Like a growing number of 21st-century travelers, I base vacations around eating and drinking an area’s finest foodstuffs as opposed to getting distracted by predictable tourist traps. So on a recent trip to Virginia, I focused on two of the state’s culinary treasures: oysters and wine. I had no prior knowledge about how diverse the landscape was in each respective industry, and I learned that it would be quite a mission to experience everything the state has to offer in a single visit. And that’s a great thing, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have tons of free time and a strong inclination to sip, slurp, and savor. Let’s get to the specs:
With so many renowned wine regions in the world, it’s tough for relative newcomers like Virginia to get attention. But Virginia winemakers sure are trying. The state boasts more than 230 wineries and nine winemaking regions, from the Heart of Appalachia to Hampton Roads and up to the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. To bolster its credibility, the Commonwealth currently contains seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each known for possessing a terroir that contributes to high-quality grapes and wines.
Within each region are winemakers who are pushing the boundaries of creativity with their varietals. Vintners like Kevin Jones and Andrea Kephart of New Kent Winery (about 20 miles east of Richmond) concoct a light chardonnay that goes great with oysters, but also put out unsung styles like white merlot, vidal blanc, and white norton. Drive 10 miles further east and you’ll hit Saudé Creek Vineyards, known for blends like the award-winning Pamunkey Fall (chardonnay plus chardonel) and offbeat single-varietals like chambourcin. In the center of the state near Charlottesville, you’ll discover pinot noir, gewürztraminer and super-Tuscans at Afton Mountain Vineyards and sparkling whites and viognier from Veritas; above the Rappahannock River near the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll find sangiovese, petit manseng and albariño from Ingleside, located on a 50-acre stretch in the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA that used to be a plantation.
And that’s just the skin of the grape. There are more than 25 wine trails for adventurous oenophiles to hike (tipsy or otherwise) that provide sprawling scenic views of mountains, hills, and lush greenery. Visit in October and early November for the most picturesque foliage, as well as an abundance of events (October is wine month in Virginia and there are oyster festivals aplenty in November). Which brings us to:
Variety was the theme with vino, and it carries over to this category, as well. Virginia has seven oyster regions, each imbuing a different flavor profile into the bivalves growing within them. Some sections produce sweeter shellfish; others yield oysters with a creamier taste. The Seaside and Tidewater regions turn out the strongest in terms of salinity, with the five inner areas of the Chesapeake Bay imparting a moderate level of salt into their oysters.
My first stop in Virginia was to the Rappahannock Oyster Co. farm, located in Topping (about 50 miles east of Richmond and north of Virginia Beach) on the Rappahannock River. Co-owners (and cousins) Travis and Ryan Croxton are pioneers in bringing the Chesapeake back to its former glory as an oyster-producing powerhouse, taking over the family business their great-grandfather J.A. Croxton started in the late 1800s. Going against the advice of their grandfather and fathers, who had witnessed the deterioration of the Bay’s oyster populations and, as a result, its water quality, they decided to team up and makeover the company for a new generation, with the goal of making their Virginia oysters available on a consistent basis.
The Croxtons immersed themselves in the study of advanced aquaculture techniques, and in 2002, they re-introduced the same Rappahannock River Oysters that J.A. had harvested more than a century ago. Then, they added two other oysters into their arsenal: Stingrays (farmed in Mobjack Bay in Milford Haven, around the corner from the Rappahannock) and Olde Salts (grown in the "Black Narrows" of Chincoteague Bay, which imparts the heavy saltiness of the Atlantic).
I had a chance to taste all three at Merroir (yep, that would be the terroir of the sea), one of three restaurants run by Rappahannock Oyster Co., a quaint tasting room nestled yards away from where the Croxtons and crew dock their boats. And, just so you know, I wasn’t shooting them. According to literature from the Virginia Marine Products Board, "You need to chew [an oyster] a number of times or you’ll miss [its] subtle tastes," and their advice couldn’t be more on-point.
Starting with the Rappahannock River Oysters, you get a mild burst of salinity with a touch of cream on the first few chews, followed by minerality and a refreshing finish. The Stingrays bump up the salt factor, and having them after the Rappahannocks, you understand how different oysters can be flavored despite being farmed mere miles from each other. Lastly, the Olde Salts hold true to their title, nearly tripling the salinity of the Rappahannocks and blasting your taste buds with a whale-sized wall of oceanic flavor that provides serious contrast for you to consider.
Just to be clear, these three types of oysters (and every other oyster harvested in the Bay) are all the same species of oyster, Crassostrea virginica, the only kind that’s currently commercially legal in the Chesapeake; as mentioned above, the differences lie in where they’re harvested. Once you get over the squeamishness from oysters’ squishy mouthfeel, comparative tastings can become addictive.
Despite their youth, the Croxtons have already been recognized for reshaping the oyster industry, earning major awards for their efforts, and they won’t be dropping the anchor on advancing their empire any time soon. With restaurants in Union Market in Washington, D.C. (Rappahannock Oyster Bar) and Richmond (Rappahannock Restaurant) on top of the tasting room in Topping, the Rappahannock name is spreading faster than Travis can pop open a dozen Stingrays.
Other Virginia oyster purveyors are experiencing similar success, such as Pleasure House Oysters (whose plump, briny Lynnhaven Oysters I recently covered) and Greg Garrett, whose sweet and mildly salty Forbidden Oysters are grown in the York River and can also be eaten year-round. Garrett’s oysters are triploid (as opposed to diploid), which I won’t go into detail about, but will tell you that it makes them more resistant to disease (check out this study by Virginia Sea Grant to learn more about diploid, triploid, and even tetraploid oysters).
After meeting Garrett, hearing his story, and tasting his product at The Virginia Wine and Oyster Classic (wait for it), I returned to New York City and was pleasantly shocked (shucked?) to find Forbidden Oysters on display at The Lobster Place at Chelsea Market. Not only that, but Rappahannocks (and six other oyster types from Virginia) currently grace the illustrious oyster list at Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. It proves that discerning palates are demanding these products, and wholesale buyers are listening. And now let’s talk about:
Virginia Love (chefs, restaurants, festivals, and bringing it all together)
With so much to taste coming from their own backyards, Virginians need places to converge and share their wares with gourmands to savor and compare. Thankfully, they have options.
The big one is the Urbanna Oyster Festival, a two-day fête that draws about 50,000 slurpers to the tiny town of Urbanna, tucked on the south side of the Rappahannock River. Events like an oyster-shucking contest, wine tastings, an antique car show, and firemen’s parade make Urbanna a true spectacle for shellfish-lovers.
On the north side of the Rappahannock is a more intimate affair between oysters and alcohol: the aforementioned Virginia Wine and Oyster Classic in the artsy enclave of Irvington. Set up on the grounds of The Dog and Oyster Vineyard, a gorgeous acreage "guarded" by adorable rescue dogs and owned by the proprietors of the timeless retreat (and former schoolhouse), The Hope and Glory Inn, the festival featured numerous raw bars, 15 local winemakers and wineries pouring their libations, and a central tented pavilion of Virginia’s best chefs serving up their favorite oyster dishes.
Chefs like TV Flynn of the Tides Inn and Todd Jurich of his namesake Bistro highlighted the edibles with their respective dishes of "angry oysters," served Buffalo style with hot-and-sour cabbage and pickled watermelon rind, and Todd’s "famous oyster stew" with house-smoked pork belly, celery root, potatoes, and chives. There was a wood-fired grill popping open shell after shell (to give the shuckers a break), which were topped with Concord grape mignonette and malted sunchokes by Aaron Cross of Fossett’s at Keswick Hall. For insatiable eaters, there were also buttermilk-battered oyster po’boys (by Todd Gray of Equinox and Salamander Resort & Spa), smoked oyster BLTs (from Scott Simpson of Swan Terrace at the Founders Inn and Spa), and oyster bisque with corn, mushrooms, leeks, and Virginia bacon (by Walter Bundy of Lemaire at The Jefferson). And, for those who like to eat ‘em raw, chef Ika Zaken of Café Provencal served his oysters on ice with a trifecta of toppings: pickled ginger, seaweed, and a splash of wasabi soy sauce; white wine-truffle foam and toasted hazelnuts; and Granny Smith apples, crème fraîche, and fish roe.
The date for the 2014 Classic is yet to be set, but should be in early November; the 57th annual Urbanna Oyster Festival will be held on Nov. 7 and 8, 2014. In the meantime, there are more than enough reasons to get down to Virginia before next November, including the Bacchus Wine and Food Festival at the Virginia Living Museum (Feb. 7, 2014; Newport News); the Virginia Wine Expo (Feb. 18 through Feb. 23, 2014; Richmond); A Celebration of the Vine Wine Festival (April 12, 2014; Chesterfield); Gnarly Hops & Barley Fest (April 26, 2014; Northern Virginia); Chincoteague Seafood Festival (May 3, 2014; Chincoteague Island, Eastern Shore); the Virginia Wine & Craft Festival (May 17, 2014; Shenandoah Valley); the Virginia Beer Festival (May 17 to May 18, 2014; Norfolk, Hampton Roads); the Beer, Bourbon & BBQ Festival (June 14, 2014; Richmond); and the Virginia Wine and Garlic Festival (Oct. 11 to Oct. 12, 2014; Amherst, Central Virginia).
Whether it’s oysters or bottles of wine or beer (or all of the above) that you’ll be popping open, you’re guaranteed to have a great gastronomic adventure in Virginia. Check out the full list of events to discover more incentives to explore this unheralded state’s bounty of culinary travel opportunities, and let us know what lures you to Virginia in the comments.