Clever Root Winter 2018

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w i n t e r 2 0 1 8 | 4 9 WHEN TRAVIS CROXTON and his cousin Ryan resurrected their family's business, Rappahan- nock Oyster Company, back in 2001, the pair realized farming bivalves had much in common with farming grapes. So, if "terroir" encompass- es all of the factors that affect wine varietals' growth—among them soil, humidity, tem- perature, and rainfall—"merroir," or "marine terroir," must do the same for oysters. "We sort of stole the term from our vine- yard friends and used it to describe oysters as 'of the sea,' meaning they take on aquatic attributes from where they're grown: salinity, the different types of algae strains prevalent in different areas, the minerality in the water," says Travis, who serves as Co-Owner of the company. Even tidal flow and wave direction can dictate the shape and color of shells. Indeed, a quick Google search for "oyster tins" results in images touting hundreds of dif- ferent brand names from every nook and estu- ary—not just the generic "Chesapeake" moni- ker used as a catchall for Virginia and Maryland oysters in the 1940s through the 1960s, before overharvesting all but decimated the industry. As they revived Rappahannock Oyster Co., Tra- vis and Ryan set out to showcase varieties from many different "appellations" in the region, including buttery, sweet, and mild Rappahan- nock River Oysters; plump and lightly-salty Stingrays; and overtly-briny Olde Salts. And when it came time to open a concept on the banks of the river where they helped revi- talize Virginia's once-thriving oyster industry, the duo reached for the self-coined term that encapsulates how shellfish is more than the sum of its parts. Merroir opened in July 2011 in Topping, with 25 seats inside, 40 on a semi- enclosed porch, and 80 on the patio overlook- ing the water. Every dish on the original menu was either served raw or cooked on a grill; staff later added a griddle to sauté award-winning crabcakes and seared crispy skin rockfish, as well as a six-burner stove to steam shrimp and simmer Barcat oyster chowder. Travis is quick to label Merroir as a "tasting room"—or the "oyster equivalent of a vineyard where they let you come in and sample various wines"—rather than a restaurant. "The initial goal was to create a space where we could show- case our three oysters with local beer and wine," he explains. Their farm-raised mollusks make an appearance in numerous menu items: on the half shell; barbequed sweet or hot; grilled with butter and Old Bay seasoning; in a Benton's bacon- topped chowder; in stuffin' muffins; and in angels on horseback, where they are grilled and served with butter, garlic, and Edwards ham. Take a quick glance at any table and you'll likely spot a bottle of wine. Robert Jones, Master Sommelier at importer Kysela Père et Fils, helped create the initial list peppered with crisp, mineral-driven options that deftly cozy up to shellfish: Picpoul de Pinet with Rappah- annocks, Grüner Veltliner with Rochambeau, and bubbles with Olde Salts, including two types of Prosecco on tap. By design, Merroir only offers global wine options and mostly local beer—no cocktails or liquor. For one thing, its location on Locklies Marina means lots of boaters dock on its decks for lunch or dinner, and the Croxtons feel a responsibility to avoid an overly-boozy environ- ment on the water. Secondly, staff is so busy, especially in the summer, that Travis doesn't feel they could easily deliver the sheer volume of high-quality cocktails they'd need to. But as crucial as a perfect beverage pairing may be, making Merroir a favorite local spot to show off the bounty of the Chesapeake is equally paramount. "Our waters that the guests look at just off of their seats produce some of the best oysters anywhere on the planet," Tra- vis says. "We want all customers to go back to a simpler time and recognize how great things in our own backyard can be." Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits, and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website,, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics. At left, oysters on the half shell let guests truly taste the flavor of the bivalves. Below, Merroir has a casual, laidback vibe both inside (pictured) and outside. BY KELLY MAGYARICS, DWS ■cr

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