Oysters, Wine, and an Ancient Tradition

There are rituals that we do in the vineyard out of superstition, techniques that play to the spirit of the soil. These anachronistic techniques keep us rooted to the history of the vineyard and remind us that the true flavors of wine come from the earth.

When I worked in St. Emilion, France, I would take epic walks around the great vineyards trying to get a handle on what I thought were the factors that lead to their greatness. I gained a keen interest in soils and would spend whole days plodding around staring at the ground, until the locals thought that I was mad.

One thing that perplexed me in the early days was the preponderance of small pieces of beautiful, 200-year-old porcelain, medicinal glass bottles in clear, blue and green glass, as well as millions of small oyster shells that clearly were not fossils. Once, I found the beautiful head and shoulders of a very old porcelain doll.

I love the idea of a person's garbage outliving him. The added bonus is that porcelain shards and oysters shells are good for the vineyard.

When I asked a friend where all of these little treasures came from, from the reply was: "the garbage". Before the great days of weekly trash collection, they simply threw everything out into the vineyard, and the only things that didn't decompose were bits of pottery, glass and oyster shells.

I love the idea of a person's garbage outliving him: that particular plate broken at a rather raucous dinner party or over the head of an unruly relative; the oysters from that incredible dinner party that paired so well with the crisp 1711 White St. Emilion (yes, it did exist).

The added bonus is that porcelain shards and oysters shells are good for the vineyard. Porcelain aids with drainage, and oyster shells bring calcium carbonate. Soils become acidic mostly from the decomposition of organic material, and calcium carbonate helps to neutralize the acid making essential nutrients such as potassium more readily available to the grapevine.

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Photo by denn/FlickrCC

Every year my friend Bayard Fox has an extravagant oyster party. Bayard is the U.S. representative for the French cooperage Saury, and he likes to thank the winemakers that buy his barrels by inviting them to his offices and letting them gorge themselves on oysters. I love oysters and think that I could eat the equivalent of half of my barrel order every year in oysters. Those that are invited to this Rabalaisian feast come well armed with oyster wines; Chablis, Sancerre, Champagne or just a great old bottle for our magnanimous host.

Bayard understands my nostalgic desire to put oysters and broken plates on my vineyard from visits that we made together in France. I would take him around on my two ancient 1950s Peugeot bicycles slowly through the vineyards of St. Emilion and Pomerol, really getting a feel for the landscape and its people. We would taste wines along the way and our journey would end when we would get a puncture or our lack of sobriety rendered bicycle riding impossible.

Each year Bayard lets me bring two aluminum garbage bins down to his party and collect the discarded oyster shells. This year, we brought them back up in the passenger's seat of my wife's Prius. I think Bayard forced us to take them the night of the party because one time I left them at his office and forgot to pick them up for a week. His personal assistant started to complain of the smell. When I finally picked them up I was scared to open the bin for fear something had mutated in there.

It feels good to spread them out on the vineyard and see them widen their territory as they are cultivated around the vineyard over the years. Seeing them reminds me of that wonderful party, when was it again?