Oysters, illusions in Washington


WASHINGTON -- THERE WERE MANY bottles of wine and dozens of raw oysters. It was a late Friday afternoon in our nation's capital, and we appeared to be conducting important national business, figuring out which wines were the best partners for oysters.

The "we" was the Washington "we," a panel of experts meeting in a room with gorgeous wood walls. I had been waiting a long time to be on one of these panels, to be a person who had been "summoned to Washington."

When the summons came, I jumped in my car and headed around the Anacostia Freeway. This is a roadway dotted with stray pieces of heavy metal, but a great shortcut if you are traveling from Baltimore to the White House.

I didn't actually end up at the White House, but I parked near it. President Clinton and crew were out of town, and that freed up a lot of parking spaces on the Ellipse, which was within walking distance of the Old Ebbitt Grill, the restaurant where my distinguished panel was chowing down.

The Old Ebbitt had been chosen as the spot on the East Coast where the raw oysters, the chilled wines and the panel of experts would meet. Similar meetings had been held, a few days earlier, at the Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco and at Anthony's Homeport restaurant in Seattle. In addition, a preliminary round of oyster eating and wine sipping had been held at the Old Ebbitt a week earlier.

Following the advice of those well-versed in the workings of distinguished panels, I had skipped the preliminary round. In the distinguished panel business, I was told, all the work is done in the preliminary meetings, and all the glory comes at the end.

Our Washington panel of experts consisted of the usual sprinkling of lawyers, journalists and consultants, with a couple of culinary professionals -- restaurant owner Gerard Pangaud of Gerard's Place; Ann Cashion, co-owner of Cashion's Eats; and Simon Siegel, president of the American Vintners Association -- tossed in.

Briefing session

We needed, of course, to be "briefed," a task handed by Jon Rowley, the Seattle seafood consultant who, under the sponsorship of the Washington State Wine Commission and Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton, Wash., had organized the oyster-wine competition. Rowley told us that West Coast wineries had been invited to enter wines with dry, crisp, clean finishes, wines that would complement the taste of raw West Coast oysters. The idea was to find marriages different from the traditional pairings of oysters with French Chablis or Muscadet.

There was a tasting protocol to follow, Rowley said, explaining that we were supposed to sniff the raw oyster, not the wine. After sniffing we were supposed to eat the oyster, sip the wine, then rate the wine for its compatibility with the oysters. Rowley quoted Ernest Hemingway, who said that when properly pulled off, eating raw oysters and drinking wine should make you "lose the empty feeling."

With that we started sniffing, chewing and sipping. The oysters were Olympias cultivated in Totten Inlet in Washington state. They were some of the West Coast oysters that had been flown out East for our tasting and an accompanying oyster festival held in the Old Ebbitt.

Compared to the plump oysters found in the Chesapeake Bay, these Olympia oysters were little fellas, about as big as my thumb. But they had terrific tang. I liked them so much that instead of confining myself to one raw oyster per sip of wine, I upped my intake to two oysters per sip.

Silent sipping

Not only was I unaccustomed to being on such a distinguished panel, I was also not used to being around wine drinkers who were so well-behaved. We sipped in virtual silence. Then we scribbled down ratings on our score sheet. That, we had been told by Rowley, was the way we were supposed to comport ourselves.

I sipped, I scribbled, I furrowed my brow. I polished off two plates of oysters. That old empty feeling Hemingway had talked about was history.

Then I began the task of trying to read my handwriting and rank the wines. I took my time. I wanted to be sure. The nation of oyster-eaters was waiting to hear my thoughts on this subject. Or so I thought. It turned out that I had misunderstood my calling. This panel was not setting new oyster-and-wine policy; it was confirming the policy set at the earlier sip-and-bite sessions held in Seattle and San Francisco. We were tasting the top 10 oyster-friendly wines picked at those earlier sessions. We were seeing which of these 10 we liked with oysters.

The names of the wines we had been sipping were presented to us after the tasting. They were Amity 1995 Pinot Blanc, Bridgeview 1993 Barrel Select Chardonnay, Covey Run 1995 Fume Blanc, Dry Creek 1995 Dry Chenin Blanc, Hedges Cellars 1995 Fume-Chardonnay, J. Fritz 1995 Melon, St. Supery 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, Trefethen 1994 Estate Chardonnay, Vichon 1995 Chevrignon and Washington Hills 1995 Dry Chenin Blanc.

Top scores

Later I learned that of those wines, my top five scores for oyster compatibility had gone to the J. Fritz Melon, followed by the Trefethen Chardonnay, the Vichon, the Hedges Fume-Chardonnay, and the St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc.

When the tasting was over I was all set to sit back in my chair and bask in the feeling of making it to the big time, to the room with the gorgeous paneling. But as soon as the tasting was over, we had to vacate the premises. The room was booked for another group. Panel members meandered to another part of the restaurant, where we mingled with the oyster-eating public.

Apparently that is the way it goes in Washington. One minute you are a member of a distinguished panel thinking that you are making national policy, the next minute you're just a guy with a glass of wine and an oyster, trying to practice what others have preached.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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