I am sitting at a table facing 25 empty glasses and a platter of ice holding 10 plump Kumamoto oysters, the half-dollar-sized beauties grown in the cold waters of Puget Sound in Washington state. I stare out the window of the Waterfront Restaurant, following an afternoon squall as it sweeps across San Francisco Bay. I am waiting for someone to emerge with wines to pour into the glasses so I can start deciding which wines I like best with the oysters.
The ice is melting under my oysters. Still no wine. I slurp an oyster, then another.
Normally, I decline requests to judge at wine tastings. But when the invitation came for this one, I couldn't resist the opportunity to eat all the Kumamoto oysters I could handle. The wine part was a bonus.
For me, a good oyster wine shows snappy acidity, bright fruit character -- usually with some citrus element -- and no oak. That usually translates to Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (my current favorite); Sancerre, Muscadet or Savennières from France; and when I'm feeling really expansive, a crisp, lemony style of Champagne. But only California and Pacific Northwest wines were eligible for this. That's OK. I wouldn't mind finding a local wine to enjoy with my next platter of huîtres.
Taylor Shellfish Farms, which sponsors the wine and oyster taste-off, raises five varieties of oysters, two varieties of clams, plus mussels and geoduck on the shores of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. John Rowley, the event's organizer, has been urging me to do this oyster thing for years. I've always had a time conflict. This time my calendar was open.
There were some elements of the tasting that I might have done differently. Rowley asked, for example, that we not smell or taste a wine before trying it with the oysters. Just chew up an oyster and take a sip of wine. "Rate the match on the bliss factor," he said, "not the wine on how good it is by itself."
I did it his way, although I usually like to get a feel for the wine first, the better to understand what characteristics make it work with the dish. Rowley's way favors neutral wines. I always advocate drinking wines you like rather than hoping that food will improve a mediocre wine.
We also tasted the oysters without benefit of sauces or seasonings. That was fine with me. I abhor that ketchup-based stuff on oysters. I usually pass up the mignonette, the traditional French mixture of vinegar, wine and shallots. Those flavors will change wine preferences, too. And through years of experience, I have found that the differences among oysters are not great enough to demand significantly different wines; it's the topping that mixes up the match.
Sometimes I'll add a few drops of lemon, and maybe that citrus tang is what I'm looking for in an oyster wine. It's not a bad model. As it turns out, most of the wines that were consensus favorites had a definite citrusy note and at least some of the acidity lemons provide. Most people don't realize, however, that lemons can actually have as much sugar, ounce for ounce, as oranges (they taste tarter because they have so much more acidity). So it's not surprising that many of the winning wines also have a bit of residual sugar, according to the statistical information provided. A wine need not be bone dry to be a good oyster wine; it just needs good acid balance.
To compile the list of 25 finalists, tasters in Seattle had muddled through 122 wines in five days, consuming untold numbers of oysters in the process. The 12 of us in San Francisco had two hours to munch as many oysters as we needed (I required 40, what with re-tastes and all), sip the wines and rate the bliss. Our rankings were combined with those of the 15 judges in New York and 16 in Seattle.
Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc California 2002 tasted the most like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to me, which may be why I rated it No. 1. It has passion fruit and lime character and a delicious balance that embraces all the oyster elements without overwhelming them. It also emerged as a group favorite. Good news: it's only $9. Canyon Road's sister winery, Geyser Peak, scored high with me and the others with its Sauvignon Blanc California 2002, showing a nice mineral character with the oysters.
Other wines on both my top 10 and the consensus list include three more Sauvignon Blancs, two Pinot Gris and a dry Chenin Blanc. My own top 10 (wines marked with asterisks were also among the consensus winners) included these California Sauvignon Blancs: Cakebread Napa Valley 2001, Canyon Road California 2002*, Geyser Peak California 2002* and Parducci Lake County 2002*; and these Washington Sauvignon Blancs: Columbia Crest Columbia Valley 2000*, Hogue Fumé Blanc Columbia Valley 2001 and Snoqualmie Columbia Valley 2001*.
Also ranking were the Amity Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley 2002, from Oregon; the Dry Creek Chenin Blanc Clarksburg Dry 2002*, from California; and the Oak Knoll Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2001*, from Oregon.