Wine for Bivalves

Oysters are not, by nature, funny. But thanks to the irrepressible imagination of seafood promoter Jon Rowleythe man who more than any other created the Copper River salmon crazeoyster season in Seattle generates a good deal of hilarity, thanks to the contests, races, and other shenanigans at the annual Oyster Olympics at Anthony's Shilshole. So successfully has Rowley positioned raw oysters as Fun Food that their emergence as Big Business has been obscured. But five years after coming up with the Olympics concept, Rowley floated another oyster promotion with a more serious purpose: to combat the cliché ´hat only champagne, chablis, or muscadet are proper accompaniments for raw oysters. This year will see the ninth edition of the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, in which hundreds of wines from around the West will be winnowed down to 20 finalists to be submitted to expert tasting panels in Seattle, San Francisco, and, for the first time, New York City, with the unranked top 10 to be announced April 9. Achieving a slot is no empty honor. For a small-production winery, "winning" the PCOWC can mean selling out an entire vintage of pinot gris or sauvignon blanc. Even a biggish winery like Oregon's King Estate, with a substantial advertising budget, finds it well worth submitting its bottlings to the judges, and following up on a "win" with further promotion of its own. With the current recession putting a dent in all kinds of upscale spending, the PCOWC may be even more important. Organizers expect record numbers of wines to be submitted before the March 7 deadline. Is the competition just hype and marketing? Fortunately, no; the faintly briny, faintly sweet flavor of a raw oysterparticularly the delicate Kumamoto variety used for comparisonsposes a crucial challenge for winemakers, who must contrive to balance fruit, flavor, and acidity on a knife-edge to match the standard set by France's stony chablis or austerely ripe Alsatian pinot gris. As a general rule, a wine noble enough to complement an oyster is noble enough to go with most other fine food. Even if you never let a raw oyster pass your lips, you can be grateful that the little fellows' sacrifice is doing so much to improve America's vinous breed. GET THIS A lot of people think they don't like port. But one sip of the real thing can wipe out a lifetime's memories of sticky-sweet, raisiny, liquid fruitcake. Those seeking enlightenment could do worse than track down a bottle of Quinta do Noval 10 year tawny. Blended from various vintages of the past decade maturing in the Noval cellars, finished with just a splash of young wine to put a blush on its dignified cheek, this bottle is a steal at around $28.

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