This story tells about the efforts of Proud Pour, a company working to restore oyster beds from the proceeds of their sustainably-produced Sauvignon Blanc from North Coast, California.
Learning About Oysters
Last January, during a southbound drive on I-55, I heard a story on the radio about the cost of checked airline baggage. A guest on the show was Sandy Ingber, executive chef at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan. Ingber shared the business side of getting fresh oysters from wherever they come from to his restaurant and it turns out, those oysters are competing with our bags for cargo space on commercial airline flights. They also compete with other things that eventually get sold: electronics, furniture even sheep.
Flying into La Guardia a few months later, I thought about Inger’s response when he was asked about the furthest locale from which he’d transported an oyster. Tasmania, she said. Were our suitcases, packed for the New York marathon with expensive running shoes and my son’s language arts homework (what? it needed completion) in the hold with a Tasmanian oyster? The experience made me consider how little I actually knew about oysters…
It took a bottle of wine to teach me a thing or two, prompted by a note in my inbox:
Hello L’occasion! Have you heard of “The Oyster” wine? It is a sustainably and organically grown Sauvignon Blanc produced from a single vineyard in North Coast California. For every bottle that is sold, Proud Pour pays to restore 100 oysters to local waters. We are partners with organizations in New Jersey, New York, Maine, and Massachusetts to achieve our goal of replenishing wild oyster reefs.
I thought about this for a moment, one bottle of wine could restore 100 oysters? Is that a lot? And my first question, are we supposed to be eating oysters? Are they in trouble? Did my suitcase do something wrong?
A single adult oyster can filter 30-50 gallons of water each day and remove nitrogen from the water; these help other creatures and well as the seawater that so many of us rely on for recreation, tranquility and sustainability of our ecosystem. The oysters face a problem because their habitat is suffering from pollution, destruction and over-harvesting. I learned from the movie Shellshocked that 85% of oyster communities are “gone”, scarring the ecosystem and the creatures that rely on the presence of oysters.
Cheers for Change
There are organizations that work to restore the oyster communities, thus allowing the oysters themselves to further restoration of their habitat. Proud Pour is one of them. An article in Edible Cape Cod puts it this way:
Specifically, the money from sales of The Oyster goes toward the purchase of recycled oyster shells that are used as cultch for oyster restoration projects. Cultch is the term for the materials that are set down in oyster beds to form a substrate, or base, on which newly released eggs can attach and develop. Cultch is usually made of oyster shells, but it can be other shells, limestone or even pieces of seawall. Collectively, they form an oyster reef.
According to Curt Felix, chair of Wellfleet Comprehensive Management Wastewater Planning Committee and a leader of the town’s five-year-old oyster restoration project, “For years, we’ve been taking substrate out of the water and not replenishing it. Proud Pour’s contribution goes directly to this effort.”
Berlin Kelly, founder of Proud Pour partners with the Billion Oyster Project and the Massachusetts Oyster Project (MOP). The idea of attaching her efforts to a wine is an inspired one, because the consumer idea of oyster consumption is not that far off from the consumer idea of wine consumption: quality and taste matter.
Also from the Edible Cape Cod article:
The Massachusetts Oyster Project works with restaurants in the Boston area, as well as farmers and food festivals, to recycle oyster shells. (Some Cape Cod restaurants, like Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar in Eastham, and the annual Wellfleet OysterFest, also recycle their shells.)
Shells are important for the substrate, Felix explains, because, “When oysters spawn, they look for calcium carbonate,” one of the main components of shell, on which to attach and continue to grow. After the eggs are released, there are about six to ten weeks, during which the currents and tides move them around, when “they’re literally deciding where they’re going to live for the rest of their life, where they’re going to set,” according to Felix.
I was still a little unsure, given the delicate nature of the oyster population, if we should be eating them. And if not, wasn’t the idea of producing a Sauvignon Blanc, outstanding with oysters, a little perverse? Joey Crivelli, from Proud Pour offered me this very complete and reassuring answer:
95% of the oysters that we eat are farmed. However, Proud Pour is working to restore wild oyster reefs. These won’t be eaten, but instead are just awesome for the health of the ecosystem, as they are a keystone species.
You might be thinking “isn’t farming bad?” Just as GMOs have an unflattering ring to it, so does seafood farming. In fact, farming most fish is not so great for the environment. Farm raised fish require inputs of antibiotics and other chemicals. They are fed fish, which further depletes the ocean’s seafood stock. Furthermore diseases tend to run rampant in fish farms. These are just a few, general harmful impacts created by environmentally damaging aquaculture systems.
However, unlike fish, oysters don’t need to be fed, and thus do not further deplete wild seafood stocks. Instead, oysters act like a sponge, absorbing and filtering minerals and nutrients from the water around them, no additional help needed. Oysters do not generate waste or pollute the water, even in densely packed beds. On the contrary, they remove nitrogen from the water and improve water clarity, which benefits other aquatic plants and wildlife. In general, they only grow and flourish in clean conditions, so farmers don’t use added chemicals in production and they have strong incentives to protect the regional watershed. For these reasons, among others, oyster aquacultures create many positive externalities for the environment.
I find it all so compelling and somewhat soothing, the idea of the oysters in their habitat, purifying and enriching our waters. I was also grateful to the folks at Proud Pour offering extensive information on the topic. I learned something from their willingness to answer my questions and provide details on their partnerships.
The Oyster Sauvignon Blanc
The grapes come from the North Coast AVA in California, which runs from the San Francisco bay south to Santa Barbara. I found this to be a pleasantly fragrant and clean-flavored wine. Fresh citrus and a smooth nature made for a refreshing glass of wine. Though I wasn’t able to serve this with oysters, it makes an elegant pairing. This is the sort of wine that we can be confident in serving to friends: tasty, food-friendly and rich with meaning.
Again, from Edible Cape Cod:
“We put over 35,000 oysters back in the water,” says Jeff Gledhill, manager/buyer at Chatham Wine + Provisions, where The Oyster was the number-one selling wine last summer. He and his staff feature it in the shop’s eight-wine tasting station, highlighting its vibrancy and “stone fruit affect.” When people say they like its taste, “We tell them, ‘There’s a really interesting back story to this wine,’” Gledhill says. The double whammy of a great wine for a great cause has kept it selling steadily.
Traditionally, oysters shine when eaten raw and for that I can offer no recipe other than freshness and perhaps some citrus. For those uninterested in raw oysters, enjoy a lovely suggestion from Vinesse Blog for Garlic Oysters with Pasta.
Notes from Proud Pour on the wine:
“The Oyster” is a sustainably grown Sauvignon Blanc produced by our winery who choses to remain anonymous. However, the wine is from a fourth generation family-owned vineyard in Lake County, California.
This region attributes their quality to the volcanic soils laid down by Mt. St. Helena. The mineral content, durability and high porosity of igneous rock help create an ideal environment for the growing of wine grapes, and the alluvial topsoil is just thin enough, yet packed with nutrients, to produce intensely flavored fruit. Lake County shares this unique soil profile with its famous neighbor, the Napa Valley, as the two regions owe their soil base to the same volcanic activity.
Lake County is home to Clear Lake, the largest natural body of fresh water in the state of California, which moves moist air up the hillsides during the day and back down at night, keeping the climate stabilized. This gives Lake County fruit all the benefits of the “coastal” influence, without the colder temperatures and excessive moisture that occur nearer the Pacific Ocean.
For more reading on the topic of oyster restoration, Proud Pour and North Coast wines here is a guide to the topic: