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The changing approaches to wine writing

17 comments

 

I don’t think wine tasting notes are in “big trouble,” as this op-ed piece by Lewis Perdue suggests, but Lewis is correct to point out their inherent subjectivity and overall fuzziness. He’s hardly the first: People have complained about winespeak for generations. “Hocus-pocus,” “the double brusheroo” [love that] and “trying to make things complex and involved” were just a few of the accusations leveled against wine writers by Mary Frost Mabon, in her 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines. Forty-six years later, the British writer Andrew Barr, commenting (in his book, Wine Snobbery) on such descriptions of wine as “strawberry ice cream,” “browned rice pudding,” “baked bananas” and “old-fashioned sweet peas…stewed in butter,” said such descriptions “merely serve to increase wine snobbery.”

Lewis, in his piece, reaches to Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends on what the meaning of is, is,” to suggest how puzzling it can be for wine consumers to make sense of winespeak. He very properly points out all the reasons, genetic and environmental, why different people experience things differently on a sensory level (or at least describe them differently). But he doesn’t entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater by calling for the elimination of wine writing. He allows that “wine writing is hard.” He is aware of the “vocabulary crisis” we writers often experience: “the similarity of [so] many wines” poses the risk of every review sounding like every other review. And certainly this is an ongoing problem: when he talks about the “thesaurus writer,” I had to giggle; next to my desk is not one but two thesauruses (thesauri?), as well as dictionary. Many are the times I sought a synonym for some adjective or verb, because I’d been over-using it.

To the extent there’s a problem (and if enough people complain, then there is), what’s the solution? Assuming we want to keep wine writing in some form (we do, don’t we?), there are two alternatives: One, which we might call the “full scale ahead” approach, is suggested by Lewis: Nailing down a specific taste or smell to an analogous real-world object requires good writing, astute perception and the ability to summon the right word.” This approach implies that there are objectively correct ways to describe wine: the successful writer simply (or not so simply) has to muscle through the mist and find the precise formula. This is certainly the rather flamboyant approach taken by many modern wine writers. Oz Clarke hews this way better than most: witness his descriptions of some of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs: “more damsons in 1989, more raspberries and blackberries in ’88, more plum skins and fresh pepper in ’87.” And: “violets in 1989, …a favored kid glove thrown down on a dressing table in the ’88, toastier, deeper, becoming husky-voiced, dark and stately in the ’87…”. [Love that, too, especially while Lauren Bacall is still on my mind.]

On the other hand is the “less is more” school that prefers to hint rather than elaborate. No one is more understated than Harry Waugh. Here he is on a Freemark Abbey 1970 Cabernet Bosche, which he tasted during a visit to California in 1972 (and this is a fairly long review for him): “With this wine there has been blended 10% of Barney Rhodes’ 1970 Merlot. What a color and what a fabulous bouquet. A beautiful dark color with a fabulous Cabernet bouquet. A splendid powerful wine which will certainly make a great bottle.” No blackberries, no black currants or cassis, no fribble-frabble about “kid gloves” or “husky voices,” no window of drinkability, just Harry’s immediate, visceral reaction: Me likee.

The two approaches are as different as can be. Harry’s—the “less is more” style—for all its elegance and brevity is, I think, on the way out, if not already dead. Parker pounded the nails into that coffin. Which leaves us with the “full scale ahead” school. See you tomorrow.

  1. Gary Millman says:

    Too bad about losing the Harry Waugh style. I work in a tasting room, and when people ask, “What does it taste like?” I have given up on the black fruit, cassis, plum, etc, and gone more towards rich, fabulous, and yummy. Of course in a tasting room you can hand them a glass and they can taste it themselves.

  2. With all due respect to Perdue, you, Mabon, Oz et al, wine writing styles are less important than a consistent, easily understandable voice in which descriptions make sense to the reader and are then found to be acceptably accurate representations of the wine in the bottle.

    I don’t see “husky voice” writing pushing sane writing from the fore.

    After all, it was forty-plus years ago that Leigh Knowles, the rather famous head of Beaulieu at the time, decried the “prismatic luminescence school of wine writing”. That kind of meaningless gibberish will no more take over wine descriptions today than it did forty or fifty years ago. In my opinion, of course.

  3. Larry Brooks says:

    It seems to me that the major stumbling block is the physiological fact that within the brain the areas that percieve aroma and flavor are not well connected to the verbal areas. I don’t think that can ever be overcome. And while I find that the more I admire a wine the less I have to say about it beyond, “perfect”, it will always be necessary for flavor professionals to communicate with eachother their perceptions. As a winemaker I have to have a common language of flavor to communicate with my peers and co-workers. It takes time to develope this group vocabulary so all can agree what a particular word indicates in terms of aroma.
    The necessity or even advisability of using this professional jargon when communicating with consumers is debatable. I often get ordinary winedrinkers as me, “Can you really taste all that stuff?” Do you really need to talk about wine that way is the subtext of their question. I always answer that my job requires me to, but I don’t do it at home.

  4. Reading 3 different expert notes on the same wine can indeed provoke a chuckle at the disparities & differences. But this state of affairs amounts to “bullshit” only if you hope for objectivity in wine descriptions. On the other hand, if you are willing to tolerate a certain flappiness, then the Heimoff-denominated FSA Full Scale Ahead School of wine reviewing still works fine. Just take the piled-up descriptors as part of the entertainment, a side dish along with the meat of the comment, which can often be quite helpful.

  5. redmond barry says:

    “Prismatic luminescence” for its own sake doesn’t add much to the enjoyment of wine for most consumers, though it may be of interest to those experts who find it appealing . Harry Waugh on another occasion wrote that he was puzzled by a new term from US critics: complexity. He was more likely to use words like harmonious and balanced and terms like depth of flavor. Nobody uses Lichine’s “finesse” and “breed” any more. That’s a shame. It’s fun to reread Broadbent’s tasting notes and see a ’28 LaTache sampled at lunch with the board of Christie’s. He should have told us what they ate.

  6. redmond barry says:

    Recently we drank a 1999 Pommard Clos des Epeneaux with a rib roast. After a somewhat funky opening it did that Burg peacock’s tail thing, through the rest of the bottle, and all we could say was , as Mr Brooks notes, ” perfect”. Bought for $40 about 10 years ago.

  7. Dear Redmond Barry, I actually like “finesse” and “breed” quite a bit. Some words can’t be improved upon!

  8. Randy Caparoso says:

    Wine writing is a necessity, and always will be. How else do we understand fine wine? Yes, a lot of what we see is dubious, but that comes with the territory; just like all things requiring aesthetic perspective (especially wine, since it also entails sensory evaluation, which is tricky and as variable as as individuals).

    If anything, true ability to express delineations with the use of words has suffered tremendously in recent decades, primarily because of reliance on numerical systems. Too much of the published world has become lazy and haphazard because the words are less important than the numbers.

    Classic writers of the past — such as Waugh, Andries de Groot and Robert Finegan — made every word count because they had to. Waugh may have also utilized numbers, but his 20 point scale was so broad that he was compelled him to use words to make differentiations (yet amazingly, his vocabulary always remained spare and plain — he was like a Hemingway of ’60s style journalists).

    Ergo: it is not so much the words as the ability to make spot-on distinctions that sets wine writers apart. A lot of it is instinctual, and a lot of it just plain talent and experience. Which is why the best can be as plainly lyrical as a Waugh or Hugh Johnson, or as voluminously eloquent as a Clarke or Randall Grahm (I think of the mastery of contemporaries like Charlie Olken and Kermit Lynch as being somewhere between the two extremes).

    As the Rolling Stones once sang, “it’s the singer not the song” when it comes to really effective wine writing. But like singers, we can appreciate them all, despite the cacophony of what we are seeing in the wine world today.

  9. redmond barry says:

    The Stones could afford to say that sort of thing, they were men of wealth and taste. But great songwriters, and Mick supreme as a lyricist, as Sympathy for the Devil shows, among many others. Steve, I wonder if finesse and breed have something to do, among other factors, with the variety of a vineyard’s ecosytem, such that viticulture that reduces diversity, while ensuring consistency, may over time affect that stuff that we can’t describe but know when we taste it. The Dude recently talked about this in the context of Eyrie. Hanzell is likely another example. Maybe the modern style, simply by technical sophistication in the vineyards, takes something away. Accordingly, biodynamic and holistic vineyard management may be something more than mysticism and greenery.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    If you think it is a challenge arriving at a lingua franca for wine critics within the English language, try translating those thoughts into a non-Occidental language and culture.

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (March 14, 2013, Page D4?):

    “Lost in Translation: The Lingo for Tasting Wine”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324735304578354481799586190.html

    By Jason Chow
    Staff Reporter

    Alan Zhang, a 23-year-old chemistry student in Beijing, has never tasted a blackberry or raspberry in his life. So when he attends wine class, he’s often at a loss when the teacher explains how a particular wine tastes.

    “I’ve never even seen many of these fruits that wine people use to describe flavors,” said the native of Shandong province, adding that most wine descriptions are often translated directly from English. “I don’t know what a passion fruit is.”

    China has now ballooned to the world’s fifth-largest consumer — and sixth-largest producer — of wine, according to a recent study by International Wine and Spirits Research, which quantifies the global alcohol market. But the wine industry in China is still confused over how best to describe the product it’s trying to sell.

    Translating wine attributes from English to Chinese is a painstaking task, says John Abbott, editor of Decanter magazine’s website, which launched a Chinese-language version in September. Mr. Abbott says he and his Chinese translators got into a two-hour argument over the word “savory,” a term often used to describe wines like those from the Rhone Valley or well-aged Bordeaux, since the former has hints of olive and herbs, while the latter is often written about with words like “leathery” and “meaty.”

    “They kept saying, ‘If it’s not sweet, it’s automatically salty,’” he recalled. “But we said, ‘No.’ We dug out translations from other people and saw nobody really got over this barrier. What is not-sweet and not-salty? There isn’t a term for that in Chinese.”

    Simon Tam, head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house, says his team has stopped translating the tasting notes written by the firm’s London and New York experts, which are filled with references to European fruits and flowers not commonly available in Asia, like black currant, raspberry and cranberry. “If I were to say to a Chinese person that this Pinot Noir has gooseberry notes, it doesn’t make any sense to him,” he says.

    Instead of the typical English vocabulary of flavors, Mr. Tam uses words like “dang gui,” a traditional Chinese medicinal herb, to describe the earthy aromas of a well-aged Bordeaux, or “dried red dates,” another common ingredient in soups, for a slightly younger one. Fermented cabbage and lychees are other words commonly used in tasting notes.

    Flavors aren’t the only points of confusion. Chinese wine experts can’t even agree on the names of grape varietals, or individual grape types.

    Beijing-based wine educator Fongyee Walker recently attended a conference in New Zealand with six Chinese oenological experts, but instead of discussing the local wines, the group quickly split into factions arguing over the correct way to translate “Merlot” into Mandarin.

    There are at least four different ways: In one, the character for the first syllable is pronounced “mei” and means “beautiful.” In another, it is also pronounced “mei,” but means “plum.”

    “It was a 20-minute argument over which was the right translation,” said the British-born Ms. Walker, who holds a doctoral degree in Chinese literature from Cambridge University and is currently working on a Mandarin translation of a textbook for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, one of the world’s largest wine-education organizations. The Chinese Society of Viticulturists has created its own list of terms, though they’re still not yet widely adopted across the country.

    The fragmented Chinese wine industry complicates matters. There are thousands of small importers across the country, often importing the same wines. One may trademark the translation of one wine, forcing others to use an entirely different translation.

    Decanter’s Mr. Abbott said translations can become “political issues” within China’s wine community. “There is no such thing as an official wine dictionary in China,” he said. “We’re trying to move it toward a consensus.”

    The disagreements can get public when they involve the names of distinguished wine producers. Christie’s attempted to standardize the Chinese names of grand cru Bordeaux wineries, the 62 most prestigious (and expensive) vineyards of the storied region, unveiling a poster that matched each one with a given Chinese name.

    The châteaux themselves rejected it, calling for a boycott of the poster, saying that the individual vineyards didn’t approve of the translated names.

    Back in Beijing, consumers like Mr. Zhang are still stuck on what wine experts mean when they say there is a hint of dark plums. For people like him, Ms. Walker says the common supermarket can sometimes be the best place to teach Chinese taste buds.

    “I thank God when there is a new juice or yogurt flavor that just comes out,” she said. “That means there is a new reference for people.”

    ACCOMPANYING EXHIBIT:

    Many Western wine flavors make no sense to the Chinese, says Christie’s Simon Tam.

    “You Say Cherries, I Say Chiuchow Master Stock”

    How do you describe flavors that are geographically and culturally foreign? Below, two separate sets of tasting notes for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Grands-Echezeaux 2002 by Simon Tam, right, head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house. One write-up is for a Western audience, the other, for a Chinese one.

    Tasting Notes in English

    There are sweet, pure and classic pinot fruit aromas enhanced by subtle nuances of floral flower notes, damp earth, crushed cherries and fleshy raspberry, even a hint of aged game meat. The palate is muscular and reserved but somewhat backward. It is a very concentrated wine, but will need time to bring out its best.

    Tasting Notes, Chinese translation

    There are fragrant aromas of dates, Chinese herbal medicine and Chiuchow master stock [an aromatic, heavily flavored soy-based liquid used to poach meats], enhanced by sweet, fruity and lasting tastes, with even a hint of the sweetness of dang gui [a traditional Chinese herbal medicine]. This can be drunk now for its fruity flavor, or aged for another 20-30 years. Best to pair with crispy barbecue pork.

  11. Bob Henry says:

    The genesis of “fruit bowl” wine descriptors leads back to wine professors Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler and Emile Peynaud.

    From Slate
    (Posted June 15, 2007):

    “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
    Why wine writers talk that way.”

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/cherries_berries_asphalt_and_jam.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine,” Fran Lebowitz once said. And what might she say about people who talk about how to talk about wine? I’m guessing she’d call them midgets. Which would be OK: Most oenophiles have been called worse, and usually in response to a word or expression that they’ve used to describe a wine. Sweaty saddles, beef’s blood, pencil shavings, cat’s piss, wet dog, caramel-coated autumn leaves — professional and amateur tasting notes are filled with such expressions and are, as a result, a source of endless ridicule among casual wine drinkers and the uninitiated. As Jon Cohen put it in Slate seven years ago, “Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?” Actually, we’d still write this way even if we held off until lunchtime; we use this language because it’s the best we’ve got.

    How to put wine into words is a subject over which wine writers have long anguished. True, wine tasting is not the only gustatory experience that is difficult to convey linguistically; it is certainly not easy to describe how a steak tastes, or to capture the flavor of an oyster in a few pithy comments. But for restaurant critics, at least, the descriptive imperatives are generally less onerous: They are not obliged to go on at great length about how individual dishes taste, and they can pad their reviews with lots of scene-setting details. Not so wine critics: They are expected to talk only about what’s in the bottle and to construct what amounts to a three-dimensional view of a cabernet or chardonnay — and words rarely seem adequate to the task.

    In his book The Taste of Wine, legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. “We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language,” he wrote. “It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.” This linguistic failure is surely one reason that numerical scores for wines have proven so popular; points are simplistic and distorting, too, but they at least give you something to hold onto — more so than, say, “spice box,” “melted asphalt,” or “liquefied minerals.”

    So, how did such phrases become standard-issue wine nomenclature? We can trace it back to a revolution in winespeak that took place three decades ago. In 1976, two University of California, Davis professors, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler, published a book titled Wines — Their Sensory Evaluation. A dense, bone-dry monograph stuffed with mathematical equations, the book touched on many subjects, but it was the chapter devoted to the vocabulary of wine that ultimately wielded the most influence. At the time, wines were generally evaluated anthropomorphically and tended to be described as masculine or feminine, coarse or refined, noble or common, ingratiating or overbearing.

    Amerine and Roessler proposed that oenophiles abandon this vague terminology, rooted in the British class system, in favor of a more rigorous lexicon that treated wines not as living creatures with personalities but as agricultural products with precise flavors and aromas. Other researchers, notably fellow UC Davis professor Ann Noble (creator of the famous Wine Aroma Wheel), refined this new diction. Raiding the garden and the kitchen pantry, they prescribed a new, food-based nomenclature, in which wines were to be described as evoking specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, and the like.

    Although anthropomorphic language all but disappeared from the academic literature, mainstream wine writers continued to make abundant use of gender- and class-based metaphors. But many wine critics also started to employ a very specific, largely pastoral vocabulary. In 1978, Robert Parker began publishing The Wine Advocate, and although Parker has never shied away from slippery adjectives (he often uses words like hedonistic, sexy, and intellectual), his tasting notes have always stood out for their no-nonsense, just-the-flavors-ma’am approach. Here’s Parker, for instance, on the 1996 Chateau d’Yquem (the great sweet wine of Bordeaux): “[l]ight gold with a tight but promising nose of roasted hazelnuts intermixed with crème brûlée, vanilla beans, honey, orange marmalade, and peach … ”

    Over the last two decades or so, this type of tasting note has become the industry standard; most critics nowadays make a point of listing the exact aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations they perceive in a wine. These grab bags of specific and often obscure tastes and scents breed a certain awe and deference among many wine enthusiasts (Gee, he really must be gifted if he can smell all those things — I should heed his recommendations), which is undoubtedly part of their appeal. Wine writers perhaps also feel pressured to use the “right” lingo for fear of losing street cred in the eyes of their peers and other industry insiders. But while the cherry-and-berry imagery may be good for establishing critical authority, its value to the layman is open to debate.

    One of the more famous assaults on the new language of wine came from novelist and children’s writer Roald Dahl, a renowned oenophile himself. In 1988, he wrote a letter to Britain’s Decanter magazine in which he lambasted as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” that were suddenly being used to describe wines. “Wine … tastes primarily of wine — grape-juice, tannin, and so on,” Dahl wrote. “If I am wrong about this, and the great wine-writers are right, then there is only one conclusion. The chateaux in Bordeaux have begun to lace their grape-juice with all manner of other exotic fruit juices, as well as slinging in a bale or two of straw and a few packets of ginger biscuits for extra flavouring. Someone had better look into this.” He went on, “I wonder, by the way, if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”

    Actually, many wine writers, distinguished and otherwise, are acutely aware of the mockery their fanciful jargon attracts. Why cling to it, then? One reason is because it seems to have some basis in reality. Anyone who follows wine criticism closely knows that there is considerable overlap in professional tasting notes. If one critic claims to detect tobacco on the nose of a La Rioja Alta Rioja, chances are another critic will independently sniff out some tobacco as well. A few years ago, I attended a tasting in New York of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines that included several vintages of the fabled grand cru La Tâche. Among other things, I caught a whiff of rose petals on each of the La Tâches. Not long thereafter, I read an article about La Tâche by Allen Meadows, a leading Burgundy critic, in which he noted that one of the signature aromas of La Tâche is dried rose petals. This presented two possibilities: Either we were both suffering from pickled brains, or the scent of roses really was there. Such things happen with enough frequency among experienced tasters to suggest that individual wines do indeed emit very specific, readily detectable aromas and flavors.

    More importantly, many of these aromas and flavors have been shown to have a chemical basis. This was the point of an excellent article published in 2004 by The World of Fine Wine, a relatively new British quarterly that has quietly established itself as the best English-language wine journal around. The essay, titled “The Foundations of Flavour,” was written by Alex Hunt, then a Master of Wine candidate. According to Hunt, some of the most commonly observed fragrances in wines — toast, butter, vanilla, citrus, apples, cherries, pears, honey, herbs — are there because of volatile organic compounds that were either in the grapes themselves or that seeped into the finished juice.

    For instance, the buttery note often detected in chardonnays is an aroma compound called diacetyl, which is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that softens the acidity in wines). Hunt suggested that as flavor chemists further probe the molecular structure of wines, scientific explanations will be found for many other aromas. In the meantime, he said, wine critics should be puffing out their chests: “Given that most flavour descriptors have been established in ignorance of their molecular grounds, it is astonishing what competent analysts wine tasters have turned out to be. … In verbis vini veritas? More often than not, as it happens.”

    Hear, hear. I think that serious wine evaluation does require discussion of specific tastes and smells. Pace Amerine and Roessler, metaphors based on class, gender, fashion, and architecture can also be helpful. In addition to aromas and flavors, wines have textures, and the only way to adequately convey how a wine feels in the mouth is metaphorically (big, little, fat, thin, velvety, burly, etc.). Of course, the line between incisive and overwrought can be a fine one. British wine expert Michael Broadbent once likened a wine’s bouquet to the smell of schoolgirls’ uniforms (no, he wasn’t arrested). And the late Auberon (son of Evelyn) Waugh, in his wine column for Britain’s Tatler, described one wine as smelling of “a dead chrysanthemum on the grave of a still-born West Indian baby” (no, he wasn’t fired, but he and his editor, Tina Brown, were brought before the Press Council to answer charges of insensitivity).

    A bigger problem is that the effort to sniff out all sorts of aromas seems to be an end in itself for many oenophiles. The point of a tasting note is to tell the story of a wine — with brevity, clarity, and hopefully a little brio — and to render a verdict on it. Personally, I’m a lot less interested in learning the exact species of cherry that someone detects in a red Burgundy than in finding out whether the wine is good or bad, what’s good or bad about it, and when might be the optimum time to drink it. Also, because wines evolve both in the glass and in the bottle, the aromatics can change quickly; the nose is just taking a snapshot, which is another reason to not get too carried away with the descriptors. Moreover, just as science is unearthing the reasons why Syrahs and merlots smell the way they do, researchers are also discovering that differences in sensory perception from one individual to the next are more pronounced than previously realized. Which suggests that wine’s language problem may be even more nettlesome than we self-pitying wine writers thought.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Redmond,

    Thanks for the video clip link — thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I discovered at a used book store this tome co-authored by Vincent Price (a well-known gourmand in Los Angeles social circles):

    http://www.amazon.com/Treasury-Great-Recipes-Vincent-Price/dp/1568495404

    Never pulled the trigger and acquired it, as my affinity is for wine books.

    I saw Price perform a one-man play as Oscar Wilde at USC circa 1980.

    He was dressed in full heavy woolen costume correct for Wilde’s era, on a miserable hot August afternoon at a theater on campus that lacked air conditioning.

    We audience members were perspiring profusely.

    He performed with aplomb — indifferent to the weather.

    At the time he must have been in his mid-to-late 70s.

    Let me reciprocate with these links:

    Listen: http://skaneatelesdesign.com/2008/04/13/roald-dahl/

    Watch: http://vimeo.com/19033684

    ~~ Bob

  13. It’s been a while since I’ve commented, but alas for all the elite the hoi polloi hobbyist often hear: “I always seem to understand the descriptions”, which is not intended to be derogatory toward the Shakespeares (SH) among us, but are simply satisfied that friends and family get a straight-forward and cut and dried approach to wines available locally.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Hey Steve, how’s it shaking this morning?

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Sorry — not to be “flip.”

    The news reports down here in L. A. underplayed the seriously of the today’s earthquake in Napa.

    More reportage:

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/24/napa-valley-earthquake/14524035/

  16. Bob Henry says:

    Correction:

    The news reports down here in L. A. underplayed the seriousNESS of the today’s earthquake in Napa.

    Further news reportage:

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/northern-california-struck-60-magnitude-earthquake/story?id=25101008

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