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Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant: an East Bay treasure

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When I moved to the East Bay, in 1987, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant was the first wine shop I wanted to check out.

Kermit—the man—had started the shop back in 1972. My trip there brought me driving down crowded, trafficky San Pablo Avenue, to an industrial part of Berkeley filled with auto body shops and Chinese restaurants. There, tucked along the side of a parking lot, with the Acme Bread Company kitty-corner next door, was a non-descript storefront leading to a not very sizable shop, where stacks of the most interesting wines I’d ever seen were piled up everywhere. And the floor staff did not make me feel like I didn’t belong, despite my jeans and T-shirt, the way they did at Draper & Esquin, the notoriously snooty wine store in San Francisco’s Financial District.

I shopped a lot at KLWM in the late 1980s and 1990s, buying the wines Kermit imported from Europe, especially those from France: Minervois, Fitou, Alsace, Chablis, Bandol, Chateauneauf and the occasional inexpensive red Burgundy. I went, also, to Kermit’s annual Beaujolais Nouveau party, which took place in the parking lot (rain or shine), with tons of aromatic purple wine, grilled sausages and delicious bread from Acme. And, of course, I eagerly read Kermit’s monthly newsletter, among the liveliest in California. But by the mid-1990s my career as a wine writer with a specialty in California took off, with the predictable result that I lost touch with the wines from anywhere except the Golden State. (When you’re reviewing 5,000 wines a year, it’s hard to drink much else!) It was a sad tradeoff. So I found myself shopping at Kermit Lynch less and less. I’d tell myself every month, “I really must go back to Kermit,” because their mixed-case sampler deals were so great. But it just never seemed to happen.

Then, a few weeks ago, I got an evite from Kermit Lynch’s marketing director, Clark Terry, inviting me to a Champagne tasting. It was at Jardiniere, the great restaurant over in Hayes Valley, in the shadow of City Hall. I asked Maxine to accompany me, and we went last Monday. What a treat. Not too crowded (as many of these walkaround tastings tend to be), with the wines properly organized, and piles of charcuterie and paté—the perfect pairings for bubbly.

I didn’t take official notes, but I will say that, in every flight, it turned out that my favorite wine was always the most expensive! That’s always been my problem: Champagne taste, Prosecco budget. For example, in the J. Lassalle Champagnes, the 2006 Blanc de Blancs blew me away. It was picking up bottle bouquet, toasty and clean; at $656 the case wholesale, a single bottle at retail, by my calculations, would run you a cool $110—not bad, actually, for what you get.

They had some still wines too, and in the white Burgundies, as I made my way from Kermit’s entry-level Dom. Costal Chablis ($240) through the seven wines, the final one—Bruno Colin 2015 Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Vergers”—was thrilling beyond my words to describe it, so rich and massive it awed me, although it needed some time. But once again, it was a very pricy wine: $1,008 the case wholesale. And exactly the same thing happened with the red Burgundies: they were all fine, from a rather ascetic Marsannay to a plumper Aloxe-Corton, but the star was a 2014 Nuits-Saint-Georges “Les Cailles,” from Robert Chevillon, that was so wonderful, I brought Maxine a glass, and we sipped together over fatty little chunks of paté with pistachios.

I was grateful to Clark for the invitation, all the more so because he’s well aware that I’m retired and really have no platform to write about those wines, except for this blog. The tasting brought back many happy memories of more youthful days, when I was a budding wine writer and getting a dozen or more tasting invitations a week. The new German Rieslings at Fort Mason – old Bordeaux at the London Wine Bar – Napa Cabernets at some now defunct downtown restaurant – Peter Granoff’s historic tastings at Square One – the Union des Grands Crus at the Palace Hotel – the fabulous tastings of Les Amis du Vin — or just the tasting bar at the old Liquor Barn, down on Bayshore, where I befriended the bar manager, who would open bottles at my request: Yquem, Lafite, Petrus. (I don’t think that would happen these days!) But somehow, at the back of my mind, always lurked Kermit Lynch. Just knowing it was there made me happy.

So, armed with these memories, I make a vow: One of these days, soon, I’ll make my way back to Kermit Lynch, to resume a practice I loved, but abandoned, twenty-five years ago: buying well-priced, carefully-curated French wine.


A conversation with Gavin Newsom, part 1

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Gavin Newsom is Lieutenant-Governor of California. Prior to that, he was Mayor of San Francisco. He co-owns wineries, and his PlumpJack Hospitality Group operates night clubs, wine stores, resorts and restaurants throughout California. As Mayor, Newsom shot to fame—some would say notoriety—by backing the issue of gay marriage; that will probably be the most salient part of his political legacy, which seems likely to include being elected Governor of California next year. He leads all his rivals, both Republican and Democratic, at this time in fund-raising and in the polls. Which leads to the inevitable question: Does he have his eye on the White House? When and if he is elected Governor, he will immediately become “Presidential timber,” as they say—a young, handsome, articulate visionary from the nation’s biggest state. We spoke yesterday (Jan. 5) in his office in San Francisco.

Full disclosure: I met Governor Newsom (the correct salutation for a Lieutenant-Governor) 26 years ago, when he was becoming involved in the wine industry and starting his first PlumpJack wine store. I liked him then; I like him now. Although I had a list of political questions, I began our conversation by asking him about the news, breaking that morning, of John McCain’s extraordinary hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the Russian hacking situation.

SH: Let’s start with the McCain hearing today. We have this seeming split in the Republican Party between the establishment and the intelligence community, on the one hand, and Trump. What’s going on?

GN: It’s par for the course, exactly what one would expect; if the President-elect doesn’t like the conclusion, he tries to change, not only the conclusion, but the process that actually determined the facts. And he clearly is not interested in the evidence; he hasn’t even had the comprehensive briefing yet, because it’s not convenient for him, and undermines his, quote-unquote, “success and credibility” as President-elect.

SH: Did you see the Wall Street Journal this morning?

GN: No.

SH: Banner headline: Trump Plans Spy Agency Overhaul—he intends to “pare back the nation’s top spy agency” [Office of Director of National Intelligence]. This is full-scale war.

GN: It is extraordinary. There are a couple thoughts. Don’t forget, it was not that many years ago when the Democratic Party was almost unanimous in their condemnation of and contempt for the intelligence community, so we have to be cautious not to over-indulge in a critique of the President-elect because now he might now share a similar point of view. That said, when you have seventeen intelligence agencies all on the same page, that is quite unique, and that is—

SH: –and today, McCain specifically asked [the intelligence chiefs] “Are you more confident today than you were five, ten, fifteen days ago [that Russia was responsible for the hacks],” and every one said yes.

GN: Now, don’t get me wrong, on the history of intelligence in this country, we have been wrong on many, many occasions—

SH: –WMD—

GN: –even with that degree of confidence. But, look, it seems compelling. I haven’t been privy to the intelligence briefings—none of us have—nor has Obama today and the President-elect as of tomorrow, so we’re taking the word of folks that are right more often, it seems, than are wrong. But that said, it’s interesting to watch this and try to be objective. But it is rather remarkable, in such a public way, the President-elect is critiquing the intelligence community, and that is demoralizing to any organization.

SH: [James] Clapper (DNI chief] said this morning at the hearing, “It’s one thing to be skeptical about the intelligence community. It’s another thing to disparage it.”

GN: Disparage, overtly undermine, and reduce public trust in intelligence gathering. And by the way, it creates vulnerability for American intelligence, because those are things that are easily exploited by foreign governments. These are things we would exploit if intelligence was being questioned in other countries.

SH: I’m sure we have.

GN: And we are experts in all of these things, including undermining foreign elections.

SH: One of the Republican Senators on the committee who was trying to defend Trump said he’d read that the U.S. has interfered in something like 89 foreign elections.

GN: Eighty-nine, yeah. We all read that same article or analysis.

SH: But that doesn’t excuse Russia—

GN: No, just because we did it doesn’t make it right. Of course, we’re sovereign, we have the right to protect ourselves and criticize others who would undermine this republic.

SH: Okay, well, let’s get into politics!

MONDAY: Part 2: The election, Trump, the Democratic Party’s future, how to win back disaffected voters, and California’s resistance to Trumpism.


Benziger Family Winery: five new reviews

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I’ve followed Benziger’s fortunes for decades, and one thing I can say, they’re always striving to boost quality. The Benziger family began with the hugely successful Glen Ellen Winery, which pioneered “fighting varietals,” before launching their boutique Benziger brand, which they sold to The Wine Group in 2015. These five wines are the first I’ve tasted since the sale—although all five of them were made prior to it. We’ll have to see if the winery continues on a quality trajectory under the new ownership. The Cabernets are from the estate vineyard, in Glen Ellen, the heart of Sonoma Valley, on slopes of Sonoma Mountain. The Pinot Noirs hail from the estate de Coelo Vineyard, way out on the coast between Freestone and Bodega Bay. I first visited it years ago when it was being developed. My sneakers sank inches into the deep, seabed-derived Goldridge soil, as fine as moon dust. One of the best soils for Pinot Noir in the world, Goldridge drains readily, and lends the wine an expressive elegance.

Here are the wines, in the order I tasted them.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Terra Neuma” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 14.0%, 230 cases produced. This is from a higher-elevation block of de Coelo. The color is pale and translucent, hinting at delicacy. As in previous vintages, the alcohol is lowish, giving the wine a light, silky mouthfeel. Dusty tannins give it plenty of grip. The fruit suggests persimmons, with tarter cranberries, highlighted by mouthwatering acidity. There are more exotic notes of green tea, white pepper, Chinese 5 spice, and wild mushroom. The finish is severely dry, which is a compliment. Yet, toasted oak barrel aging lends it a vanilla sweetness. Complex and elegant, and so easy to love, this beauty will age for at least eight years. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Quintus” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 625 cases produced. The family resemblance with the other wines from de Coelo is marked in this block-derived wine, which is lower in alcohol than Terra Neuma. It’s slightly tarter and more delicate, but the same persimmon, raspberry, cranberry, tea, orange peel, mushroom and white pepper notes carry through, as do the silky tannins and magnificent acidity. This is exactly what we look for in Goldridge-derived Pinots: enormous complexity, delicacy undergirded with power, extreme drinkability. If there is ever going to be a Freestone appellation—and there ought to be—this wine could stand as its exemplar. I cannot imagine a better companion for lamb or steak. Score: 94 points.

Benziger 2014 de Coelo “Arbore Sacra” Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast): $75. Alc. 13.5%, 641 cases produced. Another block bottling from the estate vineyard. Aromatically it’s a little shier than the other two, showing more mineral and earth notes, like tree bark, brittle, dried leaves, cloves and dust. But the fruit is there: raspberry tea, pomegranate, orange peel, tart cranberry. There’s also a crispness that lends vitality to the mouthfeel, but the tannins are as light as air: they give a hint of astringency. The mouthfeel is as silky and delicate as an old tapestry, yet the depth is very great, with complex impressions extending out through a long, spicy finish. Of the three wines, I’d have to say this is my favorite. It is ultra-refined and elegant, a wine that would have been unthinkable in California not that long ago. Score: 95 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Obsidian Point Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $65. Alc. 14.4%, 486 cases produced. This is a very proper Cabernet, by which I mean it is classic, balanced and delicious. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of and think, Wow, is this going to be easy to like. Bone dry, with thick but fragile tannins and just-in-time acidity, it’s rich in black currants, anise, unsweetened cocoa powder, sweet toasted oak and just a hint of herbaceousness: sweet green olive especially. The grapes are from Benziger’s estate vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma Valley on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and were biodynamically-grown. I have not been an ardent supporter of biodynamique, but there is a purity to this wine that is notable. Interestingly, the wine is already throwing some tannins. Drink now-2020. Score: 93 points.

Benziger 2013 “Signaterra” Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley): $59. Alc. 14.5%, 562 cases produced. The wine is just a little bit less concentrated than Obsidian Point, but it’s also six bucks less. It’s quite lovely, with classic black currant, cassis, cocoa and green olive flavors, enriched by 20 months of aging in French oak. It has an inherent elegance due mainly to the splendid acid-tannin structure. It’s not clear to me that it would be worth aging this wine for any length of time, but it is an enjoyable, complex sipper. Score: 90 points.

*****************************************************************************************************

OAKLAND FIRE VICTIMS

“WE REMEMBER”

oakland


Thanksgiving’s over. Trump isn’t…yet

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Happy Nov. 28! What’s your favorite part of the Thanksgiving holiday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, or Black Friday? They’re all such fun days to spend money. I’d be hard-pressed to pick just one, but I’d have to say that, for me, personally, it’s Black Friday! The crowds, the traffic, the lines–it’s all so cheery, and gets me right in the mood for Christmas. We went down to the mall, spent 45 minutes circling the parking lot to find a parking space, and then my cousin Orwell got into a big fight with some schmuck who beat him to the one spot  left, and who, as it turned out, was a Trump supporter! We knew that because the guy was wearing a “Make America Great Again” T-shirt. Things got ugly, what with the name-calling, but what do you expect from a Trump supporter? Bad manners, is what.

And by the way, how come there’s not a special shopping day for Sunday? It could be Yard Sale Sunday. A lot of people have yard sales on that day, especially here in California, where the weather’s usually nice, and everybody has some old treadmill or pepper grinder they’d like to make a few bucks on.

Anyhow, when we finally got to our family’s big Thanksgiving dinner, needless to say the conversation turned to the recent election. My family, kina hora, are all liberal humanists, so there wasn’t much argumentation. Everybody was and remains appalled and disgusted. We here on the far left coast of the bluest state in the union wonder what could those red state voters have been thinking? We expect they’ll have buyer’s remorse sooner or later; the question is when, and what will the new President do to cause his supporters to realize what a catastrophic mistake they made. Of course, his choices are manifold: his campaign was based on so many lies that almost anything could cause him to slip up, but in my family’s opinion, the number one thing that’s likely to bring him down is his business practices, which always have been shady and unscrupulous and seem even more so now that he refuses to place them into a blind trust. Over the weekend it turned out that Trump owns a chunk of the Dakota Access pipeline, up there in North Dakota. No wonder he’s so in favor of fracking and drilling: he stands to make money! Can you imagine if Obama had such a big conflict of interest? McConnell and Ryan would be introducing motions of impeachment. They’re curiously silent in Trump’s case, though. Well, my take is that a lot of Republicans would like to see Trump fail, but right now they have to button up their lips because they don’t want to piss him off, lest he prove to be an authoritarian, vengeful autocrat. Some of my family hope Trump will be impeached, but then someone reminded us to be careful of what we wish for, because if Trump goes down (which would be great fun to watch), we’ll have—ta da!—President Pence, who is a creationist homophobe and possibly worse even than Trump.

(I just want to add that never in my lifetime did I expect to see creationists running the government. That’s how far America has fallen. Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave.)

Anyhow, at some point we all got tired of this constant yammering about politics and got into the real heart of the issue: Food and drink! But my family agreed on one thing, and bless them for that: Remain involved! Don’t be discouraged! Fight this hideous new administration and all it stands for! Even the most conservative of my cousins vowed to take it to the streets if need be. We also spoke, as befits Thanksgiving, of our family members who are no longer with us, and I remembered my mother, who died eleven years ago, at the age of ninety. She was a huge Democrat—volunteered for her local Democratic county headquarters almost to the end. She would have been so thrilled that Hillary Clinton was running and would have been so proud to vote for her. Hillary’s loss would have devastated her, but my mother would have redoubled her efforts to get a Democrat elected next time. Here’s one of the last photos I ever took of her—she’s wearing her little Kerry-Edwards button.

gertrudeGertrude Heimoff, 1915-2005


(1) New Pinot Noirs, old friends in San Francisco (2) On Fighting Drumpf

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Part 1

A Pinot Noir tasting in San Francisco

You can take the boy out of the wine business but you can’t take the love of the business out of the boy.

Or something like that. Anyway, although I formally retired from my career on Sept. 2, I still have “wine in my blood,” so when the invitation came to go to PinotFest, the big annual Pinot Noir tasting held at Farallon, near San Francisco’s Union Square, I doffed my cap and BARTed in on an absolutely splendid Autumn day, and had some excellent Pinots. But I wasn’t there to review, only to sip, see what’s up, and connect with old friends.

Honestly, when you’ve been in the biz as long as I have, you somehow manage to accumulate a lot of friends. Here are a few. John Winthrop Haeger is of course the famous author of North American Pinot Noir, published by my publisher, University of California Press.

haegerJohn Haeger

It’s always a pleasure to run into John, whose opening lecture at the World of Pinot Noir I always used to look eagerly forward to.

The first thing Diana Novy said to me when I saw her was, “I bet you’re surprised to see me here,” by which she meant that her husband, Adam Lee, who usually does the Siduri pouring at events, had been delayed, so Diana was substituting.

novyDiana Novy

I missed seeing Adam, but Diana more than made up for him not being there. I profiled them in my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, and Siduri is owned by my former employer, Jackson Family Wines, so I got to work closely with Adam.

bonaccorsiJenne Bonaccorsi

Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi took over Bonaccorsi winery after the unexpected, tragic death of her husband, Michael, in 2007. Jenne makes ardent wines of great delicacy and inner power, just like her. She is one of the gentlewomen of California winemaking.

Jon Priest is at the helm of Etude, the great Pinot Noir house in the Carneros.

 

priestJon Priest

I can’t even remember how long ago I met him—I think Tony Soter was still running the winery. I told Jon I’d recently opened his 2005 and 2006 “Heirloom” Pinot Noirs, and both were showing well.

Then there’s Josh Jensen.

joshJosh Jensen

My profile of him and his winery, Calera, was among the first I ever wrote as a professional. I well remember when Wine Spectator sent me down to Mount Harlan, around 1993; what a thrill that was for an up-and-coming wine writer! Josh remains a gentleman and a scholar, and can always be counted on to be wearing something colorful. He’s very tall and, as you know, I’m not, so I asked him to crouch down a little bit, so the picture wouldn’t look like an avocado next to a broom.

Jonathan Nagy was another colleague of mine at Jackson Family Wines.

nagyJonathan Nagy

He presides over Byron Winery, down in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. When I left J.F.W. I knew Jonathan had embarked on an exciting new project: making single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from purchased grapes grown at some of Santa Barbara’s top vineyards. The wines are now in bottle. We tasted through some of them, and man, Jonathan is at the top of his game. But you know what my favorite was? None other than the Julia’s Vineyard, whose grapes Jonathan shares with sister winery Cambria.

It’s still fun for me to go to these events and taste the wines–if, that is, I’m lucky enough to be invited. If you see me at one, come on up, and say Howdy!

Part 2

Why I Fight Drumpf

Do not hesitate. Fight in this battle and you will conquer your enemies. Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself.”

— Krishna to Arjuna, The Mahabharata

Maybe it was because I was brought up on the mean, hardscrabble streets of the South Bronx, where a skinny little kid had to learn how to fight to survive.

Maybe it was because of my many years of karatedo training, in which we were taught never to initiate a fight, but to resist violently if someone else started.

Maybe it’s the latent Jew in me. We weren’t raised with “Turn the other cheek.” For us, it was “an eye for an eye.”

Whatever the reasons, my inclination is to fight, fight, fight against this monster, this dybbuk, this aberration of a normal man, this drumpf.

In my twenties came a period during which I was a hippie, steeped in that Sixties thing of “love and peace.” I believed it. I studied it and tried to practice it. Loving your enemy seemed the right thing to do. Hadn’t Jesus? Hadn’t Buddha? Isn’t that what the Beatles preached?

But the Sixties was fifty years ago. A lot of water under the bridge.

Among people I know—good liberal-humanists—there is currently a debate going on, in the aftermath of the Nov. 8 results. Option #1: accept this unacceptable President, accept his hateful minions and the awful legislation they will craft, and give him a chance. Option #2: oppose him and his dreadful movement every step of the way. This debate is tearing people apart. They really are not sure which way to go. After all, we criticized Mitch McConnell’s statement of utter opposition to Obama—before the latter was even sworn in—as deplorable. It angered us. “How could you be so against him when you don’t even know what he’s going to propose?” And we were right to take that attitude.

Now, the republicans are turning that argument around and asking us, “How can you oppose trump before he’s even taken the oath of office?”

Well, let me explain the difference. The promises Obama made—to unite the country bipartisanly, to end wars, to get along with foreign countries, to rescue the financial system which was dying due to the Bush Great Recession, to respect the environment and be kinder to gay people, to understand the needs of the poor and of immigrants, to respect science, to be a gentleman, to have a clean administration based on high principles—these spoke to the heart and soul of liberal-humanists. When McConnell issued his belligerent threat, we thought, “How could he be against all that?”

Drumpf on the other hand made other promises. Every one of them was based on hatred of “the other,” except for his promise to “Make America Great,” as banal a platitude as ever issued in any soap commercial. Now that we’ve had a sniff of his appointments, there’s every reason to assume the worst: this awful person will divide the country and is a threat to the things we hold dear. He is a last gasp of male, heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, lower-middle-class, under-educated, bigoted, resentful white supremacy, the latest incarnation of the Know-Nothings, the McCarthyites, the America Firsters and Father Coughlins and Dixiecrats, all of whose sociopathic unreason did such harm to America (and all of whom have been roundly condemned by History). Therefore, to oppose this drumpf is to stand for the best American values of inclusion, fairness, equality, progress and love.

Yes, love. Not some kind of hippie love. This is not the time to move to the woods and meditate and pray to the Spirit Guide, or Mother Earth, or whatever you wish to call it. Sure, if you want to sit zazen and go Ommm, feel free. It can’t hurt.

But the spirits will not protect you when the shit hits the fan and the government comes under the control of the radical theocrats and paranoid militias that form drumpf’s shock troops. When he reverses Obama’s great work, it will take more than a groovy feeling to keep this nation from sliding into darkness. It will take active resistance.

I was never a protester in the Sixties. I went to one anti-Vietnam march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in New York, but it wasn’t so much because I was anti-war (although I was, in an inarticulate kind of way), but because my friends wanted to go, and I thought it would be fun. So I’m not really a born street demonstrator.

But the times have changed. This catastrophe, drumpf, is looming over America like a toxic cloud. I’m afraid of him, and I’m more afraid of the evil forces he has unleashed: the anti-semites, the KKK, the Muslim haters, the Mexican haters, the anti-government open-carry crazies, the homophobes, the anti-science types like Pence and Huckabee and Franklin Graham, the crypto-nazis like Steve Bannon, the bullies like Giuliani and Christie. These are the termites that have been allowed to burrow into America’s foundation, and, left unchecked, they will cause dry rot leading to collapse.

So when I suggest that this old guy—me—is a fighter, it’s because that’s what I believe in: fighting for what is good, and against what is bad. I always looked forward to a peaceful retirement, but this is no time for complacency. The future of our country, and the world, is at stake. Look, drumpf ran the dirtiest, sleaziest, most mendacious and vulgar campaign in modern American history; it was an insult to my parents and grandparents, who believed that voting was a sacred duty…an insult to all people of intelligence, to our nation, its history and political legacy. This creature of television and greed does not deserve the title deeds to our proud, progressive country. I urge you not to accept a drumpf presidency. They—the tea party, the white nationalists, the right wing theocrats—do not want to get along with us; they have repeatedly proved that with their deeds. They want their own exclusionary society. If you think you can go along to get along, you are in the same boat as the “good Germans” who allowed Hitler to triumph. And look what happened.

 

 

 


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