Sauvignon blancs took nine of the top 12 awards at the 14th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition in 2008.
IN APRIL, on an oyster-gray, low-tide day on Shilshole Bay, 14 of Seattle’s top food-and-wine professionals gathered at Anthony’s Homeport.
The mood was serious, the room silent as professional servers pirouetted around the private dining room, delivering stainless-steel platters of glistening oysters and pouring wines from Mylar-wrapped bottles into precisely aligned rows of Riedel glasses.
The reason for the gathering? To choose the West Coast’s top 10 oyster wines — good wines to accompany freshly shucked oysters on the half shell.
Most Read Stories
- Melinda Gates' name listed on Seattle home deed ahead of divorce, but that doesn't mean she bought it
- Who gets Xanadu 2.0, the Gates family mansion?
- After leading a 153-person hike in the Grand Canyon, a Washington health-care exec faces federal charges
- COVID-19 death toll is more than double the official count, UW analysis suggests
- Some relief for Seattle-area homebuyers, as more houses are listed and condo buyers find plenty to choose from
This feat was accomplished by blind tasting each of 20 wines with a Kumamoto oyster, but without smelling, tasting or thinking about the wine first. In fact, the judges, including The Seattle Times’ own food columnist, Nancy Leson; Dan McCarthy, proprietor of McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants; Chuck Hill, author and publisher of “Joy of Oysters”; and Lane Hoss, marketing director of Anthony’s Restaurants, were strictly instructed to first smell and chew the oyster. Only then were they allowed to smell and taste the wine in order to rate the “bliss factor,” or the wine’s affinity with 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,” the judges’ instruction sheet stated. “The aromatic qualities of a good ‘oyster wine’ are consonant with the smells of (an) oyster bed at low tide and the oyster glistening in its own juices just before being slurped off the shell.”
The 14th annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition was organized by Seattle seafood expert Jon Rowley, and sponsored by Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Wash. Rowley, who calls the competition his “annual dating service for oysters and wine,” explains that very few wines go with oysters, and that “a wine taken after an oyster is a very different thing from a wine taken on its own.”
In years past, sommeliers defaulted to crisp, dry French white wines, such as muscadet or chablis, when pairing wines with oysters on the half shell. Rowley’s oyster-wine competition is important because it offers domestic options for this increasingly popular menu item.
What makes a winning oyster wine? Rowley offered me a training-wheel set of six oysters and three wines so I could get a sense of the judges’ task. As the small, briny Kumamoto oysters tickled my nostrils and hit my palate, I forced my mind to switch off its wine monitor and focus on the oyster first. Perhaps because the oysters were particularly briny that day, I discovered I liked a bit of aromatics (sweet, floral smells) and sweetness in my oyster wines.
Most experts prefer clean, crisp, dry white wines that don’t fight with the inherent sweetness (glycogen), briny, sea, cucumber and mineral flavors often found in oysters, according to veteran judge Hoss.
And temperature is important. During the judging, the oyster wines are served straight out of ice buckets so their temperatures match those of the freshly shucked oysters.
The annual oyster-wine competition is quite an undertaking. Hoss, McCarthy and Hill were among the five veteran preliminary judges who consumed 1,200 Kumamotos over the course of eight days along with more than 200 wines (the largest number ever entered) from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California and British Columbia.
The finalist wines were then judged by panels made up of 12 to 14 big-name foodies in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
While collecting the wines for the 2008 competition, Rowley noticed three distinct trends: an increase in unoaked or unwooded chardonnays, a greater number of screw-top closures (even on wines from top wineries) and lots of beautifully designed labels.
By 4:15 on judgment day, it was time to settle in for some finger food and a microbrew to cleanse the palate. As the judges jostled in the bar, there was a palpable sense of excitement when the key to the 20 final wines was distributed, and not a bit of one-upsmanship as they compared their rankings.
The following week, when the results were announced, we learned that two additional “Oyster Awards” were given because so many wines impressed the judges. Two winning wines hailed from Washington, three from Oregon and the remaining seven from that state to the south (California). Among the lineup were seven sauvignon blancs, two pinot gris, two fumé blancs and one pinot blanc.
What was missing? Anything red, rosé, oaky, sweet, hot (high in alcohol), full-bodied or overly flavorful compared to the oysters.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining and writes a column for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.