Harvey Steiman At Large
Posted: Apr 22, 2014 2:17pm ET
I can’t help it. I am a wine guy. I want my wines to contribute to the conversation on my palate when I drink them with food. That comes to mind when I occasionally participate in fun tastings such as the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. I joined in on the 20th annual judging as much for unlimited quantities of really good oysters as for the wines, but also to test out a theory.
My brain says, let’s find a wine that can stand on its own but also makes nice with the mollusks. Jon Rowley, the tasting’s organizer, takes a different approach. “Don’t taste the wine first,” he admonished us. He wanted us to chew up the oyster first to establish its flavor and texture in our mouths, then wash it down with the wine. Rowley’s impetus for this restriction goes back to a quote from A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway: “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.”
It’s a lovely quote. It expresses well the vivifying effect of good food and wine. On the other hand, all Hemingway wanted out of the wine was that it be cold, white and crisp. No flavor descriptors here.
Although I’ve done this exercise a few times before, I’ve never properly heeded Rowley’s instructions. I always wanted to know how good the wine might be on its own before evaluating how it does with an oyster or two. This, perhaps, is one reason I have always gravitated in my own oyster-eating occasions to crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, their vibrant acidity and signature citrus and passion fruit flavors a natural parallel to oyster condiments such as lemon juice and mignonette.
The idea is to find wines to sip with raw oysters. Scores and rankings by judges in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles reflect the combination of oyster and wine, not the wine itself. I wondered if maybe my prejudices were getting in the way of discovering other wines for oysters. Was I missing the joys of cold and crisp by insisting upon flavor?
I tried it Rowley’s way. No smelling or sipping the wine first. I didn’t even reach for a glass without a chewed-up oyster in my mouth. Tasting blind, I did not try to identify the varietal, just how well it all worked together with the Shigoku oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms. (Shigoku is a tumbled oyster, allowed to roll around with the tides, forming a deep cup and a plump oyster.) I used no condiments. Just the oysters—deliciously creamy and juicy, by the way—and the wines.
Although I would guess most of these wines alone would rate in the high 80s on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, I did not attempt to score them, only the matches. Top Winners:
• Geyser Peak 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
• Chateau Ste Michelle 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
• Foris 2012 Pinot Blanc (OR)
• Acrobat 2012 Pinot Gris (OR)
• Kenwood 2012 Pinot Gris (CA)
• Kenwood 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
• Lost River 2013 Pinot Gris (WA)
• Revolution Wines 2013 Chenin Blanc (CA)
• Sebastiani 2013 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
• Van Duzer 2013 Pinot Gris (OR)