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When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”

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The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:

 

“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.


Comparing the wine cultures of Japan and the U.S.

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Ned Goodwin, said to be the only MW living and working in Japan, has written a thought-provoking piece that’s worth reading in full. For me, his essential take-home point is that Japan is experiencing what he calls “the Galapagos effect,” an “isolation dynamic” that takes its name from the island chain, off the west coast of South America, where species that went extinct elsewhere somehow stayed on, or developed exotic new features, because the islands are so remote.

Ned, whose love of Japan is evident, nonetheless is critical of certain aspects of its culture: “an inability to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that’s steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset.” I personally have never been to Japan, and so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. But he made a point that compels me to compare Japan’s wine culture, as he describes it, to that of California, and America in general.

Japan has been through a lot lately: their “lost decade” of economic stagnation, leading to perpetual recession; the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and an overall “drudgery” that comes from their work-work-work ethic. Lately, of course, has also come some trepidation of the Chinese. The result of all this, Ned writes, is that the Japanese, insecure and isolated on their home islands, see wine “as a token motif of status or face” and—in a beautifully written phrase—“something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.”

Well, one could of course make the identical accusation against certain American connoisseurs who simply must have the latest cult fave, but I’m not thinking of them today. I’m thinking of the masses of younger Millennials, whose approach to wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, seems to be the opposite of the conservatism Ned finds in Japan.

We too, in America, have been through a lot. Depending on when you trace the beginning of our tsouris, the 21st century thus far has been one of difficulties both emotional and financial. We had the dot-com bubble and resulting collapse of 2000-2001, followed closely by the contested 2000 election that threw the country into political chaos. Then of course there was Sept. 11, as wrenching an experience as anything America’s ever been through; the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, just as things were beginning to look up, the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose ill effects linger with us still. That’s a lot for any nation to go through in such a short period of time.

But kudos to our young Millennials, for instead of retreating into an isolationist, “close-minded elitism” (in Ned’s words), our new wine drinkers are the fairest and most internationalist-minded in history. Perhaps my view is prejudiced from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never before can there have been this enthusiastic embrace of all things alcoholic: wines from every nation on earth, a myriad of beers, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails!

Ned writes that “the wine scene [in Japan] is essentially moribund,” which also is part of the Galapagos effect: evolution seems to have ground to a halt. How different are things here in America, where “the wine scene” is evolving so quickly, no one quite knows how to get their arms around it! That makes it infinitely more difficult for wineries to market themselves, but it also makes our “wine scene” that much more vibrant and exciting.

Maybe the reason why is because America is a far younger country than Japan. We’ve always been open to new experiences; trying new things is in our national DNA. We may go through periodic bouts of isolationism and chauvinism, but by and large Americans embrace change. For older wineries, that means more or less a constant reinvention of themselves. This is a challenge , to be sure, but also an opportunity, for who wants to rest on their laurels?


Random chance as an influence in brand building

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Why did The Beatles become the biggest band in the world? How come Mona Lisa is seen as the most famous painting of all time? A new study out of Princeton suggests that “artworks gain popularity based on social influence, and chance,” and not necessarily due to inherent artistic merit. In fact, there’s an element of pure randomness. The Princeton scientists created nine parallel “digital worlds”, each populated by real teenagers who were given 48 rock and roll songs they were asked to rank according to personal preference.

“Different songs became hits in different worlds,” said one of the scientists. “For example, in one world, Lock Down by the band 52 Metro, came in first and in another world, it came in 40th.” Put another way, in one world Mona Lisa becomes an iconic work of art; in another, it’s just another minor painting. The conclusion: “Popularity begets popularity.” One person likes something, and turns someone else onto it; two become four, and so on. And “social influence” is key in driving popularity. Gatekeepers and tastemakers mandate what’s worthwhile and what’s not; a groundswell becomes a “fad,” and “as fads form, they make stars into mega stars.” Thus a Madonna, Springsteen or Michael Jackson. Thus, too, a Screaming Eagle.

The randomness of what propels one wine to superstardom while another, equally good one never makes it is illustrated by something Heidi Peterson Barrett once told me, when I interviewed her for my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I asked her how Screaming Eagle had become so famous, so fast, when she was its winemaker. “There’s what I think of as the magic factor,” she explained. “You can’t quantify it exactly, but it happened with Screaming Eagle. It was something that none of us could have predicted. I loved that wine out of the shoot, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is just delicious stuff,’ but I had no idea what was going to happen to it. It wasn’t so much a wine writer’s wine, even though it did get 100 points [in 1992, from Parker]. It had already gone out, sort of word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ They were all excited. It just spread like wildfire. And by the time that review came out, it had already spread.”

Many winery proprietors have since tried to replicate Screaming Eagle’s success, but no one has done it. (Harlan Estate is equally esteemed, but it predates Screaming Eagle.) These wannabe wineries develop splendid vineyards or buy grapes from top sources, hire the best consulting winemakers around, and build palaces where the wine is produced–only to find that they have just another expensive Cabernet in a world over-populated by them. They discover that you can’t catch that “wildfire undercurrent” in a jar. It either happens–or it doesn’t.

Does this mean it’s useless or pointless to try to capture “the magic factor”? Not at all. It’s what keeps marketers and P.R. people busy. It is, in fact, the fuel that propels the wine industry forward. A world where so much happens so randomly is one in which anyone can make it. From out of the blue, lightning can strike. It may never happen–but it’s the light in the eye, the flutter in the heart, the dream in the mind of every winemaker.

My own career has benefited from this randomness. I was in the right place, at the right time, in the late 1980s, when no one particularly wanted to be a wine writer. Everyone wanted to be an MBA and make a ton of money on Wall Street! But I wanted to be a wine writer, and the fact that I became one was due as much to chance as to my efforts and abilities. So I’ve always been fascinated by questions of marketing and P.R. in wine: Why some wineries and wines become huge hits while others don’t? Can a brand that’s been lagging be reinvented? Can a new one be instantly interesting? I think the answer is yes. It’s what I’m going to base this next phase of my career to understanding.

P.S. To the hundreds of people who have contacted me through Facebook, email, phone, Twitter, my blog and in person, offering support and love, thank you thank you. You have no idea what it means to me.


Winery P.R. and social media: Make the product cool, and make stars of the everyday people who drink it

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The great advertising genius David Ogilvy, who founded one of Madison Avenue’s most successful firms and served as the inspiration for generations of Mad Men, in his 1963 memoir “Confessions of an Advertising Man” quoted his own father. “[He] used to say of a product that it was ‘very well spoken of in the advertisements.’”

Ogilvy’s father lived in an era when being “well spoken of in the advertisements” was convincing enough for a gentleman to buy the product. Ogilvy understood, partly through his readings in mass psychology, that it was important that the person speaking in the advertisements be credible. He was a stickler for the authoritative figure: in “Confessions” he cites Escoffier as “the definitive authority” in cooking; he recalls his own stint as an assistant chef under Monsieur Pitard, “the arch symbol of authority”; one of Ogilvy’s first clients, when he set up his advertising firm, was “an eminent authority on rare books”; in advising how to sell proprietary medicines, he notes that “A good patent-medicine advertisement conveys a feeling of authority”; and, finally summing up what it takes to be a successful ad man, suggests practitioners “become the acknowledged authority” on subjects ranging from ad budgets and media planning to getting scholarly articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An ad man who can do that “will be able to write your own ticket.”

David Ogilvy died in 1999, at the age of 88. His career spanned a period when authoritative advertising really could push products because consumers trusted the information in the ads. Ogilvy specialized in inventing “personalities.” Oldtimers will remember Colonel Whitehead, the cool white-bearded guy who told us of the benefits of Schwepps tonic water, and “the man in the Hathaway shirt,” with his eye patch (who was the spiritual father of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the Dos Equis guy). Believe it or not, there really was a time when advertising seemed to express the honest, objective truth, and people were credulous enough to believe it.

Today’s P.R. and advertising specialists constantly refer to “the story” as the backbone of capturing the consumer’s attention. Although the term “the story” wasn’t really part of Ogilvy’s lexicon, it’s clear that his character-driven narratives anticipated it. He refers to another advertising man’s use of the term “story appeal” in photographs: “the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements.” (One of my favorite Ogilvy images, and one of his most famous, is this ad for Rolls Royce.

ogilvy-rolls-royce-ad

 

It’s almost impossible for the eye and the mind not to dwell on it. Who is that woman driver? Are those her kids? Where are they coming from–private school? What are they carrying? This is “story appeal” to the max, amplified by the photo’s caption, which captures the imagination.)

Hence, the modern goal of P.R. to “tell the story” is hardly new. Mucha did it in 1897 with this poster advertising Nestle’s:

Mucha

a self-confident, classically beautiful maman mixing up the cocoa for her healthy, happy baby. When P.R. professionals take their first meeting with a new client, they prod for the story–and if they’re good at their jobs, they never stop refining and, if necessary, re-defining it.

But today we have the game changer called the Internet, and specifically social media, a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Businesses no longer need P.R. people to take them public; they can go public all by themselves, with more exposure than even David Ogilvy ever dreamed of on his most creative, three-martini day. However, as we know all too well, some companies, and particularly small wineries not well versed in social media, don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities, thus leaving room for P.R. consultants for ply their trade, especially if they’re adept at social media. One successful example of a neat fusion of telling a story through the use of social media concerns Vans, the popular shoeware company (I own several pairs and love them). Vans has a new, online documentary series in which four filmmakers were asked to find interesting young people who embody the spirit of the brand and tell their story. For instance, here’s a short YouTube of an East L.A. guy named Anthony. He’s pretty cool: it’s interesting to get into his life, and he just happens to be wearing Vans, which gets a transfusion of Anthony’s cool via the miracle of emotional transference. We know for a fact that video is the future of social media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interesting video is worth its weight in gold.

The American public today is less susceptible to believing something just because it’s “very well spoken of in the advertisements.” I mean, we passed that milestone long ago. Nowadays people are more likely to skip through the commercials on T.V, and slip past the ads in newspapers and magazines. They do, however, respond to interesting and clever videos. The Vans YouTubes are wonderful to watch, and even though they don’t say a word about Vans, the shoes are part of the show. I’m not saying that traditional P.R. is dead or has no place, but the skill set for successful P.R. has changed. It now involves–not just the ability to make a good video–but proper insight, even more important, into the content of the video. Consumers will not respond if they’re hit over the head with product ads–at least, they won’t with wine. (I never fail to be amazed by the brutality and noise level of car commercials. I hate them, but maybe they work, or else the industry would have abandoned them long ago. But you can’t sell wine that way.)

So how is “Anthony,” the East L.A. guy, an “authority”? The fact of the matter is, for a younger generation the definition of “authority” has changed. It’s no longer some stentorian font of wisdom who knows more than you do, telling you what’s up. It’s someone just like you. Anthony is an authority on being a cool young kid who’s having fun who just happens to be into Vans. That’s way different from some talking head on a T.V. commercial blathering away about the quality of Vans soles or the durability of their laces. People don’t need that anymore, at least in everyday footware. Nor do they need it in wine. They want to see and hear from people they can relate to. That’s the lesson for wineries, for P.R. pros and for marketing execs in general to take home.


Some good ways for a winery to communicate with the public–and one way not to

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As a wine writer, I’m often the recipient of information from wineries, or from the P.R. professionals they hire to represent them. So I’ve come to have some knowledge and understanding of the various ways that wineries reach out to people like me (and to the general public, as well).

Some of these ways work better than others, it seems to me. The primary method of reaching out is the press release. This traditionally has been in hard copy, sent through the mail, but it can also be in digital form. I find most press releases pretty boring, but I do read them, so in that sense, the press release is an effective vehicle for getting noticed.

What do I look for in a press release? Well, it has to be a lot more than manufactured excitement. I (and all journalists, I would think), want news–real news–something to capture my attention. Just an ordinary “after __ made his millions, he relocated to Napa Valley” doesn’t push my buttons.

Another way that wineries reach out to the public is through events. These can be hosted by the winery, or the winery can participate in a larger event put on by some other organization. These can be effective vehicles, too. They’re certainly more interesting than reading a press release. You get to taste wine, and sometimes you get to eat some food. The downside, of course, is that you have to travel to wherever the event is, which isn’t always feasible. I get a lot of invitations to go to tastings in places like Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but that involves hours of driving through the Bay Area’s notorious traffic. Nor am I typically going to accept a dinner invitation in wine country. No drinking and driving for this critic. I’m more likely to go to an event in San Francisco because I can take BART (the local subway system).

A third way that wineries reach out to the public is through their websites. I think every winery should have a good-looking, comprehensive, easy-to-use website. Many do, but my chief criticism is that they’re not kept up-to-date. Very often, the winery will send me a bottle of a new release, without any accompanying information regarding where the grapes are from, how the wine was made, and so on. If I want to learn more about the wine, I’ll go online, starting with the website–but, more often than not, there’s nothing there at all! Which is frustrating. It’s to the winery’s advantage to give us writers all the information we need, because that might help to “fatten” up the review, in terms of its length. (Of course, the score itself is unaffected.)  I could always call someone at the winery and ask my questions, but that’s a lot more complicated. You can’t always get the person you need; you end up playing phone tag, so there’s a limit to the amount of time I can spend in order to find out, say, the precise blend on that Cabernet Sauvignon, or where in St. Helena the vineyard is.

I’ve been talking about various ways that wineries reach out, but there also are wineries that don’t reach out, which I think is a mistake. Just late yesterday, I got a call from a pleasant young person (I won’t say who), who was the P.R. representative of a well-known Napa Valley Cabernet house that you could call “cult.” (I won’t identify it either.) The P.R. rep–I’ll give him/her the name “Pat”–wanted to know how the winery could get a major writeup in such publications as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Well, it was a little off-putting to be asked that, but “Pat” sounded like a nice person, and I wanted to help. I told “Pat” she/he should call up Lettie Teague or Eric Asimov and ask them directly, because both are friendly, accessible people. But I also told “Pat” something else.

“Your winery never sends out samples. They don’t invite anyone up there. They’ve never reached out to me. The owner has to realize that a major news organization isn’t going to give him free publicity just because he wants it. This industry is about relationships.” “Pat” admitted that he/she understood this, but that ownership felt very strongly that they don’t want to play the game of communicating with the media. Instead, the owner wants to preserve the appearance of being above it all, in an ivory tower–exclusive, you might say.

I explained that there’s nothing exclusive about hiding behind your winery walls. A hundred other Napa “cult” wineries play the same game. They think that, by making themselves impossible to get, it enhances their desirability. Well, that may have been true once upon a time–but those days are ending. These days, the public wants transparency, openness, two-way communication, not a regal winery owner shut up in his castle. “Pat” understood, but said that was ownership’s policy. I replied, “It’s not working too well, is it?” “Pat” conceded that sales weren’t quite as brisk as the owner wants, which is why the winery wants more media coverage. “That’s what I mean,” I said. “The current policy of splendid isolation isn’t working.”

I wished “Pat” good luck getting that New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal article, and maybe it will all work out. But I don’t think so. This matter of reaching out and communicating–to critics like me, to the general media, to the public–is a sine qua non for success in this new era, and any “cult” winery that thinks it doesn’t have to play nice in the sandbox is fooling itself.


Happy New Year! Reflections on 2013

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As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.

I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.

Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.

The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.

Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.

Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.

I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.


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