Sea Change's new Blind Tasting offers mystery in a glass

Holly Carson grabs a clean white towel and nestles an oyster inside. With a few firm flicks of the knife, crack!, she's in. And I bet she could do the next one with her eyes closed.

Since Sea Change opened in 2009, Carson (chef at the raw bar) has probably shucked thousands of oysters--and I've just ordered a dozen more. She neatly arranges the half-shells on a bed of crushed ice. And since I'm sampling three different varieties, she adds a lemon wedge to signal where one ends and another begins.

As she places the plate in front of me, wine director Bill Summerville grabs the seat to my left. He'll be my personal guide this evening, talking me through the finer points of wine and oyster pairings--which is a very good thing, because I've just been poured three glasses of white. And I have no clue what they are.

Which is exactly how this is supposed to work.

Just last month, Sea Change began offering Blind Wine Tastings to accompany its oyster selection. An exciting twist on a traditional tasting, diners are given three options:

• classic pairing • lesser-known varietal • adventurous pour

The classic pairing is more mainstream, the adventurous pour is more daring, and the lesser-known is somewhere in between. You can order a glass from one of the three pairings, or select an entire flight and sample a two-ounce pour of each.

The beautiful thing about a blind tasting is that, well, it's blind. Diners are introduced to wines they may not have otherwise tried: "If you don't know the identity of the wine, you won't have preconceived notions and can't be scared off by a certain bottle," says Summerville.

The other benefit is that the wines are selected to complement specific foods. In this case, Summerville has chosen whites that go exceptionally well with oysters--and he's a man who knows what he's doing.

Having been everywhere from Charlie Trotter's to D'Amico Cucina to La Belle Vie, Summerville is well-versed in wine and fine dining. And his work has been recognized locally as well as nationally (Food & Wine's Top Ten New Wine Lists for the opening of La Belle Vie, and a three-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Wine Service Award).

But despite his vast knowledge, Summerville takes a simple approach: "Wine should be fun--it shouldn't be work. It should be interesting. It should be exploration," he advises. "Figuring out what you like might take a little time. Sometimes you'll find it right away, and sometimes you'll think, 'That bottle was fine with dinner tonight, but never again.'"

Since he's hand-picked these wines, I'm pretty confident the latter isn't going to happen. But there's another potentially huge problem: spoiler alert! Summerville is going to tell us the wine he's selected for all three pairings, so we can discuss their individual attributes and how they play off various oysters.

If you'd rather be surprised at the restaurant, please stop reading now. (But come back after you've done the tasting and we'll compare notes.)

Before we get started, Summerville gives us a few pointers on pairings.

"If it grows together, it goes together" is a common rule of thumb when matching food and wine. So for our oyster pairing, it makes sense that Summerville has selected wines from coastal areas. "Oysters need a wine with more intensity," he notes, so he's decided to focus exclusively on Spanish whites--one of which will be a sherry.

"When you're tasting critically, it's wine-food-wine," Summerville says, explaining the typical order for experiencing food and wine together. First smell and sip, then take a bite, and finally return to the glass. "But when you're just eating and drinking," he says. "Eat and drink and enjoy." Cheers to that.

MYSTERY WINE #1 Classic Pairing: Albariño Do Ferreiro Oysters: Spring Creek (Massachusetts)

Do Ferreiro is in the Rias Baixas wine region, tucked in Spain's northwest corner. "In Rias Baixas, the subsoil is granite," Summerville says. "So the roots have to squeeze into the cracks and dig their way down," a struggle that gives the wine its distinguishing features.

Albariño is a white wine grape, which is synonymous with the area. And as Summerville takes his first drink, he observes, "The wine has a salinity, and there are softer fruit tones like melon--but nothing overt. It's complex, although in a subtle way."

After a sniff, swirl, and sip, I move to the oysters. They're velvety and buttery, and the wine highlights their natural saltiness.

But as I go back to the albariño, it's now changed: the oysters have brought out more traces of the rocky terrain where it was originally grown. "It's strange," Summerville remarks. "But the oyster even makes the fruit on the wine pop a little, too."

MYSTERY WINE #2 Lesser-Known Varietal: Xarmant Txakoli Oysters: Pickering Pass (South Puget Sound, Washington)

The Xarmant Txakoli is produced in Basque Country on the northern coast of Spain. A white wine blend (the most prominent grape is hondarribi zuri), it has an extremely low alcohol content at only 11.5%. As a reference point, big reds like cabernet sauvignons or zinfandels can be 13-14% or even higher.

Although we don't often discuss alcohol content when outlining the flavor profile of a wine, higher alcohol percentages do impart certain characteristics. "The higher the alcohol content, the fatter and sweeter the wine is going to seem," explains Summerville. "But it's a perceived sweetness."

However, there's no concern of that here. The Xarmant Txakoli is "a simpler wine, with more acidity," Summerville says. "But the acid adds lots of structure and backbone," making it a great wingman for the Pickering Pass oyster, which is also crisp. And along with hints of cucumber and cantaloupe, Carson adds, "You can really taste the minerality."

MYSTERY WINE #3 Adventurous Pour: La Cigarrera Manzanilla Oysters: Island Creek (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

Carson describes the Island Creek oyster in two words: "Holy Ocean!" And she's not exaggerating. The Island Creek is a glorious mouthful of the sea. It's intensely salty, and a real treat for anyone who loves the bold and the briny.

This is an oyster that requires a wine with a big personality, and Summerville has the perfect thing: sherry. "Sherry is salty," he says. "But beautifully balanced and fresh, because of its acidity and minerality." Unfortunately, it tends to be passed over because it's not well known. "It's the misunderstood wine of the world," he admits. "But there's a great deal of culture and history to it."

All sherry hails from the Jerez region of Spain, on the southwest shore. And part of its mystique is its production method, called the solera process. Solera aging is the systematic blending of different vintages, and is also used for vinegars, brandies, and other spirits.

A solera is formed by stacking rows of barrels on top of each other. The top row is filled with the youngest wine, and blended with the older wine in the row below. Then that row is combined with the next row down, and so on.

"It's called running the scales," Summerville notes. "It's like a slinky going down steps," and the finished product is extracted from the bottom row of barrels.

Sherry is often thought of as a thick, sweet dessert wine. But although it certainly exists in that form, it also covers a much broader spectrum, including drier styles like fino, amontillado, and oloroso. Fino sherry (manzanilla is one of its subcategories) is light, bright, and salty, while an amontillado is richer, darker, and nuttier. "An amontillado smells like breakfast," Summerville says. "French toast with nutmeg and cinnamon."

Both fino and amontillado are made exclusively from palomino grapes, but oloroso is blended. And of these three styles, it's also the sweetest. "Some begin sweet and finish sweet, while some begin sweet and finish dry," Summerville clarifies.

For the adventurous pour, he's chosen La Cigarrera Manzanilla. Bodegas La Cigarrera has a long tradition and has been producing sherry since 1758. Summerville characterizes the manzanilla as "floral, salty, yeasty, and almondy," mentioning that its umami quality is an excellent match with seafood.

To demonstrate, he orders up a Scallop with Maitake, Dill, and Mangalitsa Lardo. Chef de cuisine Jamie Malone creates the plate by slicing day boat diver scallops on the thin side, leaving them with just enough girth to provide texture. She crisps maitakes petal side down in a hot pan, and uses them to make a mushroom oil. And then heats razor thin slices of lardo until they become translucent.

The plate is garnished with Maldon sea salt (a crunchy flat flake salt), lemon, serrano chiles, dill pollen, and dill fronds. It's lush and creamy, with alternating bursts of dill, heat, and citrus. "The wine and the scallop commingle amazingly well," says Summerville, as we savor the last bites.

I've reached the bottom of my glass, so it looks to be a fitting end to a venturesome evening. Then again, maybe we can convince Carson to crack open a few more oysters...

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Sea Change

806 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415


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