The moon dodged in and out of the late-afternoon clouds as Lisa, Don Rice and I hurried down the main drag of sleepy Metuchen, New Jersey, defying our attempts to see whether it was completely full or not. No matter. It might as well have been.

We were late. The trains had not been particularly obliging today. Our various bottles clanked ominously as we tried to keep a racing pace going, passing the ominous gas station full of taxidermied animal carcasses and proceeding down Andrew and Jennifer's innocuous-seeming street towards the dwelling that, for tonight, was the meeting place of the Coven of Loirenacy, along with assorted motley camp followers and hangers-on (yours truly fitting neatly into both of those categories).

It was getting dark outside, so when we clattered up the front steps into the brightly-lit interior, my eyes were dazzled for a moment as I peered about to see who was here. Here are Andrew and Jennifer, our hosts, freshly returned from their Loire Valley honeymoon. Coming to say hello are Oleg and Inna O., with tiny blonde Rachael. Eden Blum, another Metuchenite, is there with her sister Jody. Over in the corner, quite tastefully clad in a lovely Autumn ensemble of classic Aloha shirt topping off a sassy Love My Goat Red Crew-T, is the Prince of Ungulates himself, Robert Callahan. Mike and Kim Bassman come and say hi. Joe "I'm a Professional, Damnit!" Dressner is holding court in the living room. Jeff Connell bids a courtly howdedoo, and we are introduced to John and Claire Kim. Oh, and Bradley Kane was there too, irrepressible as ever, despite everyone's seeming best efforts to repress him.

I grab a glass, as I've got some catching up to do, break into a cold sweat at the sight of some already-empty bottles, and dive into the first white I see.

Francois Cazin Cour-Cheverny 1993: I flinch a bit as this approaches my mouth, remembering the shrieking acidity of the 96 VM. A taste, and yup, it's shrill all right, but not overpoweringly so, a bright, light, tart wine, stony-tasting and lightly floral. Has time mellowed it, or was the '93 always a bit less sharp I wonder out loud to no one in particular, but there is no one to answer because a heated dispute is breaking out over another bottle.

The offending party, a Domaine du Closel Savennieres Vielles Vignes 1993 sits guiltily on the table, surrounded by a whirlwind of strife. Callahan has pronounced it corked, Dressner is muttering darkly that the wine is just showing the characteristics of old chenin and this might be lost on inexperienced chenin tasters, Kane says it's fine, Andrew thinks it's corked, Don thinks it's fine, everyone is at odds, there is much consternation and hullabaloo. I race to the scene and get a whiff. Seems corked to me, but, being an inexperienced chenin taster in this company, I could certainly accept that chenin develops nice TCA characteristics as it ages.

Andrew pops a fresh bottle, and whoopsy, it lacks that aged-chenin/TCA characteristic. Pale gold, lightly aromatic nose, stony tea and honey hints, tangy and crisply acidic, but with a pleasant, slighly oily mouthfeel. Very decent.

I grab a Cazin Cremant a Loire and have a sniff: Pale, lightly fizzy, hints of breadiness, a crisp, tangy, somewhat neutral glass of light fizz. Unremarkable, but it goes down pretty smoothly.

I have only managed to catch the tail end of the whites, and now some reds are starting to appear...

Château Pierre-Bise Spilite de Pierre-Bise Anjou Gamay 1997: Deep purply-red color; oh, man, an exuberant peppery purplefruity nose, just an aromatically happy wine--I have a sip, and there's lots of plum and berry flavor, just a big richly fruity gamay that has some good balance and finishes off with some surprising dry tannins. Kane, stopping the presses, declares that he's finally found a gamay he likes. Callahan observes that all that was needed to fill that niche was to find a gamay with 14.5% alcohol.

M. Bulas Cruz Gouvyas Douro Reserva 1996 (touriga nacional, tinto roriz, touriga francesa): Deep rich purply-red; meaty aromas drift around the glass, smoky plum and toasty baked bread; tastes rough and rich and slightly hot, lots of smoky dark fruit, plenty of acidity and some gritty tannins. A big, rough, rustic wine, easy to like and friendly.

Clos Roche Blanche Touraine 1997: Bassman and I look at this bottle and ask what's the grape involved? Dressner tells us this is cab franc, nothing else. Two minutes later Callahan comes by and warns us not to listen to him, that it is in fact a blend of cab franc, cot and maybe something else, I forget. After he leaves Dressner comes around again and implies that Callahan hasn't been taking ALL of his medication lately, poor fellow, nudge nudge wink wink. There is a schism in Loireheadland, or perhaps our tiny minds are being played with. At any rate, it's a nice medium-red color, with an interesting smoky strawberry-candy nose. A crisp wine, lean, tart tar-tinged cherry fruit, and very tannic. Light and sharp and candied--an odd wine, kind of all over the place.

Breton Bourgeuil Nuits d'Ivresse 1998: No sulfur, no filtration, no fining... no nose either, or not much of one. Light cran-cherry hints, aromatically kind of small. Not too much going on tastewise, either; small dark red & purple fruit, kind of watery & dilute. Ou est le boeuf? Not my favorite.

On the other hand, Breton Bourgeuil Les Picasses 1997 grabs me by the nose and won't let go until I admit I like it. Darker in color than the Nuits d'Ivresse, dark stony earthy cran-cherry-plum fruit just meets my nose and politely shakes hands. A crisp and tangy wine, medium-bodied, but richly flavored, much more open and friendly to my tastes than the 96 at a similar point. A very nice wine, impeccably balanced and good today as well as tomorrow.

Amidst all these Loires, Brad pops a zin, then keeps after me until I've tried it.

Gary Farrell Zinfandel Collins Vineyard Russian River Valley 1994: Medium ruby-red color; beguilingly complex nose of raspberry, earth and tobacco, slighly muted, but not faded. Tastes muted as well, but that lends the fruit a nice layered impression, soft berry up front, then more of an earthy midpalate, then on the finish it turns darkly berryish again. A nice zin in a good place--drink 'em if you got 'em.

Dressner, wondering aloud why there isn't any more zin, now gets what he deserves, for I, attempting to preserve my reputation for always bringing the most boorish wine of the evening, trot out the Turley Cellars Zinfandel Lodi Dogtown Vineyard 1997. Into the Valley of Death rides the Turley, and it gets the usual reaction, shouts of horror and delight. Dressner flinches and calls it 'medicinal.' It's actually a bit warm and not showing too well right off, but it's a good medium-rich example of a Turley zin, slightly denser and more monolithically berryfruity than the Old Vines, not as purply-earthy as the Moore, not as big and rich as the Hayne or Black-Sears, a nice burst of ripe red berry-black cherry fruit tinged with tar right off the bat, a bit Robitussiny at first, but opening and turning earthier with a bit of air. Tangy and big and turning tarry on the finish. I like the style, I like this wine, but in the Turley stable it's stylistically very middle-of-the-road.

A Long Island wine, Bedell Cellars Potato Barn Red North Fork 1997 (cabernet franc 75%, merlot 25%): Rich medium red color; Pine-Sol on the nose, odd piney-cleaner aromas float over a smoky cran-cherry background. Fleshy mouthfeel, fairly limpid, an Ocean Spray Pine-Sol pudding of a wine.

It's about this time that we look around and realize that all the women have vanished. Where have they gone? There is much speculation about a) all having to go en masse to the restroom together or b) some kind of sleepover pillowfight scene going on upstairs. We ostensibly masculine types contemplate a panty raid, but there are still more wines to be had, so, in a sad display of misplaced priorities, it's put off for later.

With the ladies absent we have to console ourselves with grilled shrimp-and-pineapple sticks, so it seems a good time to bring out some rare cult-type highly allocated wines, in a head-to-head tasteoff.

First, the chardonnays:

Flowers Chardonnay Porter-Bass Vineyard Sonoma Coast 1997: Brutally oaky nose--vanilla, sawdust, caramel, underneath which some poor little pear-tinged chardonnay fruit is crying out for help. Tastes like it smells. Blech. This wine is immediately and unanimously voted the Ghastly New World Wine of the Evening.

Scott Clark Cellars Chardonnay Central Coast 1999: Pale yellow; very tropicalfruity nose--banana and pineapple; a light, honest, bright and crisp mouthful of chardonnay. It's a bit soft, but has simple good honest fruit, and, after the Flowers woodhorror, it's a real pleasure to drink. Even a snappily-dressed Callahan gives it the nod, calling it "the second-best California chardonnay I've had this year."

Next the reds:

Flowers Pinot Noir Carneros 1997: Medium-rich garnet, with a peculiar candied nose, cherry-cotton-candy with hints of raspberry and clove. Rich and dense, but a bit disjointed and too smoky-oaky, although this fruit holds it a lot better than the chardonnay does. The pinot fruit is there, but seems oddly candied and bent out of shape. Strange, but not too bad, in a very similar style to the same producer's '97 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir, but not as smooth a package, the rough edges show a bit more here.

Scott Clark Cellars Grenache-Syrah Cuvée El Niño 1999 (66% grenache, 34% syrah): Medium-light red, a bit cloudy; tart, tangy and fresh--dusty cranberry and cherry fruit, light-bodied and flavorful, with a nice dusty redfruity finish. Very pleasant, very light.

Well, the Flowers is the clear loser in the cult-off, although I'm not as horrified by the pinot as some are. We turn to move on, and suddenly the women all reappear, trooping down from upstairs where they'd been up to something mysterious and unspoken. I eye them nervously and make sure I have a clear path to the door. Lisa has a feather on her lapel, but I'm not sure this is conclusive.

Rossignol Volnay Les Pitures 1995: A light, tangy Volnay, seems a bit tight, some earthy clove-tinged red fruit, crisp, nice acidity, but not giving much at all. Doesn't do much for me.

Well, dang, we've run out of reds. More wine, more wine, the chant goes up, and, like a swarm of locusts, we start devouring whatever whites and sweeties remain, gorging our faces with fruit tarts and cheese and anything else that isn't nailed down.

Hugel Gewürztraminer Alsace 1998: Medium-light lychee-limestone-honey hints on the spritzy nose, very decent gewčrz character, decent balance, if perhaps a bit low-acid, but nice floral fruit covers up for it. Slightly oily mouthfeel, a bit soft, but I'm a sucker for gewčrz and I find it a nice change of pace.

Huet Le Mont Vouvray Demi-Sec 1969: Cloudy gold color; ooh, baby, dig that nose... tea with tangerine-peel, hints of waxy rose petal, floral and pretty. I just swirl this for awhile, savoring. A taste, and it's a beautifully balanced wine, muted gravelly, citrusy fruit with some fine steely acidity. Beautiful.

Marc Bredif Vouvray Nectar 1985: Getting into the sweeties now. Nice nose on this one, chalky and lemony, but I find it a bit limp in the mouth, a bit lacking in zip, a bit sweet and simple.

Luigi IV Moscato D'Asti 1998: Musky, mellony-peachy nose, sprightly and sweet. I've never smelled a ripe muscat grape, but I'm assured by those who have that this is it. Sweet and candied (4% alcohol), light and faintly fizzy, I don't really know what to make of this. I am confused by it. It's like candy. I must move on.

Pinon Vouvray Reserve Botrytisée 1989: Okay, back on familiar ground. Pretty, rich nose--peach and citrus and hay and, oddly enough, botrytis. Lightly sweet, rich and tangy in the mouth, more great pale, citrus-edged fruit, wonderful balance, nice grip in the mouth, a really delicious sweetie.

Pinon Vouvray Goutte D'Or 1990: Darker than the 89, deeper gold color, more honey on the nose, less botrytis. This wine is a bit heavier, a bit rounder, sweeter and more viscous, and the flavors are more honey-apricot yellow than floral-citrus white, but this is very nice too.

Papin-Chevalier La Pierre de Coulaine Savennieres Doux 1995: Rich gold color, with a sprightly honey-apricot-mineral nose. Thickly sweet and viscous, with apricot and apple-juicy flavors. A very nice sweetie, crisp, but it could be crisper--to me it seems a bit round compared to the '97, and it comes thisclose to cloying, but skates jauntily away from the precipice.

Gradually the numbers are dwindling, people are bidding farewell and slipping out into the Jersey night. We find one last uncooked platter of shrimp sticks and stagger out to the garage in an attempt to find enough warm coals to heat them to the point where they might be considered edible. Oh, and we bring a bottle of Niepoort Vintage Porto 1992 with us, just for safekeeping. Mmmmm... a rich, dark, muddy-earthy nose--cloves, caramel, nettles (nettles?), brown sugar and other dark aromas drift around in my glass, keeping me warm as I watch Andrew and Brad taking turns searing their fingers. The shrimp experiment is a complete if noble failure. However, the port is wonderful, dense and densely flavored, caramel and raisiny-tasting, deep and earthily rich. A beatiful wine. We all pause, and enjoy the night.

Sweet fancy Moses, the last train to Manhattan leaves in twenty minutes!

Quick farewells, handshakes and kisses all around, much grabbing of belongings and awarding of door-prize baguettes. We tumble out the door, down the foggy street with its lurid moon, and get to the station one minute ahead of the very last train of the evening, only breathing a sigh of relief when the lights of the big city gradually appear ahead.

We survived the Night of the Loirenatics, and that's good enough for me.

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