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More Than an Oyster Guru

Jon Rowley brought us Copper River salmon, sweeter fruit and Olympia oysters on the half shell
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 6, 2017 3:00pm ET

The first time Jon Rowley called to invite me to one of his Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competitions, I only had to check my calendar to make sure I would be in town. Blind-tasting 25 wines and as many Kumamoto oysters as I needed? My idea of heaven.

I said yes another half dozen times over the years, until the event faded away. The last one for me was 2014. Rowley had some health issues, I heard, so I was saddened, but not surprised, that he succumbed to kidney failure this week at 74.

Reading the obituaries for him drove home just what an influential gustatory guru he was. The Seattle Times called him "a Northwest Culinary Evangelist." Forbes headlined its article "A Life In Quest of the Beautiful Taste."

Rowley grew up in Oregon near the mouth of the Columbia River and worked for years as a fisherman. A master of all things seafood, he found his calling by bringing Copper River salmon to light. In 1983, he cajoled Alaska fishermen into bleeding the fish at sea to preserve their unique flavor and deep coral color until they could be shipped. Then he brought the fishermen, and their fish, to Seattle to wow chefs there. Today the Copper River (and other Alaskan) salmon are a much-anticipated springtime treat.

In the 1980s, he introduced the world to the joys of Olympia oysters on the half shell. For years, the pint-sized oysters could only be purchased packed in jars.

He also consulted with restaurants and grocery stores on how to identify the sweetest peaches and strawberries and handled public relations for Taylor Shellfish Farms, a Puget Sound oyster specialist that produces some of the finest bivalves extant. It was through Taylor that he concocted the oyster and wine competition. He called it "a dating service for wine and oysters."

The first competition in 1992 included only Washington wines, but by 2004 he had opened the field to California, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. He recruited tasters in Seattle to sample hundreds of Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Blancs, Sémilllons and unoaked Chardonnays, not for how good they were on their own but how well they matched up with oysters. He took the 25 top selections to wine writers, food writers and restaurateurs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Seattle, for a final round.

That's where I came in. (Read my impressions of putting oysters and wine to the test in 2014 and fine-tuning the pairings in 2011.)

As an incantation, he would read aloud a quote from Ernest Hemingway, from A Movable Feast: "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."

He insisted we eat an oyster before even taking a sip of each wine. No scorecards, he admonished us, just decide which wines best complete the taste of an oyster. "Seek the bliss," he said.

Wherever Jon is, here's hoping every sip of wine brings him bliss with every bite of a briny bivalve.

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