Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fish Wine

Fish on the Funnel, Katmai National Park by Ben Knight

The fishing season is upon us. Whether you are a sportsman or you fish commercially, it is that feverish time of year. Even if you are less likely to go out and get the fish yourself, chances are that you are hearing about seasonal or migratory fish from friends who enjoy the sport, the local grocer or fish market, or, if you are a gourmand, your favorite gourmet magazine or restaurant. The fish that is at the top of my list is salmon, more specifically the King also known as Chinook. There is a marketing phenomenon that has made the King Salmon from one specific river system quite popular indeed. I am speaking of Copper River King Salmon in Prince William Sound and it has gained a following world wide. I remember getting a sense of how popular it had become when I was living in NYC. A shopkeeper next to the shop that I worked at, upon realizing that I was from Alaska, shared with me that she had experienced Copper River King at a friend’s apartment the night before. This was back in 1999 and I was amazed at how widespread the knowledge of this particular fish had become.

Marketing salmon by river seems akin to how wines are marketed by appellation or sometimes even more specifically by vineyard. When I worked on the North Slope of Alaska I had a friend who, in another life prior to his North Slope career, had been a salmon broker and had the privilege of buying fish from all over the state to market in Japan. He shared characteristics about salmon that varied depending upon river of origin for each salmon type. Some examples were how bright and beautiful salmon were from this river or how this river had particularly homely kings, but their flavor was the most sought after and the list went on. Although I am steeped in certain areas of salmon knowledge because I have participated in the commercial setnetting fishery in the Naknek River district of Bristol Bay, my knowledge of salmon in other river systems is fairly limited. To this point I know of no marketing ploys that are employed in the US that advantageously use the river/appellation tactic other than the Copper River branding that has worked so effectively. I would love to see salmon and wine marketed side by side exploiting the parallels between the phenomena of place that is associated with these two fruits of the earth. This notion sort of tips the scales back in favor of the concept of terroir that I have mentioned in earlier posts.

Up until a few years ago my brain was shackled to the concept of red meat-red wine and fish-white wine. Now this is a good broad rule of thumb, but there are some reds that go wonderfully with the full bodied and rich flavors of King Salmon. A big cab would be going too far, but a red burgundy or an American Pinot Noir would work wonderfully. My 40th birthday was spent in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and I had the opportunity to sample some wines that would go quite nicely with King and I love the fact that this part of the country was once teeming with these creatures, so this combination makes sense. A wine from the Dundee District of the Willamette that is readily available, even in Alaska, is Domaine Drouhin’s Pinot Noir. It runs around $35-$40/a bottle and the smoky taste of the American oak complements the deep and oily richness of King. Some others that we were able to try while we were in the area were Domaine Serene, Soter Vineyards, Lemelson Vineyards, and Beaux Freres. I would especially recommend the Lemelson Thea’s Selection Pinot Noir. For warmer days when a lighter wine is desired, I would suggest one Chardonnay in particular. At an open house that was sponsored by the wineries of the Yamhill-Carlton district I had the privilege of tasting Dick Shea’s wines. I know that everyone was there to taste the ubiquitous Pinot Noir of that region, but my favorite ended up being Shea’s Chardonnay. It was buttery yet crisp with not a hint of a biting finish that so many poorly done Chardonnays possess. I do not have much experience with French wines, but I have had a nice Puligny-Montrachet, a white Burgundy, that I enjoyed very much and these wines were akin to each other in taste and quality. I should mention that Shea Vineyard fruit is highly sought after by many growers from that region and even Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non used to buy Dick’s fruit to make his Pinot before he decided to stop making Pinot Noir altogether. If you are interested in acquiring some of Shea's wines you can e-mail Dick and he will send you a letter for his next offering. I just received a postcard stating that he is now offering futures and that interested parties should give him a call. This is an opportunity to reserve a pre-release at a discounted price. Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra still gets fruit from Shea to help fill out the fruit from Antica Terra Vineyard as those vines are still establishing themselves. I am going to have to perform a King/Rose tasting sometime this summer. I can see the two complementing each other beautifully.

Below is my favorite way of preparing King Salmon. I think you will find the preparation amazingly simple, but so often the most enjoyable things are very simple in nature and the simplicity in this dish allows the beauty of the fish itself to shine through:

-Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit

-Do not even put the fish close to the inside of that oven until it is up to temperature

-Place cleaned fillet on a foiled pan and sprinkle evenly with sea salt and onion salt

-If the flesh close to the spine is very thick, cut the fish through down to the skin and on down to the base of the belly to make portion size cuts that include the belly and back sections. This way it is more difficult for anybody to hoard the belly portion for themselves-in my opinion the richest part.

-Bake for roughly 18 minutes, but start checking around 15 minutes.

-Depending on how thick the fillet is the time will vary, but even a thick fillet should take no longer than 20 minutes if you cut into it before baking for more even cooking.

-The salmon should have turned from a rosy pink to a whitish pink

-Believe me; the fish will taste better as you eat it if you eat it flake by flake. The fish will tell you where to start flaking if you push down on it with the flat of your fork.


I have no intention of politicizing this web location, but I would like to make a statement about something that is near and dear to my heart. As mentioned earlier, I commercial fish in the summertime in Bristol Bay. I have been a part of our family operation since the age of ten and my great grandfather was still fishing with us when I began. The only seasons I have missed were because I did not time my child bearing to work in sync with the fishing season. There is a development prospect that is threatening the future of the great watershed of Bristol Bay. English and Canadian mining entities have been exploring a gold deposit that is at the headwaters of the largest drainage, the Kvichak River. This development would create jobs for the people of the area, but this work is projected to last a mere 30 years at best, and if the containment has not been breached by then, it is inevitable that a breach will happen and create toxins in the watershed that threaten to decimate the last great run of salmon in the world. Bristol Bay is projected to return over 25,000,000 salmon this summer and that all happens over the course of a few weeks. If this run were to return no longer many lives would be impacted along with the environment. This resource provides commercial, social, cultural, and subsistence sustenance that no amount of money would be able to replace. I would hate for the Kvichak’s greatness to be reduced to that of the Columbia River; a river that was once the grandest salmon stream in the world that now contains but a trickle of salmon. I love the thought of my great grandchildren participating in this fishery, but if this mine goes through a much different future will take place.

If you would like to learn more about this issue visit:





1 comment:

  1. beautiful picture!

    i don't want to leave it at that and as a result appear trite in response to such a wonderfully written post, that includes a politically important consideration. so, let me put it this way: you have said well your thoughts, and i believe you communicate clearly what others too would wish to say. thank you.