Shell Game 

Water Grill chefs throw pearls before wine

Wednesday, May 2 2007

Imagine the bliss: a dozen glistening oysters marking the perimeter of a heavy plate of ice, dewy brine gathering in the cups of their deep shells, the black-edged flanges of the naked animals still flinching at the approach of a fork. These are vivid creatures, Kumamoto oysters plucked from their beds in Totten Inlet toward the bottom of Puget Sound, sweet and tangy and tasting of the bay, with the faintest mellow aftertaste of roasted chestnuts. A bite of bread, an oyster and a slug of Washington Chenin Blanc — earth and sea and sun contained in a single mouthful.

I have judged tamale pageants and cioppino contests, salsa skirmishes and menudo competitions, pesto battles and the inevitable chili cook-offs, including one where I spent most of the event fearing both the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to spot the chili made from ground possum meat and the probability that I would. I once tasted 110 examples of kugel in a single afternoon. A couple of months ago, I helped judge a competition at Machine Project gallery where the contestants were required to construct their own ovens out of scrap and a single 100-watt light bulb, and the winner managed to produce creditable if spongy cakelets from a smoking flying saucer while dressed as a robot from a 1954 science-fiction movie. The Dorkbake wasn’t the Pillsbury Bake-Off — at which, incidentally, the Weekly’s editor in chief once served as a distinguished judge — but it was close enough.

Still, the event I look forward to most is the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, conducted each spring in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, in which 20 thin whites are tasted blind with as many oysters as the judges can put away. The winning wines are almost never the ones on which Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator bestow their most important scores. The Perfect Wine is an unapproachable ideal. The Perfect Wine for Oysters turns out to be fairly tangible.

click to enlarge Shucked: Kumamotos, fresh and still flinching to the touch (Photo by Anne Fishbein)
  • Shucked: Kumamotos, fresh and still flinching to the touch (Photo by Anne Fishbein)

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The Los Angeles leg of the competition has been held at the downtown seafood restaurant Water Grill for the last several years, a crisp, masculine dining room not quite cleared of its late-afternoon diners, tables set with oyster plates and bread plates and a forest of wine glasses marked with the letters of the alphabet, Mylar-wrapped bottles chilling on a sideboard. While we wait for the wine to be poured, five glasses to a flight, the judges nod across the room to one another and look disdainfully at their spit buckets. The founder of the contest, Northwest seafood legend Jon Rowley — a solid, white-haired man who resuscitated the Puget Sound oyster and was the first to identify the particular succulence of Alaskan Copper River salmon — sets down the rules: no sniffing, no swirling, no tasting of the wine unless you happen to be chewing on an oyster. There will be no communication; no sharing of notes. The wines are not to be judged independently, but solely on how they marry with oysters; then the favorites are ranked. As he does every year, Rowley reads a passage from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It is impossible to improve on it. Hemingway has defined the oyster-wine ideal:

“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.”

I plow through a dozen before the first swallow of wine has made its way into my glass.

It is a wonderful thing, the meat of this event, oysters floating into mouths, bread plates refilled, wine appearing in stemmed glasses at the moment one is ready to taste them, the kind of magic that materializes only with the coordination of well-trained waiters and cooks who cleanly shuck oysters as quickly as a hungry man can eat them. My notes, only slightly dampened with oyster liquor, speak of a sauvignon blanc with a mean, sour-apple finish; a pinot grigio that tastes like delicious water; a candied pinot gris; and a fruity, fragrant wine, which I later discover is a Brassfield Estate ’05 Sauvignon Blanc, whose flavor fades into the faint, persistent taste of bitter almonds. I consume, three dozen, four dozen, five dozen oysters, plunging back into already-tasted glasses of wine, refining impressions, translating spritz and residual sugar and hints of cat-box smell into the numbers one through ten.

I am drunk. I am full. I am happy. I plan to take the subway back to the office.

Victorious VinesThese are the contest winners, in no particular order. (One star indicates a repeat winner; two stars, a wine that has won several times.)

Brassfield Estate Winery ’05 Sauvignon Blanc (California)

Dry Creek Vineyard ’05 Sonoma County Fume Blanc (California)

* * Dry Creek Vineyard ’06 Dry Chenin Blanc (California)

* * Geyser Peak Winery ’06 Sauvignon Blanc (California)

Hall 06 Sauvignon Blanc (California)

* * Kenwood Vineyards ’06 Sauvignon Blanc (California)

* King Estate Winery ’05 Signature Pinot Gris (Oregon)

* Martin & Weyrich Winery ’06 Unwooded Chardonnay (California)

Sweet Cheeks Winery ’06 Pinot Gris (California)

* Willamette Valley Vineyards ’06 Pinot Gris (Oregon)

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