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Three — count ’em, 3 — for the price of one!


Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.

1. Talkin’ Sonoma County

Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.

This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.

(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)

So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.

1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”

What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”

2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.

What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”

What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.

4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”

What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.

5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”

What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.

2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.

When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.

Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.

This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)

So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.

I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.

3. How to make cult wine and be graceful

And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)

You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.

Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.

Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.


  1. As for the issue of Sonoma County’s brand equity: while your assessment of the average wine consumer may be accurate, I think you are settling on the bar being and remaining too low.
    We should encourage people to learn rather than succumb to an ignorant status quo and in the process strengthen the brand of another region. I see it as a case of: by not doing anything, you are doing *something*.

  2. Arthur: I knew someone would say that. It’s not an “either-or” situation. Sonoma (and all regions) should do what they can to build brand equity and educate the public. I just don’t happen to think this is the main, #1 best way for the individual wineries to help themselves, so if I were a Sonoman, I wouldn’t put too many eggs in that basket.

  3. So are you saying that individual producers should strive to distinguish themselves and then the AVA should hope for that reputation to come back and raise the AVA’s staurs and thus exhort their neighbors to live up?

  4. Kind of. Otherwise it’s putting the cart before the horse.

  5. Unlike Napa, which for all intents and purposes, save accuracy of a very high degree, is one long valley with hills on either side and thus is fairly easily defined and self-contained, Sonoma is an unweildy amalgam of a place teritorially. How do fit Schellville and Cloverdale into the same easy definition? Yes, Carneros and Pope Valley don’t have much in common either, but most people think of Napa as the stretch of valley from Napa City to Calistoga.

    And because Sonoma is split into pieces that do not flow into one another without separation, it will always be harder to define and have winemaking characteristics that do not relate one to another. In my view, place names like Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Knights Valley all have unique and separate standing and are more important designators by several times over than Sonoma County. How many Alexander Valley wineries source their Chardonnay in Carneros or their Cabernet in the Sonoma Valley?

    So, to me it is not a matter of waiting for an uplifted Sonoma County recognition through wine quality because the best wines from Sonoma County do not bear Sonoma County appellations. Indeed, for most wineries in Sonoma County, wines that they make with a SoCo identifier are their lowest common denominator labels. Their wines of quality are all identified by more specific AVA titles.

    I guess one could craft legislation that would require the Sonoma County name as an accompaniment to any SoCo AVA name on the label the way the Napa folks did. I don’t like that approach because it is a marketing ploy, not a wine identifier move. But it is the law for Napa County, and most wines with AVA identifiers in Napa carry the Napa Valley identifier, not because the wineries choose to do it, but because a bunch of growers forced that law through the CA legislature.

    Thus, what to do. because wine quality is unlikely to lift the SoCo name since the name does not accompany such wines, so the next best thing is to do a marketing program based on the assets of the County–its diversity, its slower pace than the Napa Valley, its river and ocean influences, its great wines even though they do not carry SoCo names. The results will be somewhat less than stellar with such an approach, but that is because the definition is not easy and the geography cannot be grasped without a map.

  6. It seems to me that with the many AVA specific groups (Sonoma County Vintners, Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley Vintners Association, Russian River Valley Winegrowers and not to mention The Wine Road) it is their job (I would almost say sole responsibility) to market the area be it Sonoma County at large or the smaller sub AVA that is pertinent to them. It is the job of the winery to be actively involved in those groups that pertain to them to help bring focus and clarity to their portion of the wine world. For the record I would say that “actively involved” means more than just being a dues paying member, doing a couple of events a year and showing up to an annual meeting.

    The reputation and “image” of the AVA should be important to the winery no matter how it is currently perceived in the market place. I would argue that there are a lot more tomorrows for the Sonoma County wine industry than there were yesterdays and the strives that you make today lay the foundation for years and decades down the road. Does marketing Sonoma County put money in the bank this tomorrow? Probably not. Does it help to raise awareness of your business in the long run? I think so.

    That being said… it’s just one very small piece of the puzzle. I think that we agree here when I say that any winery’s first and formost priority should be the quality of their wine followed shortly by the marketing of themselves and their product. You build your base of people who enjoy your wines, hopefully your wines are indicative of quality yes but also of place. By raising awareness of your wines you naturally raise awareness of the place that they come from. I don’t think that it is either or, I think that they both go together and it involves constant work from both ends.



  7. Charlie, great points. The actual boundary lines of Sonoma County were an irrational accident of history. “Sonoma County” as a place doesn’t exist in any sense, except politically. So why should it be marketed as a “place” when it isn’t? I agree with the comments that some effort should be put into marketing the county, but I just don’t see that the words “Sonoma County” are ever going to mean much to millions of wine drinkers, any more than “Monterey County” or “Mendocino County.”

  8. Morton Leslie says:

    I disagree with the statement that Russian River was adroit with their marketing. They were adroit with making quality Pinot Noir which the buyer experienced year after year making the presence of the AVA worth several dollars on the label.

    I think talking about price/quality relationships in cult wines is wasting breath. Most cults are of except able commercial quality and that is all that is required by the buyer. Cult status has to do with story and scarcity, not “consumer reports” value.

    IMHO, the first California cult Cabs were Martin Ray. They were maybe followed by Hanzell. Do you remember the two vintages of Cabernet that Heitz bought from Hanzell? I think they were ’62 and ’63 or something like that. I think they were Joe’s first or among his first Cab releases. They preceded and were as well received as M.V. and I think they were from Sonoma grapes. (They’d set you back six or seven bucks.) They had a cult following. Charlie might remember.

    Aside from Franzia’s fraud which involved making cheaper, poorer wine than could and should have been made if the rules were followed, my guess is that most rule breaking in our state has to do with making wines better than they otherwise would be. The only loser to this is the winemaker who always plays it straight (with whom I have sympathy and respect.)

  9. Reading the SFC article, I think Grace is right – some of those cult Napa Cabs are certainly going to be wannabe attempts.

    I wouldn’t blame Grace for that any more than I’d blame George Lucas for having success with Star Wars and inadvertently ruining movie-making in the process – both were just trying to do their thing at the time.

  10. I agree with Steve in that the perceived quality of “Sonoma County” can only be driven by the increase of quality among individual wineries within the area. Even if just one winery stood out as a great talent it might be enough to begin a halo effect for the region.

    Also, thanks for sharing the context of your quotes, I’m sure you’ll be saving yourself some headaches once the article comes out.

  11. The problem is exacerbated by the term “County”. “Valley” has so much more allure, though I’m not sure this helps Sonoma Valley wines. Mendocino County has little appeal when compared to Anderson Valley which has more to do with the quality of the wines, I suppose, i.e.,, Potter Valley hasn’t produced noticeable wines. Monterey Co. is very confusing for the consumer since they undoubtedly think of the city close to the ocean and not hillsides abutting the Salinas Valley. So a new marketing association is promoting the Santa Lucia Highlands. Like Napa, all Paso Robles wineries must put “Paso Robles” on their labels for grapes sourced in the AVA (which isn’t a county). This is definitely helping promote the region. Also worth acknowledging is the wealth/sophistication factor associated with the Napa moniker, reflected in the Napa Wine Auction, Silverado Resort, CIA, and the French Laundry, that has lifted up the area and therefore the wineries. And Sonoma hasn’t had its version of Robert Mondavi.

  12. Morton, now your talkin’.

    I have to admit that the early Heitz wines were before my time. I was still in grad school when they were released. I did get to taste them courtesy of the Rhodes, but I did not know them as new releases.

    Martin Ray was, of course, a singular hero. His wines were also before my time, but they certainly had a “rabid” following. I am not sure Hanzell ever quite reached that status, but clearly there were not many other producers trying what he was trying. Fred McCrea at Stony Hill is also of that era. Not sure when Lee Stewart started. Mayacamas. I guess if we really thought about it, we might dredge up other names like Hallcrest, which was a cult in its day as well.

    By the mid-sixties, things had already begun to change, albeit slowly at first. Heitz, Chalone, Ridge, Barnie Fetzer, Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey were all newcomers in that era–and, of course, the big bang was the establishement of the Robert Mondavi winery.

    But, Morton, I would argue that cult wine has always had to do with more than scarcity and story. There has always been a perception of quality attached to those wines–and while we can debate whether it was deserved then or is deserved today, I think it was there and maintains.

    I don’t buy them, but then I know better. I have great wine publications like Connoisseurs’ Guide and writers like Steve Heimoff to help me find great wines at far better prices. :=}

  13. All of us are entirely too close to this issue. That’s why conjunctive lableing – the AVA and the County (Sonoma) on the face label is so important. The conversation that’s going on here is among wine savvy people. Most people don’t even know where Sonoma County is on a map.

    We have to market both the general area (Sonoma County) and then start the discussion of the 13 unique AVA’s that exsist here. If I go out talking Dry Creek Valley to people the look at me like I’m crazy.

  14. Bill: Exactly. Educating the consumer about AVAs is a lifetime task.

  15. Any discussion about AVAs (and the reputations that ought follow) needs to include the fact that they were never intended to convey a statement about quality, only place. Trying to market “place” will be difficult without sanctioned definitions and quality parameters. We may scoff at the idea of institutionalizing this (like the INAO/AOC) but the wine-buying public most certainly wouldn’t.

    Quality is all over the board in any particular AVA, making it difficult to market “place” instead of “place/quality.” From an outsider’s insider’s perspective (I was in the CA wine industry for 6 years before I left 6 years ago) I can tell you that only wine geeks know anything more than “Napa Valley” when talking about California. And now there’s way too much decent wine from all corners of the world for any region to be the next Napa Valley. So I’d agree with you Steve that in most instances, marketing any one one AVA amongst the more than 160 AVAs, is not likely to be effective.

  16. Jason, thanks. The notion of “place” might have meant something 150 years ago, but much less now that everyone has access to scientific grapegrowing and winemaking.

  17. A lot of tough love in those messages Steve, but I happen to agree with a lot of iwhat you said. Sonoma County does need a hight level of recognition. while its not terribly prominent, “SONOMA COUNTY” does appear on all our labels.

    It would be GREAT if the Sonoma County tourism bureau paid more attention to the industry that is responsible for BILLIONS of dollars in this county.

    Finally: WOOF!

  18. Chris, the Donatiello name on a label will always mean more than Sonoma County.

  19. Google news search of “Sonoma County” shows up with murders, rapes, fires, accidents, government, politics, etc. Largely the same with Napa County (or any county)….but not Napa Valley – that’s the wine phrase, and “wine country” has also been successfully co-opted by Napa.

    The Graves and Sonoma have similar problems. The Graves is spread out like Sonoma is. The Medoc, where the great chateaux can be seen from one road, pretty much, and St. Emilion—for all practical purposes is like visiting St. Helena. So tour guides, TV crews and the like find it much easier to do the Medoc or St. E.

    Now, Napa has a valley; Sonoma has the Pacific (and directly borders, via a lot of water, 52 countries and territories – a somewhat large marketing opportunity besides a geographical indicator). Even the geophobic of the wine world might embrace Sonoma Pacific. Has Sonoma County been fishing in the wrong direction?

  20. Steve, I guess I am wondering about the aim of the region or AVA labeling. I assumed that the inclusion of the name of growing region on the bottle assisted the consumer in expectations. Recently, I had a Steininger Riesling open and poured a taste for an old customer of mine. I did not intend to blind taste him but the bottle was behind me and I just turned, filled his glass, and handed it to him. He sniffed and stated “wow what a great Gruner nose.” I told him he got the right country but the wrong grape. What a great victory for the Europeans! What I’m getting at is I have never considered this recognition comparison. Seems like marketing money would be much better spent putting naked girls on the labels. Just don’t send ’em down here to Bama.

  21. Gibson, I think there are historic reasons for regional labeling, not the least of which was to assure the customer (mainly in France) that the wine really was from where it said. This was forced upon the government after the wine industry in the 19th century engaged in massive fraud and mislabeling. (For example, using Spanish or Rhone wine in bottles labeled Bordeaux.) So in a way, the whole concept of regional labeling is a 19th century anachronism. We’re not going to get rid of it — and we shouldn’t. But the consumer should understand how relatively meaningless a regional designation is for any given bottle of wine.

  22. “Sonoma Pacific”! I like it.

  23. 4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”

    Anther foolish, self-fulfilling statement from a 100 0r 1,000-point rater. My itsy-bitsy wine company is becoming very well known without any scores. In fact, we all have a pretty good laugh in my wine world about the need for some numeric score by someone who knows NOTHING about cultvation or crafting of small-lot wine.

    Steve, if I were a bank and all this winery had were high scores from two or three people, I’d kick their asses out in a heart beat and tell them to go get some solid reasons to loan. If you think of it from a bank perspective, you’ll see exactly how silly you look.

    While you may have a command of the English language and you may be able to translate that onto your laptop in a format that people get, you’re out there mowing your lawn as your house is buring to the ground.

    People don’t want some friggin number to tell them they like the wine. More and more and more visitors are out there doing their own research (visiting my tasting room) and buying lots and lots of my non-scored wine and taking it home to many little spots around this great Country. This is how to sell Sonoma County, not with some fucking number.

    Give US a break.

  24. Randy, thanks for your passionately worded comment. All I was trying to say is what retailers, distributors and winemakers tell me: A high score works better than anything else. I’m not defending the system or claiming it’s rational or fair or even moral. I’m just saying it’s reality. I’m thrilled that some small family wineries like yours are doing well. Small family winemakers are the seed corn of the industry, may God bless ’em. I wish you every continued success!

  25. Let me qualify this statement clearly – IN MY OPINION – anyone who thinks that a great score from an established old-media outlet is NOT going to help sales is just dumb as a rock.

    A whole hell of a lot of people DO seem to need some “friggin” number to tell them that they like a wine. And in my experience, percentage-wise, a whole lot of commercial wine buyers are even more motivated by those numbers than consumers.

    Yes, my bank established our credit line on fundamentals like a vineyard in a great site, efficiently developed with desirable varieties and well-farmed, like depth of grape growing and winemaking knowledge, controlled production costs, and quality in the bottle. But our bankers know as well as we do that our marketing efforts would be helped by a great tasting score.

    A good score is more than a consumer guide – it is an invitation to the rest of the media to pile on. Often a good score is followed by more good scores, and maybe feature articles. A good score leads to media awareness, and that awareness gets discussed in wine circles – including by the newcomers on the interwebz. And especially in the circles of the gatekeepers who control consumer access to wines in the market.

    Been watching this phenomenon for over 25 years. I can count the number of wineries that are sustainably profitable based on a 100% direct-to-consumer, zero media buzz business model on – oh, wait a minute – nope, can’t name one.

  26. Randy,

    Either you are living on another planet or you make exceptional wine that gets buzz through visits and then word of mouth. You are the exception that proves the rule. On earth, every kind of product and service is being rated and ranked wiith numbers or one sort or another. With the rise of the Internet, this human characteristic to quantify is mushrooming. Even Amazon encourages its “members” to use the star system to evaluate their innumerble offerings.

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