Jon Rowley

Jon Rowley, born 1943 Warrenton Oregon., at the mouth of the Columbia River, and grew up essentially fending for himself, learning how to catch and cook the seafood and shellfish he found in Columbia's coastal tide pools. He graduated from Warrenton High School in 1961. He died Oct 3, 2017 Seattle Wa.

“I grew up with a couple of alcoholics,” he admits candidly of his parents. “As soon as I was old enough, all I wanted to do was figure out how to get out of the house.”

To escape, he’d just start walking. By the age of 10 he’d take off with nothing but a skillet, a cube of butter, and some salt and pepper. Camping on the beach at the mouth of the Columbia River, he’d walk the tide pools, sauté starry flounder, swim out to shoals to dig for razor clams and trap crab off jetties. A few years later Rowley started working as a deckhand aboard charter boats on the Columbia, and while some teenagers work at a car wash or movie theater to make pocket money, Rowley hit the docks to run a fish-cleaning concession through his high-school years, handling and gutting hundreds of fish.

Not your typical childhood.

Rowley’s “stay-away-from-the-house trips,” as he calls them, took him ever farther afield until, at 19, he absconded from his own high-school graduation, hitchhiked to Seattle, and shipped out on a derelict seine boat from Fisherman’s Terminal. He attended Reed College in Portland but left before graduating in order to become a commercial fisherman in Alaska. Disappointed by the quality of the salmon reaching Seattle, Rowley became a consultant to the fishermen of Cordova, Alaska, who wanted to promote their catch of salmon at the mouth of the Copper River. He persuaded them to bleed the fish at sea in order to preserve their freshness and then took them personally to the airport for a commercial flight to Seattle.

As a child, Mr. Rowley hatched plans for his future while reading Mark Twain’s accounts of Huck Finn’s adventures on the Mississippi: “When I grow up, I’m going to be a fisherman.”

The dream was spurred on by the fishermen who populated the docks near his home in Warrenton, Oregon, offloading their catch while telling fish tales and sea stories.

He started young, pulling yellow perch from a slough with a simple pole and reel. As a teen, he plied his services as a deckhand: “I’d offer to clean people’s fish for a quarter apiece.” He made his own way to Europe and began a lifelong obsession with oysters after reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast. The day before Mr. Rowley died, he was still reading and considering his favorite passage, the one that ends “as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Mr. Rowley took his formal education at Reed — he studied French — and took his informal studies at the school of hard knocks, then parlayed that into a yearslong fishing career. In 1979 he landed in Seattle, at a point when quality seafood was an oxymoron here. It didn’t take long until he began to right that wrong, first teaming up with restaurateur Robert Rosellini and using his close ties to Alaska fishermen to change the way Seattle bought and sold seafood.

In the 1980s, he introduced the world to the joys of Olympia oysters on the half shell. For years, the pint-sized oysters could only be purchased packed in jars.
He also consulted with restaurants and grocery stores on how to identify the sweetest peaches and strawberries and handled public relations for Taylor Shellfish Farms, a Puget Sound oyster specialist that produces some of the finest bivalves extant. It was through Taylor that he concocted the oyster and wine competition. He called it "a dating service for wine and oysters."

The first competition in 1992 included only Washington wines, but by 2004 he had opened the field to California, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho. He recruited tasters in Seattle to sample hundreds of Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Blancs, Sémilllons and unoaked Chardonnays, not for how good they were on their own but how well they matched up with oysters. He took the 25 top selections to wine writers, food writers and restaurateurs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Seattle, for a final round.

As an incantation, he would read aloud a quote from Ernest Hemingway, from A Movable Feast: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans." He insisted that we eat an oyster even before taking a sip of each wine. No scorecards, he admonished us, just decide which wines best complete the taste of an oyster. "Seek the bliss," he said.

Some believe that an afterlife awaits us, although no one seems to have been privy to Jon's private beliefs concerning this subject. But wherever Jon is, I would love to raise this toast to him, with a glass of the Earth's finest white wine: Jon, to your life-long and SUCCESSFUL PERSERVERANCE for turning a basketful of extremely sour lemons into luscious lemonaide! So Jon, here's hoping that every sip of this glorious wine and every bite of an equally exquisite briny bivalve WILL BRING YOU BLISS!