Last year about this time, I was fortunate to be invited to be a judge at the 12th Annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. Sponsored by Taylor Shellfish Farms of Washington State, this unique competition is the brainchild of Jon Rowley, a restaurant consultant and well-known oyster lover.
I met Jon through the Internet after I’d written a review on a seafood restaurant in Tucson.
The competition works this way: First, a call goes out to all West Coast wineries to submit the wines they feel work best with those briney gems of the sea. Next, these wines are blind taste tested over a one week period in Seattle and the list is pared down to 30 wines.
Then judges gather in Los Angeles (this year as last year it will be held at the Water Grill), San Francisco (One Market Restaurant) and Seattle (Anthony’s Homeport at Shilshole Bay).
Jon presides at each of the steps, so this all takes place over three days. The top ten wines are announced and the wineries bask in the pleasure of the win.
That is the simple story.
But as they say, God is in the details and so are the oyster wines.
I flew into LA and met Jon, who I had never seen, at the airport. He wasn’t hard to pick out. Tall with a thick drift of white hair, casually dressed and looking just slightly bewildered from the long flight from Seattle. We took a cab ride to the restaurant. Before the work started we had a wonderful lunch – seafood, of course – and chatted. Jon is an interesting guy. He was familiar with Tucson because his daughter had graduated from the U of A. He told me about how he’d picked wild mushrooms on Mount Lemmon. Who knew there were wild mushrooms on Mount Lemmon?
After lunch, he got to work and I wandered around downtown. By the time I got back, the other judges had arrived. I was in great company: Russ Parsons, food writer for the LA Times; Jonathan Gold, who just yesterday won the Pulitzer Prize for his restaurant criticism for the LA Weekly; Chef Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill; Bob Blumer, the Surreal Gourmet of Food Network fame; and Anthony Dias Blue, famous wine and food writer.
We settled in our individual booths. Jon explained the rules which were basically no discussing the wines, pace yourself and look for the “bliss factor”, that perfect moment when wine and oyster marry.
We got to work. Waiters brought out the first flight of wines and a dozen oysters. The oysters are served naked: no lemon, no hot sauce or no other enhancements. We were after all, searching for the best pairings.
We slipped, slurped and scored. The room was silent as we concentrated on the task at hand. When we finished one flight, the waiters brought out another one and another dozen oysters. This continued until we had gone through the 30 wines and five dozen oysters. In all, it took about an hour.
We handed in our scores and then gathered in the bar for a beer and some appetizers. How I ate or drank anything I’ll never know.
The others left. I sat and enjoyed dinner and conversation with the Misters Blue, Parsons and Rowley and then Russ drove us to the airport. Before I knew it I was on the plane back to Tucson.
I had so much fun, met some amazing people and ate great food. I learned alot, too. And I will never eat an oyster again without thinking of that amazing experience. I’d like to say I took notes on the plane, but the wine took over and I nodded off.
This year’s competition is underway with the final judging taking place next week. Sadly, I won’t be there, but you’ll find the results around April 27 at Oyster Wine.
Click to learn a lesson from Jon Rowley about shucking oysters.