ve been working hard trying to come up with another description of my judging of the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. I’ll let you know if I come up with something.
For someone who loves both oysters and wine as intemperately as I do, it’s a little hard to believe that someone would actually offer to let you consume as much of both as you’d like, all in the name of science. But that’s exactly what Jon Rowley does every spring. Rowley is the marketing genius who introduced the world to Copper River salmon. He also dabbles in other things, great peaches and oysters being among them. And every spring for the last 14 years, sponsored by Taylor Shellfish Farms in Washington, he convenes a panel of judges in three West Coast cities to determine which wines go best with raw oysters.
Here’s how it works: About a dozen oyster lovers gather at Water Grill in downtown L.A. They pour the wines, five at a time, 20 in all, and they bring as many oysters as you want. Yes, you read right: As many as you want. You slurp an oyster, taste a wine and then rate it on what Rowley calls the “bliss factor,” which is basically a highly scientific term for “how much you like it.” At the end of the tasting, the scores for all of the judges are totaled, then combined with the results from San Francisco and Seattle, and a winner is named.
The best wines with oysters tend to be extremely crisp and slightly light in body. Oysters seem to emphasize any bitterness in a wine, so wines with a lot of oak rarely do well and neither do varietals such as Gewürztraminer, which has a slightly bitter finish that is delicious in the proper context but not with oysters. The best wines don’t necessarily make the best oyster wines. A lot of times strong varietal character will overshadow the more delicate aspects of oyster flavor. Instead, oysters want a wine that refreshes the palate.
The winners tend to be dominated by Sauvignon Blancs with the occasional Pinot Gris thrown in for interest. As an added bonus, these lighter wines rarely cost more than $15 a bottle. Repeat winners include such wines as the Sauvignon Blancs from Kenwood, Geyser Peak and Dry Creek (labeled Fume Blanc). This year’s competition is not yet completed, so it’s too early to name a winner, but my favorites out of the tasting were the Sauvignon Blancs from Simi, Clayhouse, Kathryn Kennedy and Clos du Bois.
The big question, of course, is how many oysters? I stopped counting after four dozen. It was taking all my concentration to come up with an alternative to “scam.”
UPDATE (4-28): Final results are in and the top 12 wines, in alphabetical order were: Amity Vineyards 06 Pinot Blanc (OR); Chateau Ste. Michelle* 06 Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc (WA); Clayhouse Vineyard 06 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Clos du Bois Winery 06 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Covey Run Winery 06 Fume Blanc (WA); Dry Creek Vineyard* 06 Sonoma County Fume Blanc (CA); Girard Winery 06 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Kathryn Kennedy Winery* 07 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Robledo Family Winery* 06 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Simi 06 Sauvignon Blanc (CA); Van Duzer Vineyards 07 Pinot Gris (OR); Willamette Valley Vineyards* 07 Pinot Gris (OR). Asterisks represent wines that have also won in previous years.
-- Russ Parsons
Photo by Russ Parsons