Oysters and Wine 101 – The Merroir Experience

By Jackie Du

A few days ago, I embarked on a two-hour- seated Oyster and Wine Pairing seminar. The Merroir Experience:  how environment can play a role even with a lowly oyster.  It was daunting to say the least.

I have been a life-long self-proclaimed Foodie/Food Expert/Connoisseur; you name the cool description and I have endowed myself with it, yet the simple but elegant bivalve has been my arch nemesis most of my 44 years of life.  Perhaps my palate has not evolved, or maybe the Big Guy upstairs forgot to bless me with good oyster taste buds.  Even after working through my college years at the well known Seattle eatery Spuds Fish and Chips, where a deep fryer can make all things taste “amazing”, thinking about eating oysters makes me want my mommy.

Wine and I are good friends.  I’m comfortable and safe in its company.  I can make my way through the basics and do pretty well. The operative word: safe, white wine with white food and red wine with red food.   But I never put much more thought into it than that, until that fateful afternoon.

I remember walking bravely into the Harborside, a restaurant from the McCormick & Schmick’s group and escorted up to a private room.  The natural dark wood offered a sharp yet distinguished contrast to rectangular tables dressed in white linens.  Six wine glasses each with around four ounces of differing hues of pale yellow wines were neatly placed around noon time, and just below them a large plate filled with crushed ice and six oysters on the half shell in various sizes sat poised and silent.  In that beautiful setting, I must say they did not look that threatening.

From the corner of my eye a spritely young woman passed by, casually dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt.   Lissa James and her brother Adam manage the Hama Hama Oyster Company in Lillipwaup, Washington. Her warmth and genuine nature immediately put me at ease as soon as I introduced myself.  Two of the six oysters we sampled on that afternoon came from their company and for the first time I felt a sense of “excitement”.   Three gentlemen; Marco DiGiulio, winemaker of Girard Wines Napa Valley, Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini, President of Barone Fini Wines and Mathew Mitchell, winemaker of The Crossings in New Zealand have taken their places as we begun.  Seated, and with one big deep breath for good measure, I let go of all fear of the unknown.  For the next two hours I was a humble student who was eager to learn and fully conquer her food demons.

The first tasting started with Kumamoto oyster (Oakland Bay, WA). Native to southern Japan and thought by many to be the most popular oysters in the world, Kumamotos are prized for their petite size, sweetness, melon-like finish and firm cakes.  I sipped the Girard’s 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and took note of the citrus and tropical highlights.  Clean and sweet – a lovely balanced combination.  For anyone who says they do not eat oysters, you must try these and you will soon be a changed person.  Trust me on this.

Next up, the  Olympia oyster (Totten Inlet, WA) a small oyster with big flavor- they never get bigger than a quarter! If you like the flavor profile of Umami, this is the oyster for you.  The earthiness of mushroom broth was strong but not overpowering.  Known for its mineralogy, the 2010 Barone Fini Valdadige Pinot Grigio was a refreshing way to enjoy this oyster. Italians love Pinot Grigio as the acidity is thought to help “reset” the palate between bites!

As soon as I tasted the Hama Hama oyster (Hama Hama River, WA) it met my palate with a firm and “cucumber-like” brininess.  I loved how mild it is. Paired with 2011 The Crossing Sauvignon Blanc from Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand – this wine offered a delicious fruit forward brightness with a crisp acidic finish. You can even detect a hint of lemon.

The next oyster was a big one – in fact, that I got really nervous about consuming it.  The Point aux Pins (Grand Bay, Alabama) was by far the most threatening to me. The only Gulf Coast/eastern oyster offered at this pairing, there is a noticeable difference in appearance and texture; large with a creamy savory flavor.  Paired with the Oaked 2009 Girard Chardonnay, the rich caramel and butteriness completely enhanced this delicious oyster.  Big can definitely be better with this type of partnership.

Blue Pool oysters (Hama Hama River, WA) though were the prettiest to look at. These Hama Hama oysters were actually tumbled – grown in bags and lifted and lowered during their lives, which breaks up the growing edges of their shells.  I learned that this forces them to grow deep-cupped. They are tiny with a clean and refined flavor and easy to eat.  Understandably, the light easy-to-drink Baronet Fine’s Alto Adige 2010 Pinot Gringo offered enough mineralogy to give good balance together.

The last oyster of the group the Totem Inlet Pacific oyster (Totem Inlet, WA) brought this wonderful event to an end.  This fast growing oyster lives in shallow nutrient rich waters which help it develop a deep fruity quality of meat.  As I sipped on the 2009 The Crossing Unbaked Chardonnay, Matthew tells us it’s not uncommon to pick up peaches if you pay attention.

How would I describe the Merroir Experience? To me, it simply was all about understanding that the oyster’s environment is as key to its success as the soil and climate is to the wine.  Soil, wind and weather can and will influence the harvest of the grape on many levels. The oyster diet, proximity to freshwater and ways they are grown influence the path of this precious resource as well.  Education is the key.  It is the key to success in enjoyment of food as well as life.  It’s not often that you get to sit and relax and take time with real experts.  The more we actively move in ways to better educate ourselves and those around us the closer we become to those resources.  The fear is gone when you replace it with confidence and knowledge.  Lissa James said something very poignant at the end of our session. “Don’t be an oyster and sit there with your mouth open waiting to be fed. It’s important to encourage playfulness and experiment.”

Jackie Du is GEV Magazine’s Pacific Northwest Food and Wine Correspondent. She is a UW Graduate and has worked in the Health and Beauty industry for over 17 years. Food is where her heart lies; its history, how to cook it, where to find the best of it and the how to get people to enjoy it! It’s not uncommon to find her wandering the isles of her favorite local kitchen shop searching for her next cooking gadget. At home she can often be found unmolding a coconut caramel flan or reading up on the next great Food & Wine event around town. She lives in Lynnwood Washington with her husband Michael and their two dacshunds Cinnamon and Trooper. Her motto everyday. “Life if so good..go out and get some of it!”