The day dawned gray and chill, but by the time I steered my car up the Great Highway along San Francisco's ocean coast to the Cliff House, the sun was shining brightly. I took that as a good sign for this year's Pacific Coast Oyster Wine competition, now in its 14th year.
My calendar had kept me from joining the judges for the last several years of this "wine and oyster dating service," as organizer Jon Rowley calls it. It's one of my favorite wine events, if for no other reason than I must eat a lot of good oysters to find the wines I like best with them.
For wine and oysters I have my favorite matches, but I'm always willing to find some new ones. To keep us honest, Rowley doesn't even tell us what varietals we're tasting blind with the bivalves. It's just a parade of 20 glasses of wine, labeled A through T, and an endless supply of Kumamoto oysters, delivered by the dozen.
Wineries from California, Oregon and Washington submitted 200 entries. Panels in Seattle had tasted the wines with oysters, and narrowed the original field to the 20 in front us.
Taylor Shellfish Farms, which sponsors the competition, provides the oysters. Normally, they come from Taylor's oyster beds on the Washington coast or lower Puget Sound around Tacoma, but apparently the quality had become uneven by late April. The Kumos came from Taylor's new oyster farm off Baja California in Mexico. They were saltier than I usually expect from Pacific oysters, but had that clean, sharp, minerally flavor. They had none of the iodine or almost gamy character that Belons and other flat oysters can have, and which can affect the wine match. So take these results with, ahem, a grain of salt if you're not aiming the wine at Pacific oysters.
Rowley asked us judges not to spend a lot of time assessing the wines. "Don't smell the wine before you drink it with the oyster," he warned. "Smell the oyster and just take a sip. We're looking for the bliss factor."
This, of course, runs counter to how most of us wine folk operate. We like to appreciate the wine as much as the food, and to do that I usually give the glass a little swirl, sniff it to enjoy its odor, then take a sip to add the wine to the food tastes already in my mouth. Not for this, though. After slurping an oyster, I had to force myself to grab the glass and take a swig, skipping over the savoring-the-wine part. It was hard to do at first, but after a while I got into the spirit, and I could see what Rowley was trying to do.
After all, it was a Hemingway passage that inspired this event in the first place. It's from A Movable Feast:
"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 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."
Rowley didn't care how we scored the wines or the matches, just that we came up with a top 10 and listed them in order. I rated the quality of the match, not the wine per se, on the 100-point scale (since I am accustomed to using it). The results are edifying.
Sauvignon Blancs occupied eight my top 10 spots. No surprise there. Among New World wines, SB is my first choice for oysters, and I prefer a crisp, zingy New Zealand style to any of the softer, rounder styles, which often have some oak in them. Oak, I find, competes unsuccessfully with the oyster's natural taste of the sea.
My favorite was Clayhouse Sauvignon Blanc Paso Robles 2006, one of the few in the tasting with the requisite zing of acidity. Its refreshing qualities created a wonderful mix of stone fruit flavors, as the oyster and wine characteristics echoed in my mouth after chewing up the oyster and sampling the wine.
The Clayhouse actually made the oyster feel juicier. I rated the match 94 points, which shows just how much the right food can improve a nice but not exceptional wine.
Almost as good was Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley 2006, similarly clean and refreshing, including a grapefruit character that cut through the oyster qualities. I rated the match 93 points.
Other matches I rated outstanding were with Lange Twins Sauvignon Blanc California 2006, Dry Creek Fumé Blanc Sonoma County 2006, Kathryn Kennedy Sauvignon Blanc California 2007 and Van Duzer Pinot Gris Oregon 2007. I wasn't too sure about the Pinot Gris at first sip, and I was about to rate it lower, until the finish kicked in. It made a nice salty-fruity mix with the wine's hint of apricot, and got better with time in the mouth. I tasted it three times, just to be sure.
What didn't work for me? Anything that felt clumsy. I hated, for example, what happened to Amity Pinot Blanc Oregon 2006, a pretty nice wine on its own whose soft texture and exotic flavors didn't make a nice mix with the oyster. And yet, the Amity was among the 10 consensus favorites when Rowley compiled the scores from all three tastings in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Go figure.
Like me, though, the other judges also liked the Clayhouse, Ste. Michelle, Dry Creek, Katheryn Kennedy and Van Duzer, and several others on my top 10. On the final count, Sauvignon Blanc captured seven of the awards, Pinot Gris two and Pinot Blanc one.