Two weeks ago, I joined several other food and wine professionals at Sutro’s at the Cliff House in San Francisco to judge in the third of four rounds in the 17th Annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. It had been about four years since my schedule allowed me to join in my favorite judging of the year and I slipped into San Francisco effortlessly, with nary a traffic snarl or delay, pleased to get away. The location, in a private downstairs room on the edge of the sea, couldn’t have been more perfect, with its view of the Pacific stretching to the horizon. The air was slightly briny and the muted sound of waves accompanied our otherwise silent judges. Each of us sat at our own table, facing twenty empty glasses that were filled, five at a time, by a watchful staff. Kumumoto oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farm of Washington, which sponsors the event, were served, a dozen at a time, on beds of rock salt and as soon as one dozen was gone another appeared.
Jon Rowley, founder of the event, begins each tasting with a passage from Ernest Hemingway that inspired him many years ago and continues to. In a soft, subdued voice, as if he were speaking from some distant past those of us in the room had not shared with him, Jon read: After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day. 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 (from A Moveable Feast). It’s a touching ritual and one that always leaves me almost teary eyed, as any good heartfelt ritual should.
Jon had modified instructions a bit, to reflect the true purpose of the judging. We were not to think about the wines too much and were discouraged from smelling them before tasting them with the oyster. We were looking for the bliss factor, Jon told us, for the wine that would best flatter the next oyster by not getting in its way. You can read the complete judging instructions and details of all four judging sessions here.
By the end of judging, I had eaten six dozen oysters, most of which were smaller than a quarter. I was nowhere near full.
The purpose of this tasting is to find wines that flatter an oyster on the half shell, that resonate beautifully rather than eclipse the succulent shellfish. A win translates to sales, as wine directors, sommeliers and others turn to this competition for wines they can recommend to their customers. Last June, Jon sent me several dozen oysters and several of the winning wines and we did a simultaneous tasting on Mouthful, he in Seattle, me at the KRCB studio in Rohnert Park, live. It was great fun and we both believe it was a first in radio history. You can hear the podcast here; just scroll down to the June 10 episode.
Do you have a favorite wine to enjoy with raw oysters? If so, please share it here, in the comments section. If you’re looking for wines to enjoy with oysters, here you go, this year’s winners, presented in alphabetical order (a single star indicates a previous win; double stars indicate multiple previous wins). Six of the winners were in my top ten.
*Brassfield Estate Winery 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Cadaretta 2010 SBS (WA)
**Chateau Ste. Michelle 2009 Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
*Hogue Cellars 2009 Pinot Grigio (WA)
**King Estate Signature Collection 2009 Pinot Gris (OR)
**Kunde Family Estate 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Pine Ridge Vineyards 2010 Chenin Blanc + Viognier (CA)
**Robledo Family Winery 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Three Pears 2010 Pinot Grigio (CA)
*Van Duzer Vineyards 2010 Estate Pinot Gris (OR)