Some people claim that the first flush of golden poppies marks the onset of a California spring. Others put it at the appearance of the first really good asparagus in the farmers market, or bee swarms, or baseball season. But to me, spring doesn’t really start until the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition reaches town. The annual event, held at the Water Grill downtown, as well as at restaurants in San Francisco and Seattle, is organized to identify the West Coast wines that are the most enjoyable to drink with oysters, the one overriding criterion being “the bliss factor.” I enjoy bliss, especially when accompanied by an unlimited supply of sparkling Kumamotos. It is the one day of the year when no matter how many oysters one consumes, it is not nearly enough.
Whatever you may think about the Water Grill, it is a splendid place to eat oysters; its kitchen is staffed with cooks who shuck the bivalves at the speed of sound, its plush dining room quiet and elegant enough to allow a person to contemplate his or her Chenin Blanc in peace. This year, Lou Amdur of the wine bar Lou is across the room, Mary Sue Milliken occupies a corner table, and the Dr. Bob of Dr. Bob’s ice cream, who happens to be a distinguished professor of enology in his spare time, is, as always, at the center of the room. I chat pleasantly with Amy Reiley, a writer about aphrodisiac foods, whose hunger for oysters, flashing in her eyes, seems absolute. We all have 20 wineglasses in front of us, a score pad on our laps, and a platter of crushed ice cradling the first dozen bivalves, which some of us idly munch as if the oysters were popcorn and the introductory statements were the Saturday matinee.
As the glasses are filled from bottles whose identities are concealed by foil sacks, Jon Rowley, the seafood consultant who is the competition’s founder, reads the rules — the best wine is the wine that tastes best with the oysters, and you are not allowed to take so much as a sip of any of them unless you have first slurped up an oyster in your mouth.
He recites the passage from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast,which inspired the contest: “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.”
Before he finishes, his drawl is all but drowned out by the slurping of a dozen-odd happy wine geeks. On this one day of the year, nobody sneers; nobody spits. The memories of the usual sorts of tastings, flights of 80 inexpensive Merlots or 74 overoaked Napa tannin bombs unleashed on the most cynical palates in the world, are lost in reveries of briny, sweet oysters and simple white wines.
Some of the wines are as simple as cold water; others coddle the oysters with grassiness, a bit of lemony sweetness, or a hint of melon. I especially enjoy an Oregon Muller-Thurgau from Anne Amie, a winery previously unknown to me, which takes on a marzipan note when it hits the brininess of the oyster. But when the votes are tallied, it finishes out of the Top 10, which is dominated by the usual assortment of crisp Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. We are happy. We are tipsy. I have eaten five dozen oysters, and I could have eaten a couple dozen more.
This year’s winners, listed alphabetically, are:
Airfield Estates ’08 Thunderbolt Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
Anne Amie Vineyards Cuvee A Amrita ’07 White Wine (OR)
Cedergreen Cellars ’07 Sauvignon Blanc (WA)
Chateau Ste. Michelle ’08 Pinot Gris (WA)
Covey Run ’07 Pinot Grigio (WA)
Hogue Cellars ’08 Pinot Grigio (WA)
Kenwood Vineyards ’07 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Robledo Family Winery “Seven Brothers” ’07 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Rutherford Ranch ’07 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)
Sweet Cheeks Winery ’08 Pinot Gris (OR)
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