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. That clarified, here are my notes on my top five picks:
First, Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley 2013: Its freshness and grapefruit flavor notes register brilliantly with the oyster's mineral notes. A mouthwatering finish calls for another oyster, and another sip, and …
Second, Sebastiani Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2013: Open-textured, its grapefruit notes come through on the refreshingly balanced finish and clean the palate for more.
Third, King Estate Pinot Gris Oregon Signature Collection 2012: Fresh, bright flavors of quince and lemon pop through the creamy oysters, completing the picture nicely.
Fourth, Van Duzer Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2013: Dry and steely, a balance that feels right, a flavorsome, savory wine that adds a refreshing element to the mildly briny oysters.
Fifth, Kenwood Pinot Gris Russian River Valley 2012: This plus the oyster creates a flavor riot in the mouth, a vivid match that sings of creamy pineapple, guava and lime flavors without overpowering the oyster's character.
For the record, all of those wines made the consensus top 10 except for King Estate Pinot Gris. The others were Acrobat Pinot Gris 2012 and Foris Pinot Blanc 2012 from Oregon, Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc 2013, and Revolution Wines Chenin Blanc 2013 from California, and Lost River Pinot Gris 2013 from Washington.