When visitors to Dudley Patteson’s hotel claim they don’t like oysters, he wonders if they’ve really tried them. “A true oyster is eaten right out of its shell with the natural juices,” Patteson said, but he often suggests that these guests try a roasted oyster first, swimming in a white-wine-garlic sauce — preferably over dinner at the Hope and Glory Inn, which Patteson runs with his wife, Peggy, in Irvington, on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
If that doesn’t lessen the intimidation, Patteson suggests trying a fried oyster taco at the Dog and Oyster Vineyard a few miles away, which the pair also owns, over a leisurely tasting of white wines. (In case the oyster hasn’t wooed them by then, the vineyard also offers a spicy dog-on-a-bun.)
“But, before anyone says, ‘I don’t like oysters,’ you need to try all the different ways to make certain that you don’t like oysters,” Patteson said.
Patteson found so much to love about Virginia’s burgeoning oyster industry that, six years ago, he asked the state to make it the focus of a new tourism trail that launched in 2015. Much like other trails that connect the dots between the state’s growing number of vineyards and wineries, this trail combines the marketing efforts of several state and local agencies to promote businesses that proffer and promote oysters.
“No place was branding itself as the place for the oyster the way that Maine does with the lobster,” said Patteson, who saw Virginia as the perfect state to embrace the oyster’s aura.
Boosted by the growth of oyster farming, the state’s oyster industry is performing better than it has in nearly a generation, garnering $34 million in dockside value in 2015. That’s a more than 50 percent increase from 2013.
Since Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the creation of the Virginia Oyster Trail in the fall of 2014, the trail has added 120 sites to its roster, including oyster farms, wineries, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and artisan shops that promote the state’s oyster culture.
Now, 42 percent of Tweets, Facebook posts and other social media conversations about a particular state’s oysters were about Virginia, while New York, the runner-up, garnered just 21 percent of those mentions. That’s a big deal in the tourism world, particularly for trail organizers who aim to revive the state’s oyster culture and related industries.
Sherri Smith, executive director of the Artisans Center of Virginia, which manages the trail, said that most visitors have connected to its sites through social media, but there are several ways that a curious traveler can tap into the trail’s resources. The gathering place for much of that information is the trail’s website, VirginiaOysterTrail.com. Visitors can find a list of the upcoming oyster events and search trail sites by category or oyster-growing region. They can study up on the taste profile of oysters from each region and learn about how oyster farming has made them a year-round reality.
You don’t have to visit the Chesapeake Bay to bump into the state’s oyster trail, either. Most people get their first taste of the Virginia oyster at restaurants in Richmond, Lexington or Northern Virginia. Two-dozen of those restaurants have qualified (and paid an annual fee) to become trail members because “they tell the story of the merroir of the oyster,” Patteson said.
Merroir is a spin on the French concept of terroir used to describe the environmental conditions in a region that affect the character of the wine produced from its grapes — or, in this case, the water and watershed that flavor an oyster.
The Rappahannock Oyster Company, based in the town of Topping, liked the concept so much they snagged the name Merroir for a tasting room attached to their main facility on the Rappahannock River. The company’s facility, tasting room and two restaurants in Richmond are included on the trail.
The trail’s oyster bars, dives and fine-dining establishments offer more than oysters on the half shell. To participate in the program, they have to sell at least one Virginia oyster on a consistent basis in various preparations — roasted, fried, baked, stewed or half-shelled — and describe where it’s from and what distinguishes its taste. Eateries might add a printed or chalkboard “story sheet” to accompany the oysters and, much like a wine list, detail where they’re from and how their place of origin contributes to their taste.
Patteson teamed up with Ryan Croxton, one of Rappahannock’s owners, to present the concept for the oyster trail to state officials after visiting a New York restaurant that vaguely described an offering as a “Chesapeake Bay oyster.” Croxton thought of the rich variety of oysters growing in Virginia alone and decided its bivalves merit more than a one-line description.
One of the trail’s biggest undertakings is to better define the state’s oyster-growing regions, which vary in salinity and other factors that influence the shellfish’s taste.
The trail defines eight oyster regions, split equally among Virginia’s Western and Eastern shores. While individual oyster companies might define their products’ taste more by the nearest river, these geographical regions help tasters get a sense for their shared characteristics.
The seaside oysters coming off the coast of Kiptopeke, for example, will taste brinier than the varieties grown in the Middle Bay near Tangier Island. Visitors to the oyster trail website can even see which restaurants are serving a specific region’s oysters.
The hope, Patteson said, is that eaters will try the sweet and mildly briny “stringray” oyster at George’s Food and Spirits in Winchester, learn about where it’s from — White Stone Oyster Company on the Rappahannock River, perhaps — and decide to go there.
The trail’s companion tourism website, Virginia.org, offers links to attractions and accommodations near a specific site, and the oyster trail website will launch an interactive map this fall to help visitors plan routes between stops.
Smith said smartphone or computer users will be able to click sites on the map, which will should be available by November, and see what’s nearby. But businesses have already used the trail as an opportunity to work together, building packages and partnerships to offer visitors what Smith calls “a true, hands-on oyster experience.”
The Hope and Glory Inn, for example, recently launched a two-night package that takes visitors from the Western Shore to the Eastern Shore via ferry trips to and from Tangier Island. Over a three-day itinerary, participants can taste oysters from three different growing regions, not to mention visit the historic oystermen’s island that National Geographic Traveler named one of 20 must-see places for 2016.
“To cross the Chesapeake is a travel experience that most people would want to have the opportunity to do,” said Patteson, who arranges the travel details for participants starting at $985 per couple for the package. “And then you get the benefit of staying in Irvington on the Western Shore and (The Inn at) Onancock on the Eastern Shore.”
Both inns are included as oyster trail sites, a designation that means they are locally owned (with a few exceptions) and located along the Bay, Eastern Shore or Coastal regions where they can easily promote other oyster trail sites.
Historic or cultural centers such as Belle Isle State Park are also on the trail for featuring access to recreational or educational activities that relate to oysters.
In one of its best features, the trail website shows tourists and residents how they can get on an oyster boat or visit an oyster farm for the “hands-on” part of the experience. Call Tommy Leggett to book a tour of his Chessie Seafood and Aquafarms on the Perrin River, complete with a boat ride, some “light farm work,” and beer or wine pairings to go with the oysters.
There are even a few artists and art venues featured as trail sites that consistently feature the Virginia oyster as an inspiration or muse.
The Allure Art Center in White Stone, VA, features a giant chair in the shape of an oyster on its porch. You can sit on the “oyster throne” to take a break after a long day on the trail or for a selfie. But, trail enthusiasts will remind you, don’t forget to use the #VirginiaOysterTrail hashtag.
They’ve got a growing oyster reputation to maintain.
Visit Virginia.org for other things to do and seasonal events in the state.