The World Is Their Oyster
By Jim Rink
Seafood lovers will be pleased to learn of an annual event that pairs wines from across the globe with the slippery, yet sensuous indigenous American oyster - Crassostrea virginica.
Old Ebbitt Grill - an historic Washington, D.C. watering hole for the nation's power brokers - hosted the 6th Annual International Wines for Oysters Competition on November 16, 2001. According to event organizers Michael Franz of the Washington Post and Paul Lukacs of the Washington Times, the competition "celebrates wine's affinity for oysters by publicly identifying the world's most oyster-friendly wines."
They claim it is the only wine competition in the world in which wines from all across the globe are judged with food. Hmmmm...I guess they never heard of the Sydney International Wine Competition, or the Napa Valley World Mustard Competition, not to mention the Annual American Institute of Wine and Food Caesar Salad Competition.
But hey, we're talking about OYSTERS! According to American Mussel Harvesters, Inc., during last year's 'Oyster Riot' at Ebbitt Grill, 600 ticket holders tasted the most oyster-friendly wines anywhere, culled from an impressive 347 entries representing 13 states and nine other countries. Approximately 7,000 oysters were consumed - that's 11.6 oysters per person.
And the Winners Are...
In 2000, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand earned top honors for the third year in a row from the judges at Ebbitt Grill, who are advised to "spit the wine, not the oysters." The winner - Grove Mill's Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2000 also made a fine showing at the aforementioned Sydney International Wine Show Competition, bringing home Blue Gold and Top 100 medals. The wine has been described as having a citric tang and zesty bite, a "punchy, weighty wine with fresh, penetrating flavors of passionfruit and lime." (Michael Cooper, Wine Star, November 2000).
Other wines earning the gold for their compatibility with oysters - Christian Moreau Chablis, 1999; Domain Chandon (California) Brut Classic Sparkling Wine; and Wolffer Estate (Long Island, NY) La Ferme Martin Chardonnay, 1998.
Not to be outdone by wannabees on the East Coast, the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition has fielded its own list of oyster-friendly wines for quite some time. In their annual search for the bibber's best bivalve accompaniment, judges from the Pacific Coast granted the following wines top honors (out of a field of 142):
· Amity 1995 Pinot Blanc (Oregon)
· Bridgedview 1993 Barrel Select Chardonnay (Oregon)
· Covey Run 1995 Fume Blanc (Washington)
· Dry Creek 1995 Dry Chenin Blanc (California)
· Hedges Cellars 1995 Fume Chardonnay (Washington)
· J. Fritz 1995 Melon (California)
· St. Supery 1995 Sauvignon Blanc (California)
· Trefethen 1994 Chardonnay (California)
· Vichon 1995 Chevrignon (California)
· Washington Hills 1995 Dry Chenin Blanc (Washington)
In general, judges like clean, young wines with higher acid levels to balance the oyster's sweetness, e.g., a chablis, sauvignon blanc or a Muscadet. Wine Spectator columnist Sam Gugino recommends Portugese vinho verde, dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, unoaked Chablis and blanc de blanc champagne.
Of course, wine choice may also be affected by how the oysters are prepared.
According to Dana Nigro of the Spectator, "Oysters can be eaten raw, roasted, steamed, fried or added to soups and stews. Oysters for cooking, especially those to be fried, should be at least medium in size. But almost any oyster that can be gulped down in one swallow is a candidate for eating raw. Many fanatics believe raw oysters should be accompanied by nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. Others prefer sauces, such as the classic mignonette sauce of minced shallots, freshly cracked black pepper and equal amounts of Champagne vinegar and white wine. Classic baked oyster dishes include favorites such as oysters Rockefeller, oysters Bienville and oysters casino."
Harvey Steiman, also of the Wine Spectator, offers the following recipe for Pacific Rim Oysters:
Pacific Rim Oysters
oysters in the shell (plump oysters, not the flat type)
Seaweed for garnish
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup mirin (sweet sake)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Open the oysters over a large bowl to collect the juices. Loosen the oysters from their shells and arrange them on plates covered with seaweed.
Strain and measure 1/4 cup oyster juice and combine it in a nonreactive saucepan with the ginger, rice vinegar, mirin and soy sauce. Boil the mixture until it reduces in volume to about 1/3 cup. Add the olive oil and let it boil for 1 minute longer. Spoon about 1/2 teaspoon of this sauce on each oyster and serve. Serves 4 to 6.
Inevitably, with the advent of a competition that pairs wine judges with food, enthusiasts have begun to adopt a specialized approach (not to mention nomenclature) for the care, feeding and eating of oysters. According to The Washington Post, a new generation of mollusks has emerged - boutique oysters - hand-raised and pampered in discreet, out-of-the-way locations, sort of like an underwater gated community. And they have intriguing, exotic names like Daybob Bay, Sunset Beach, Fanny Bay, Hamma Hamma, Little Creek, Quilcene, Olympia, Steamboat and Pickle Point.
Growing conditions, texture, shell contour and flavor all play a role, says the Post. Various styles of oyster have now achieved vinifera status, and refined breeding begets descriptive terms like "copper bite" or "cucumber finish." (It has been estimated that, by the year 2018, gormands will require twice as much time to complete a meal - with roughly 15 minutes spent evaluating the wine and 5 additional minutes for each separate food item, not including dessert.)
As a result of this new-found status, raw oyster bars now offer as many as 10 oyster choices each week, with prices reaching $25 for a dozen - that's $2.08 per oyster.
I know that food and wine can complement each other quite nicely, but let's just keep White Castle hamburgers out of the equation, OK? I can afford White Castle, and it keeps quite nicely in the freezer, right next to the frozen fish sticks and old radio batteries.
Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition
Grove Mill Wine Company
American Mussel Harvesters, Inc.
Old Ebbitt Grill