Top | Vine to Table

The bliss factor

(article, Kerry Newberry)

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The oyster, perhaps more than any other food, is a feast for the senses, professes oyster poet, educator, and advocate Jon Rowley. A slip of silver-gray glistening on the half-shell, it’s a sea-salt kiss. The lively burst of minerals, sweetness, and sea, however, often lends a challenge to blissful wine pairings. 

“Oysters require a beverage for convivial as well as gastronomic reasons,” says Rowley, who gives credit to Ernest Hemingway and a platter of oysters at Le Dôme in Paris for inciting his passion for oysters and wine. 

[%image jon float=right width=300 caption="Jon Rowley, the mastermind behind wine and oyster bliss. Photo by Bill Whitbeck."]

Three decades ago, when Rowley first began consulting with restaurants along the West Coast, chefs always asked for his oyster-friendly wine picks. He often suggested French wines, especially Muscadet and Chablis.  

"There aren't many wines that work with oysters, but when one does, it is a beautiful thing,” says Rowley. “The wine and oysters are chilled to a crisp. You have an oyster, sip the wine, and when it is there, you know it.”

The shellfish expert figured there must also be good West Coast wines for oysters, but how to find them? “Food and wine critics and restaurateurs I talked to encouraged investigation,” he says. Rowley accepted the challenge. 

This is how the marketing consultant found himself orchestrating the popular Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, which is, as he puts it, “an annual dating service for West Coast wines and oysters.” The event, which is sponsored by Taylor Shellfish Farms, celebrated 18 years in 2012. 

Rowley invites writers, chefs, and restaurateurs from along the West Coast to consume plates of Kumamoto oysters and blind-taste dozens of vetted wines from California, Oregon, and Washington. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="The winners. Photo by Bill Whitbeck."]

This year, after three tiers of judging West Coast wines (from the 101 entered) and oysters, 10 wines were selected as winners of the 2012 Oyster Award.

Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Jon Rowley how the judging works at the annual oyster fête and about his favorite oyster-and-wine pairings. 
For the past 18 years, you’ve organized the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. What first inspired you to organize this event?
This passage from A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway got me interested in, and inspired by, oysters years ago in Paris: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

With regard to judging, you talk about “the bliss factor.” What is this? And how does the judging work?
Each wine is blind-tasted with at least one Kumamoto oyster. The judges' job is first to smell and taste the oyster, chewing it well so that it goes to all parts of the palate, then smell and taste the wine and rate what we call the "bliss factor," or the wine’s affinity for the oyster. Part of the bliss factor is a clean finish, a “crisp taste” that doesn’t get in the way of the next oyster.


h1. 2012 Oyster Wine Award winners

• Brandborg 2010 Pinot Gris (OR) 
• Cedargreen Cellars 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
• Dry Creek Vineyard 2011 Dry Chenin Blanc (CA)
• Foris Vineyard Winery 2010 Pinot Blanc (OR)
• Hogue Cellars 2010 Pinot Grigio (WA)
• Kenwood Vineyards 2011 Pinot Gris, Russian River (CA)
• Kenwood Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
• Milbrandt Vineyards 2010 Traditions Pinot Gris (WA)
• Sockeye 2010 Pinot Gris (WA)
• Van Duzer Vineyards 2011 Pinot Gris (OR)


Aroma is, of course, a big part of tasting wine. In the competition, judges smell the oysters before the wine. What is the reason for this?
We ask the judges not to smell the wine before tasting the oyster, so as not to form an impression of the wine before experiencing the oyster. Imagine yourself out on a chilly oyster bed during a minus low tide in the winter; you pick up an oyster, breathe in the smell of the sea, open the oyster, and slurp it down, chewing it well. Now you reach for the cold, dry, crisp, clean-finishing wine you've brought for the occasion. Now sniff the wine. The aromatic consonance with the oyster can be just as important as the taste.

In your experience, which wines pair best with oysters and why?
It is a matter of style as well as variety. We are looking for a wine that doesn't get in the way of the next oyster, so we are looking for a "crisp taste" and clean finish. I like both the wines and oysters chilled to a crisp and at the same temperature if possible.

When do you know you’ve found the perfect pairing?
An “oyster moment” is transcendent — when the oyster and wine, setting, time, and company all come together. An oyster-and-wine pairing set in Paris gets points. An oyster-and-wine pairing that leads to lovemaking obviously has the right things going for it. An oyster moment can occur whenever, wherever, and with whomever the above come together. 

h3. Chefs, on oysters and wine

Wines with terroir are said to “taste of place” when the local climate and soil manifest themselves in the flavor of the wines. A similar term, merroir, is used to describe how water imbues a distinctive flavor or characteristics to a fish or shellfish.

“Oysters are filter feeders, so as the water falls onto the trees and into the soil, it feeds into the bay, and that’s what they are eating,” says chef Ethan Powell of The Parish in Portland, Oregon. “I think that definitely plays with the merroir,” he says when describing the essence of his favorite oyster, the petite but fully flavored Pacific. 

Oysters aren't difficult to serve at home, once you find a good source and get the hang of opening them. But they're a great excuse to dine out. Here are some prime oyster spots, with suggestions from each chef for oysters and wine. 

New Leaf Café, Orcas Island, Washington
Chef Steve Debaste: "My favorite oysters are the Pacific variety we get here right on Orcas Island from Buck Bay Shellfish and Judd Cove. I prefer them simply prepared on the half-shell with a Pinot Noir mignonette.
"My go-to wine is Muscadet. My family is from the Loire Valley, and it reminds me of my French roots and my many visits to the Loire Valley. So the best of both worlds: fresh Pacific oysters from right down the street and the wine I enjoyed with my family while eating oysters in France."

Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, D.C.
Chef Robert McGowan: "Kumamoto oysters from the Pacific Northwest are my personal favorite. Slightly sweet and deep-cupped, I enjoy them with just a squeeze of lemon. They transport me from inside the Beltway to Puget Sound every time.

"Young New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are my go-to wines with oysters. The high acidity and bright fruit are the perfect complement to these briny delicacies. I can easily be talked into a Guinness Stout as well!"

Island Creek Oyster Bar, Boston, Massachusetts
Chef Jeremy Seawall: "Island Creek oysters, our restaurant’s namesake, are a personal favorite. They are perfect raw with just a little squeeze of lemon or with our rosé mignonette that features sparkling rosé wine. Island Creeks are super plump and perfect for frying. One of our most popular dishes is the Island Creek oyster sliders — a single fried oyster served on a homemade buttery mini brioche bun with pickled onion and lime aïoli. They are incredible!"

His favorite wine to pair with oysters? "Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Our wine director Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli tipped me off to this wine. It is a really crisp and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc. 

"Just as Island Creek oysters are farmed in Duxbury Bay on Massachusetts’s South Shore, this wine’s terroir overlooks the Southern right whales of the Atlantic Ocean off of South Africa. Both are full of a certain deepwater oceanic brine. The pairing emphasizes this saltiness. Unlike Island Creeks, which have a slight vegetal quality to them, this Sauvignon Blanc counters with a beautiful tropical note of pineapple and zesty lime."

The Parish and EaT Oyster Bar, Portland, Oregon
Chef Ethan Powell's favorite oyster? "The Olympia oyster. It has its own unique flavor, and it’s the only oyster native to the West Coast. This oyster has a lot of earthiness and mushroom-woodiness to it. You get a little chomp in there and bam, you get that earthiness. Then you get a little bit of coppery finish, very similar to the Belon, which is my dream oyster.  
"I love Champagne, and Champagne is a perfect fit for many oysters. Gaston Chiquet has a little bit of yeastiness up front that I think goes with the mushroom. You get a really dry crisp finish at the end which I think pairs well with the coppery notes."

|[%image jeremy width=300 caption="Chef Jeremy Seawall, Island Creek Oyster Bar"]|[%image EatGuys width=300 caption="Tobias Hogan (right) and Ethan Powell, The Parish"]|
|[%image chefsteve width=300 caption="Chef Steve Debaste, New Leaf Café"]|[%image oldebbitt width=300 caption="Chef Robert McGowan, Old Ebbitt Grill"]||

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