Oysters: Like the Grapes of the Sea

Oyster farmers create their own unique version of merroir.

Story and photos by Chris Chamberlain

Oysters and champagne have been a classic pairing ever since the first Benedictine monk opened up a Mediterranean bivalve to slurp alongside a glass of his bubbles. Beyond offering complementary flavors, oysters have a lot more in common with grapes than you might be aware of. They say that great wine is created in the vineyard by the growers, not in the winery, and oyster farmers have also developed similar techniques to create and select premium oysters from their beds.

Both oysters and grapes grow in the wild, and you could certainly make some wine from a roadside grapevine or wolf down a dozen oysters you pried off the pier at a public marina. But we wouldn’t recommend it. The wild vitis riparia vine looks almost identical to the poisonous common Moonseed plant, and those oysters will probably exhibit more nuances of diesel fuel than the delicate brininess you were hoping for. With careful cultivation and handling, however, farmers can create something truly special.

Most of the wine you would ever want to drink comes from the same species of grape, vitis vinifera. The difference between varietals stems from centuries of cross-breeding. Yet genetically identical grapes can taste different: A California Chardonnay and a French Chablis differ thanks to unique characteristics imparted by the climate, soil and farming techniques used to grow the grapes. Collectively, these factors are referred to as terroir.

Similarly, just about every oyster you’ve ever had the pleasure to slide on top of a cracker comes from two species, one from the west coast and another from the east. That’s right, the hundreds of varieties of oysters that grow from the southern tip of Chile to the cold climes of northern Canada all share the same DNA, although the size, shape and flavors vary dramatically from country to country, state to state, and even from one side of the bay to the opposite bank.

Taking a page from their vintner brethren, oyster farmers use the punny term merroir based on the French mer for “sea” to describe how an oyster’s taste reflects the specific environmental factors in the water where it was raised and harvested. These factors can affect the salinity or brininess of the oyster, the smoothness of the shell, the size of the bivalve and the flavor of the meat.

There are many different ways to grow and harvest oysters, and they often reflect the longevity of the local oyster culture. Long-time seafood economies still depend on more brute force methods of collection, using rakes or tongs to pull up essentially wild oysters from the seabed, trawling with nets and screens from the backs of boats to dredge oysters off the bottom or harvesting large clusters of oysters from the plough mud when the water level of a South Carolina estuary drops low enough to expose the bounty.

Modern methods tend to be more delicate on the environment and produce oysters that are more consistent in size, cup depth and flavor. These boutique oysters aren’t the kind you’d want to cover with a cheesy cream sauce and spinach before broiling to create a dish rich enough for the Rockefellers. Instead, these oysters are meant to be sampled thoughtfully, often in comparison with other varieties. Think of these as the sorts of fine wines that you would want to experience as part of a tasting of Grand Cru Bordeaux. (That doesn’t mean there’s not a time and place for slamming down a dozen Apalachicola sliders or for buying some cheap hooch to whip up a batch of sangria. In fact, call me if you do!)

Like with wine, oyster farmers name their varieties to differentiate and identify them. Similar to winemakers, some emphasize the location in the oyster name, like Rappahannock River, Murder Point, Chesapeake, Cape North, May River or Stellar Bay. Others are named descriptively to let consumers know what to expect inside the shell: Sweet Petites, Olde Salts or Umami. The same way that vintners pick cute names to make their wines memorable, oyster farmers also exhibit cheeky senses of humor with names such as French Kiss, Naked Cowboy and Fat Bastard.

Modern oyster farmers start with seed, just like their counterparts on land. The aquatic version is called “spat,” tiny seed oysters so small that you could hold a million oysters in your hand. Since oysters naturally form in clusters, these babies need something to set upon. Farmers grow them in tanks filled with grains of sand for the spat to adhere to. These young oysters can double in size in a week, so farmers constantly cull them to separate them into batched sizes until they are big enough to plant in cages on leased oyster beds.

Throughout the life cycle of a farmed oyster, the creatures are constantly being sorted by size using rolling metal bins to chip off the imperfections from their shells (making for a prettier cup) and to cull them into bins separated so that all the oysters in a particular cage are close enough in size to harvest at the same time when they reach maturity. This hands-on treatment ensures a more consistent product, the kind that restaurants and consumers are willing to pay a premium for. Even though the size, shape and color of the shells can vary dramatically between varieties, discerning oyster fans can readily identify a quality product.

Rather than just ordering a glass of red or a bottle of white, discerning wine drinkers look deeper in the menu for details about individual wines to discover a new favorite. Similarly, once you do a little research about oysters and learn what you love, the world can really open up for you. Maybe you’ll even find a pearl!

Spotlight:  Rappahannock Oyster Company

Travis and Ryan Croxton are cousins that inherited more than 200 acres of family oyster leases in the Virginia portion of Chesapeake Bay. Together they leapt into the business even though they had little experience with oystering. After some research, the Croxtons developed their own modern methods at Rappahannock Oyster Company and eventually became a favorite supplier to some of the most notable fine dining restaurants in the country. They sell four different varieties of oysters via wholesale and retail, and even though their beds are just a few miles apart in the Chesapeake, the oysters are quite different from one another.

Rappahannock River oysters have a deep round cup with a delicate salinity that is almost sweet and buttery. This is a great “training wheels” oyster for experimenters. Rochambeaus grow at the mouth of the York River and have a slightly higher salinity than their cousins from deeper in the bay. Olde Salts come from the ocean side of Chincoteague and exhibit the brininess you’d expect from an ocean oyster. Their fourth offering is called the Barcat Oyster, and is actually a product grown by a co-op of former wild oyster harvesters who have thrown in with Rappahannock to distribute sustainably-grown oysters from all across Chesapeake Bay.

The Hangout Oyster Cook-off & Craft Beer Weekend

Want to experience oysters from all over the U.S. in one place? How about the chance to sample food from some of the best chefs in the Southeast? If you answered “yes” to either or both of those, mark your calendar for November 2-3, 2018 and make plans to attend The Hangout Oyster Cook-off & Craft Beer Weekend in beautiful Gulf Shores, Alabama. In addition to the beers and oyster dishes to sample from dozens of restaurants, there will also be a North American Oyster Showcase with the chance to try oysters flown in from Pacific Northwest, New England, the Maritimes, British Columbia, the Mid-Atlantic, Baja Peninsula and locally from the Gulf Coast. Other competitions include a Bloody Mary contest and the chance to find out who is the fastest oyster shucker on the country. If competition isn’t your thing, you can just enjoy the beach, the food, the drink and watching college football on multiple huge televisions positioned around the festival grounds.

Eight to Eat:  Great Oyster Bars & Restaurants Across The USA

The Darling Oyster Bar 
Charleston, SC
While some lists might send you to The Ordinary for oysters in Charleston, and that is a fine establishment, we recommend this trendy seafood emporium for its vibrant décor, fantastic food and hip clientele.

Eventide Oyster Co. 
Portland, ME
Just blocks from the Gulf of Maine, Eventide represents the rebirth of the old school New England oyster bar with a constantly-changing array of shellfish and oysters available fresh off the boat.

Henrietta Red 
Nashville, TN
Chef Julia Sullivan was named to this year’s “Best New Chefs” list in Food & Wine magazine for her deft touch with seafood and particularly her love of oysters at this beautiful Germantown neighborhood eatery.

Topping, VA
Travis and Ryan Croxton call this restaurant their “tasting room,” because it’s located literally steps away from the bay where they harvest their oysters. It doesn’t get fresher than this, and you can really taste the differences between varieties.

Drago’s Seafood Restaurant
New Orleans, LA
Located in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, Drago’s has been the king of the charbroiled oyster since 1993 when they first experimented with brushing oysters in the shell with garlic, butter and herbs before dusting them with Parmesan and Romano cheeses and cooking them on a blazing charcoal grill. Needless to say, the experiment was a rousing success!

Grand Central Oyster Bar
New York, NY
For more than a century, this Manhattan institution has served fresh seafood accompanied by a stellar selection of wines to hundreds of hungry New Yorkers for lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday. Be prepared for a crowd. It’s (literally) Grand Central Station in there.

Swan Oyster Depot
San Francisco, CA
Swan Oyster Depot is an institution in the City by the Bay thanks to a tiny 18-seat bar serving a menu writ large on the wall for more than 100 years. There’s never not a line to get in, but it’s worth the wait!

Boss Oyster
Apalachicola, FL
Sitting waterside on the Apalachicola River, you can’t get much closer to the source of some of the most famous oysters on the entire Gulf coast. Boss Oyster even owns their own harvesting boat with on-board refrigeration to ensure the freshest product available.

Chris Chamberlain


Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink and travel writer based in Nashville, Tennessee.