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A conversation with the Burghound, Allen Meadows

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Allen Meadows is the author of Burghound, one of the premier Pinot Noir review publications in the English language. I’ve known Allen, not well but cordially, for some years. Now 57 years old, Allen was at last weekend’s World of Pinot Noir, where he kindly consented to let me interview him. The conversation was entirely spontaneous; I had no prepared questions in advance. And like my Antonio Galloni Q&A of last week, this one’s virtually unedited; what you read is what we said. This is Part 1. The final part will appear tomorrow.

SH: Where do you live?

AM: Tarzana [California] for less than half the year, Burgundy for less than half the year, and another two months, you pick a place.

As long as they grow Pinot Noir?

Exactly.

And what is the Burghound? What do you do?

Well, Burghound was a vision I came up with in the middle ’90s and finally had the nerve to realize in the Fall of 2000, to take the wine publishing approach of doing the world and stand that model on its head and do one thing, which was Burgundy, but do it in real depth. I emailed 20 of my friends who were into Burgundy and said, “Do you think that a review that is devoted to one thing only could work,” and it was zip for twenty. Nobody thought it would be a good idea. But, like some good ideas that don’t seem to make any sense at the time, it worked in spite of itself, and so, 12 years later, we’re still here.

And what is the publication?

It’s a newsletter.

How often do you publish?

It’s quarterly.

What does it cost per year to subscribe?

It is about to be moved up to $145 a year from $125, which is the first increase we’ve had in six years.

And what do I get every issue?

You get a series of reports that, by the way, have no advertising and no photos, so it’s quite dry, by intent. What you get is in-depth reviews of Burgundy, Pinot Noir and, from time to time, Champagne. And the coherence between those three is, it’s all the same grapes. The other thing that comes with it is a searchable database with, at this point, almost 60,000 Burgundies and Pinots in it, that is searchable all the way back to 1845.

What is the typical word length of a single review?

Probably 30-50 words, depending.

And how many reviews per issue?

I would say it varies, but the average is probably 1,250 wines an issue, so the average is 150 to 200-plus pages.

So that’s about 5,000 wines a year you’re doing.

Five to six, yeah, depending.

And you use the 100-point system?

I do.

Why?

Because I think to be commercially relevant you really don’t have a choice. I could have tried to pioneer a different approach, but I think that English-speaking consumers are comfortable with the scale. You can debate whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s something I actually looked at carefully before I chose to use it. In fact, I almost thought about trying to grade wines using that scale, but within a hierarchy, because if it’s a really fantastic Bourgogne, and it gets 90 points, you could still easily have a Grand Cru that’s not really all that special, getting the same score. Yet in its class, the Bourgogne is much better. So if you use something that’s an absolute hierarchy, sometimes it doesn’t quite impart the value and just how good something at the lower end of the hierarchy is.

So name the Pinot Noir regions of the world you cover.

I cover basically Burgundy, California and Oregon. Once in a while, I’ll do an article on New Zealand, but it’s occasional, as opposed to systematic.

Why not include New Zealand full time?

Simply because I barely have time to do what I’m doing now. I’m not complaining, but I haven’t had a vacation in 8 years, so it’s just one of those things where there’s only so much time.

Well, some people would say your work is a vacation!

Well, they would, and I wouldn’t disagree. I do it because I love it, and I’m not about to complain, but it is real work.

Where do you do most of your tasting?

Put it this way: Most of Burgundy, in spite of the fact that a lot of importers send their wines to me at home, I would say that 98% of Burgundy is done in Burgundy, whereas most of the U.S. Pinot reviews as well as Champagne are done in my home office.

Do you solicit bottles, or just take what comes in?

Both. For the first 5 years, I didn’t do U.S. Pinot, and then I decided to branch out and do that, because there was a good deal of request for it from my readership, so initially I solicited. Now that people–I mean reviewers–are used to me reviewing, they typically just send the wines on a schedule of whenever they’re due to be released, but also in the last 7 years there have been a lot of new wineries that have just sent things, in one of two ways: they either write and say “May we submit and if so, how do we go about that?” and then other people just send it.

Do you review everything that comes in?

Yes, although I’m starting to wonder whether I can continue to do that, for the simple reason that there’s only so much time, and therefore, just because somebody sends something…in the past, I’ve tried to honor that. So for the moment, I taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m going to continue that policy. Sometimes, when people send things, it’s not necessarily of the highest quality.

Well, how do you know, unless you try it?

Well, you don’t, and  therein lies the trick that I will taste everything, but I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to write up everything.

Does that mean you sort of have a policy that you don’t trash wines?

That’s a very, very good question, because to this point, if a winery presents it, either on site, like in Burgundy, or sends it, it gets reviewed. So people don’t have to worry about what you just said, which is, if it’s not very good, then I won’t review it. But in this case, with stuff that I haven’t solicited, that just gets sent, I may in fact have to start a policy where I taste and then I don’t review it if it’s not very good.

Would you ever consider hiring an assistant taster? I mean, Parker branched out eventually.

A great question, and thus far, no. I think that a unique voice still has a place. I mean, I know that Steve Tanzer has done it, I know that Bob [Parker] has done it, obviously the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have various reviewers with expertise in their areas, and that makes sense. But for somebody who is specifically devoted to Pinot Noir-based wines, with obviously white Burgundy thrown in, I’m not sure that that policy makes sense. So for the time being, there are no plans.

So Burgundy, Oregon, California. Who gets the best scores?

That’s a good question too. I would say that, in my eyes, the reference standard still remains Burgundy. But when you look at the scores that some California wineries, as well as some Oregon wineries, are receiving, that difference that used to exist 7, 8 years ago is definitely narrowing. I would not say Oregon and California have caught Burgundy yet. But the difference continues to narrow.

In what respect does the difference continue to narrow?

Well, just the sheer quality. I think that, as wineries here better understand their terroirs, as the vines continue to mature, they’re getting better fruit. And it takes a long time to understand the terroir. I mean, even Burgundians will tell you that when they lease or buy a new parcel, it takes them time to understand it.

That raises an interesting question. You said that the quality of California and Oregon fruit is improving. But the style of Burgundy remains quite different from the style of California.

Yes.

Characterize briefly the three styles.

When I talk about quality, obviously “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder. I think most arguments come down to, What is beautiful? You have a vision of beauty, I have another, another person has a third, and sometimes the minds meet and sometimes they don’t.  So my point is, Burgundy should not try to emulate the New World, any more than the New World should try and emulate Burgundy. But if your definition of great wines are wines that can age and change and mature and evolve in a positive sense, enduring is one thing. But we’re talking about evolving, and become more interesting, then that is the way I view both Oregon and California improving. And so, if I were to characterize the three regions, Burgundy is Burgundy, vins de gardes, tends to be a little more austere, tends to have a little more acidity. California, due to the weather, tends to be more opulent, lush, it’s riper, tends to be more generous. Oregon has a foot in both camps. It’s not California, but it’s still riper than Burgundy.

Tomorrow, the concluding part of my conversation with Allen Meadows.


A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 3

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This is the third and final part of my conversation with Antonio. Here’s the link to part 1 and here’s the link to part 2.

SH:Let me ask this. Do you use regional organizations to assemble large tastings, like Napa Vintners? Or do you prefer to go to the individual wineries, which is more time-consuming but, as you say, you get more of the experience.

AG: So, in pretty much every region that I have, except for Burgundy, which is really domaine by domaine, there is some component of the tastings that are–let’s just take Napa Valley Vintners. The big tasting that I did in October was 12 days. Of those 12 days, Napa Valley Vintners set up 3-1/2. And the rest was estate visits.

SH: And how many wines did Napa Vintners–?

AG: I don’t remember exactly. It was several hundred.

SH: So why not do those blind, since you’re not on the property?

AG: Because I think you’d want to have all the wines tasted the same way. Otherwise, it’s not–I’d want to taste all the wines the same way.

SH: So what do you taste blind? When do you taste blind?

AG: The wines that we buy, later, on release, and other things. There’s wines coming in to my office all the time; I’m sure you know. But a typical tasting for me would be three vintages of each wine, okay?

SH: Like today.

AG: Like today. But I’m tasting wines from the barrel, too, okay? So let’s just say Phelps lines up 2008, 2009, 2010, Insignia, or their Cabernet, and Backus. If I hit a barrel sample blind that was not sulfured, or something is off, I might review that wine negatively. I mean, the review might be accurate of the wine, of what’s in the glass, but not really fair to the wine. Right? And so, when I come here, it’s usually three vintages for each one. And people don’t see. There’s a lot of this work that people don’t see. If I go to Scarecrow, or Harlan, or Colgin, or taste at Napa Valley Vintners, I always ask to taste three vintages, if possible. A lot of times they’re in barrel. And in this case, let’s just say it’s ‘08, ‘09 and ‘10, I don’t re-review the 2008s because Bob’s already reviewed those wines, and we just don’t have the space to re-review wines every year. But I have context. And then I review ‘09 and ‘10. And the questions that people ask of me and our peers are things like, these wines are pretty expensive, right? Couple hundred bucks a bottle, right? So people want to know, How does that vintage compare to other vintages? For example, how does 2009 compare to 2008, 2007, 2006?

SH: How do you know if you really were not familiar with those wines?

AG: Well, because I am familiar with those wines.

SH: 2006s?

AG: Of course.

SH: You weren’t working here then.

AG: That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tasting those wines.

SH: You were tasting California even when Parker wasn’t paying you to taste California?

AG: For myself, absolutely.

SH: How many Gallonis are there? You would need 25 Gallonis to go through all that stuff.

AG: I’ve been tasting California wine for twenty years, when I worked in restaurants. I saw the first vintages of Harlan, Alban. People don’t know that stuff, but it’s okay.

SH: How do  you keep your teeth healthy?

AG: My dentist has a lot of my money! I go often.

SH: It’s important, isn’t it?

AG: Yeah.

SH: You see a lot of older wine people and their teeth are, like–

AG: Every three months for cleaning. And if I get back from a trip and I want a quick polish or whatever, they’ll take care of it.

SH: What’s the one thing in California that’s surprised you the most since you got this job?

AG: The number of top estates where there are really young winemakers making wine. I think it’s fantastic.

SH: Thank you.

AG: So let me just say one last thing, while you have that thing on. You ask, how is this possible, how is this possible? For me, at the level I aspire to be, wine is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, you know? I’m sure it is for you, too. You’re surrounded by it all the time. I brought my wife and my kids out here this week. They travel with me as much as possible. We’re opening and tasting wine all the time. There’s wines that are being shipped to my office all the time. So there’s a chance to be tasting and retasting wines a lot. I mean, sometimes I’ll come here–this just happened to me a couple times–where people came to me. I tasted the 2009 and the producer said, “You know, I didn’t think our wines showed well, and we want to send them to you after they’ve been in bottle–”

SH: What do you say to that producer, when they call you up and they, “You know what? I think you got a bad bottle” or whatever?

AG: This is pre-review.

SH: But what do you do post-review, if somebody complains, and I’m sure they do, because we all get that. Do you have a standard response? Will you retaste?

AG: I don’t have a standard response, just because I try to do the best in each situation.

SH: So will you agree to retaste, if the producer says that doesn’t sound like the wine I sent you?

AG: Well, we’ll do everything we possibly can. I mean, we bend over backwards to be accurate. So, of course, if there’s a bottle with a problem, I’ll retaste it. It’s no problem. But it’s a lifestyle. We’re opening and drinking wines at our house all the time, tasting these wines all the time, and buying wines off the shelf.

SH: What time do you start tasting wine?

AG: 8:30, 9 a.m.

SH: What time do you stop?

AG: Sixish, sevenish.

SH: So literally tasting 10, 11 hours a day.

AG: Yeah. Take lots of breaks. And it depends on the style of wine. You know, California wine is one of the harder regions, because the wines have a lot of tannin. But I grew up on Barolo, Barbaresco, and after that things are pretty easy. When I go to Montalcino, which is Sangiovese, that’s like a walk in the park. Tasting 100 Brunellos, relative to Cabernets or Nebbiolos, seems very easy. And it just depends on the vintages. I always tell people this, because it’s true: when the wines are great, I don’t ever feel tired. I’m just so energized. What’s the next great wine I’m going to taste?

SH: Okay.

AG: Is that it? Does it work?

SH: It does! Thank you. You’re a nice person and a gentleman.


A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 2

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This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. Here’s the link, in case you missed it: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2012/02/27/a-conversation-with-antonio-galloni-part-1

SH: Now, do you taste openly or blind?

AG: Well, it’s usually a combination of both.

SH: What about people who suggest it’s not possible to be objective about a wine if you know what it is, and particularly if you’re at the estate?

AG: Okay. So, as an example, Burgundy, a region that I cover, there’s a very narrow window for any critic to evaluate these wines. They are always tasted from the barrel first, and they are always tasted unblind. And you know you’re at de Vogüe, you’re at DRC, you’re at wherever. You know exactly what you’re tasting. Because part of what people are looking for is a commentary on, to what extent does that wine capture the vintage, the site, the style of the producer? That’s the real value-add of a wine writer, the kind of writing I want to write. And so, as an example, nobody tastes Burgundy blind, except for Michel [name unclear], in France, and what he does, he limits the number of wines that a producer can submit to four.

SH: Well, let’s come back to California. If you’re at Harlan, and you’re tasting all those wines openly.

AG: Yeah.

SH: Then, again, what do you say to somebody who says, “You know you’re at Harlan, and that is necessarily influencing your impression of the wines.”

AG: I would say, When you go to an estate like Harlan, it’s like eating at a three-star restaurant. Your expectation is extremely high. And people have a view that tasting a wine unblind, that there is a bias that is favorable. Nobody ever thinks, Could there be a bias that’s negative? Because your expectation at a top domaine is of outstanding quality, and therefore the margin for error is humungous.

SH: Which California wine have you reviewed so far where you have really veered from Parker’s palate?

AG: Well, I think people could look at–there’s a couple of cases where I think Bob has liked certain wines better than others. I mean, Scarecrow is kind of a topic of discussion on our bulletin board. It’s very hard to know, because I didn’t taste the wine in the barrel with Bob, and he didn’t taste the wine in the bottle with me, so we could both be–you know, nobody’s ever right. This is not about right or wrong. But his barrel rating could have been very representative of that wine on that day, just like my bottle rating could have been very representative on that day.

SH: Do you feel any pressure to maintain a certain consistency in the handover from Robert to you, in the sense that if you suddenly started not liking the wines he really loved, people would be shocked?

AG: I think most of the times we like the same wines. Where I’m very focused on maintaining consistency is making sure that all of the estates that are normally reviewed are reviewed when people expect to see the reviews, and that may sound the most obvious statement in the world, but it is extremely hard to see Bob driving this Ferrari he’s been driving for 32 years in California, where he knows everybody and has forgotten more about California wine than most people know, and then to be able to just take his pace and just to keep up with all the areas of California and making sure that Napa reviews come out in December, Sonoma reviews come out of February, Central Coast reviews come out in August. Just to keep up.

SH: So you do all of California.

AG: Yeah. Just to keep up–to finish this thought. Just to maintain where we are is an extraordinary amount of work. And then to think, that’s not my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is to, and Bob’s, too, when he gave me this job, is to, Okay, take it to the next level. So now we’ve got to put the Ferrari in sixth gear, and we’ll do it. It’s just going to take some time.

SH: What does that mean, taking it into sixth gear?

AG: It means, you know, producers that we maybe haven’t traditionally covered, that may have fallen off our radar screen. There’s all sorts of new wineries coming up all the time.

SH: Can you give the state equal representation, from Santa Barbara through the Sierra Foothills and Anderson Valley? I mean, it’s hard for me to do it, and all I do is taste California. So will you be more Napa-centric, or can you really spread the wealth around the whole state?

AG: Well, in 2011, I spent around 5 weeks in California. Spent ten days in the Central Coast. When I went to the Santa Lucia Highlands a couple of growers told me that I was the first person they knew to actually go and look at the vineyards with them. I thought they were probably just being very polite. It’s hard for me to believe that’s true. But the list of people is probably not very long.

Tomorrow: Antonio talks more about his job.


A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 1

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It was a real treat to run into Antonio Galloni at last Friday’s Vintage Retrospective Tasting at the Rudd Center of the Culinary Institute of America, in St. Helena. I asked Antonio if he wouldn’t mind my interviewing him, and he kindly agreed, for which I am grateful.

Antonio became, of course, instantly famous in California last year, when Robert Parker announced he [Parker] no longer would review new releases here for The Wine Advocate, but would instead turn that portfolio over to Antonio. Much of the past year in California wine chat circles has been preoccupied with anticipation of how, or whether, Antonio would, or would not, hew to Parker’s tastes.

I found Antonio to be a gentleman of great charm. Born in Venezuela, reared in Italy, living now just outside New York City, he exudes an urbane cosmopolitanism. He’s also quite good-looking, which never hurts in wine country. In my conversation with him–taped–he was, perhaps, a little guarded, but then, under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be? Yet Antonio also is a voluble man; a single question elicits a mountain of information, which is a treasure trove for a reporter.

Most published Q&As have been heavily edited. This one is not. What you read is pretty much verbatim as it was recorded. I thought it would be more interesting to present this conversation, which was entirely spontaneous, in its fullness. Here’s Part 1.

SH: This is a real treat and a pleasure. So you’re here at Premier Napa Valley.

AG: Well, I’m here at the [Wine Writers] Convention [Symposium]. I think the Premier Napa Valley is a subset of that.

SH: What were you doing at the Symposium?

AG: They asked me to speak at a couple of events. The first one was, the first night we had a 2001 tasting.

SH: How was that?

AG: It was fun, great. It was sort of like this welcome dinner, and then after dinner, there were a bunch of 2001s for people to taste, 30 or so wines, and I picked a bunch of my favorites, and then it was really informal. I talked about 6 or 7 of the wines I really liked, and why. It was very informal, a standing tasting, not unlike this [Rudd Center tasting]. I thought that was interesting, because the wines showed beautifully, you know?

SH: Okay. Well, let’s talk about what people want to understand, which is your role at The Wine Advocate. You had been doing Italy for how long?

AG: Since 2006.

SH: And was it a surprise to you that Mr. Parker asked you to do California?

AG: Well, let’s back up for a second, because there’s one or two intermediate steps. The first one is, I did Italy in 2006, and then, in 2008, I thought we really should upgrade our Champagne coverage, so in 2008, I took on Champagne. And all the while I was doing a fulltime job in the finance world. And Bob had always been sort of pushing me to write fulltime, and we’d talked about what that might look like. And I just think, you know, things just evolved to a state where he really wanted to focus on writing different types of articles, like massive vintage retrospectives that he does, verticals, and more thematic stuff, and at the same time, I think he realized that the number of producers to cover in California was just exploding, was hard to keep up with. And so it just made sense to sort of hand off some of the day to day grind.

SH: So which regions do you cover now?

AG: I do all of California, but [only] new releases. And Italy, Champagne and Burgundy.

SH: Now, how does one mere human being have just the physical stamina and the time? Those are four gigantic regions.

AG: Yeah. The key to success is having a great wife! Or partner. Because she organizes a lot of my–and she works very closely, but she does all of my scheduling and stuff.

SH: How many wines, let’s say a day, on average, do you taste?

AG: Well, it depends, because sometimes I’m not–that’s one of the reasons I’m not going to taste a bunch of wines here, because when I’m not in a big tasting mode, I kind of like to just rest.

SH: So how many wines to you expect to taste this year? Let’s put it that way.

AG: Well,  let’s do the math. If I’m traveling somewhere, I probably taste 100 to 150 wines a day, and an average trip might be ten days, a little longer, a little shorter. But let’s say, ten days.

SH: How do you avoid getting inebriated, tasting that many wines?

AG: I think that tasting wine is a lot like sports. You build up endurance. I don’t ever feel inebriated.

SH: When you get to number 100, you don’t feel like you’re losing a little objectivity?

G: No. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. I can only speak for myself–it’s different for everybody–but I always chuckle. People think it’s hard to taste at the end of the day. I find it actually harder to taste at the beginning of the day.

SH: You kind of have to get warmed up.

AG: Yeah, you have to get warmed up. And it’s just like sports, have to get warmed up. And I always liked the end–my favorite tastings are the ones at the end of the day, because you’re really focused, you’re really honed in, and everything is very clear. At the end of the day, I always feel like everything is very focused, very clear. It’s not unlike if you run or do some kind of endurance sport. At the end of when you really feel the endorphins kick in, you really feel great, is at the end.

SH: Well, you’re obviously in good shape. Is it important to be physically healthy and in good shape in order to do your job?

AG: Well, I think it’s important for me. But I can’t say for somebody else.

SH: How do you stay in shape?

AG: Well, I go to the gym several times a week, a lot of cardio, spinning, weights. It’s important for me, but, you know, I think there’s plenty of evidence out there that it’s not an important criterion for success!

SH: Now, one of the big things people were really interested in, they were thinking, “Is Galloni going to, in California, continue to kind of like the same wines Parker liked, or is he going to diverge to some extent, will he pull a 180?” What’s your answer to those people who are wondering that?

AG: Well, every time I taste with Bob, if we have ten wines, in 7 or 8 or 9 of those cases we’re going to be very close. And then there’s always going to be some that he likes more, or that I like more, and I think that’s pretty normal. But for the most part, we’re pretty close, and I think that is because great wines are just great wines. What I’ve always tried to do is give a very representative picture of what’s out there, and let people decide what they like. It’s not so much about what I like, it’s just about–I think of wine as being very agnostic to style. I can love Shafer Hillside Select, it was brilliant at that 2001 tasting, but yesterday, here, Denis Malbec [Malbec & Malbec] brought 1991 Dunn Howell Mountain, which was equally beautiful. I can’t tell you that one is more beautiful than the other. I just know, on one day I might be more in the mood for one, and on another day I might be more in the mood for the other. But they’re both, for me, very top representations of what Cabernet Sauvignon can be in Napa Valley.

Tomorrow, Antonio Galloni on tasting open versus tasting blind.


Spotlight: Cameron Hughes

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With this post, I’m introducing a new, occasional feature to my blog: Spotlight. I’ll be writing about interesting people doing interesting things in the wine and food biz. If you’d like to be spotlighted, or know someone who should be, let me know.

I’ve been a fan of Cameron Hughes’ wines for years. An admirer of the man, too. He took a business model–the negociant–that was far from a proven success, and made it work. I’ve given a lot of Best Buys to Cameron Hughes wines over the years. His Cabernets and Bordeaux blends are some of the best values on the market.

• age — 40.
• company name — Cameron Hughes Wine
• title
— CEO
• founding date — 2001
• HQ — San Francisco
• # employees — 25 + 400 contractors
• total case sales — approx. 400,000
• rank, U.S. wine companies — #31
• # SKUs produced — over 100 this year
• why so many? — The idea is to preserve the initial identity and quality of the source wine.
• most expensive wine — $28 [Stags Leap and Napa Valley Cabs]
• cheapest wine — $5 Romanian
• how many countries do you make wine from? — At least ten
• do you level off or keep growing? — Keep growing. Sky’s the limit.
• your background in a few sentences — Started as cellar rat at Corbett Canyon, went into marketing and sales with The Wine Group. Worked at an importer for a year, then started this company.
• born — Modesto. Dad worked for Gallo, then Wine Group.
• describe Cameron Hughes Wine in 1 sentence — We’re a virtual winery and negociant company.
• how find/select your wines? — Through turning stones over. Brokers bring us deals, and we actively go out and try to acquire partnerships and wines. And people come to us.
• are there confidentiality agreements? — Yes. At the very high end, a few folks require those. Folks sell bulk wine for a variety of reasons. For example, we get between 13,000-16,000 gallons of wine blended for us from a super-super high end Napa producer I can’t identify. They’re component wines that didn’t fit into their blends. So they purpose-build blend it for us, not just dregs.
• what do you drink at home — Everything. I buy lots of different wines from lots of retailers all the time. I’m constantly trying new and different things. I’m very eclectic.
• hobbies? — Big skier. Newbie triathlete. Rehabbing my shoulder so I can swim.


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