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A vertical tasting of Beekeeper Rockpile Zinfandel

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Beekeeper Cellars started in 2009, a partnership between Ian Blackburn and Clay Mauritson. Mauritson owns the Madrone Spring Vineyard and was a principle in creating the Rockpile AVA, in 2002, They sent me a mini-vertical of four bottles of the Zinfandel, 2010-2013. I must say how wonderfully each of them shows off the terroir of the vineyard. These are big, voluptuous, heady Zinfandels, and they are picture-perfect exemplars of that style.

95 Beekeeper 2013 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. This beautiful, picture-perfect Zinfandel is ripe, dry and heady. The alcohol is quite high (15.4%), but the wine wears it well, with a slight, prickly heat to the superripe black currants, blackberry jam and black licorice. Thick, fine tannins and just-in-time acidity give it needed structure. I had never tasted a Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel before, but I have reviewed several Mauritson Petite Sirahs from the vineyard, and except for an overripe ’08—a hot vintage—I came away with great respect for the grape sourcing; and, after all, Clay Mauritson co-made this wine. It really defines this intense, concentrated style of Zin. My friends at Connoisseur’s Guide gave it 97 points, and while I wouldn’t go that far, I know where they’re coming from. The fruit is complexed with dark chocolate, sage and black tea notes that grow more interesting with every sip. The wine will hold in the bottle for a long time, but there’s no reason not to drink it now.

95 Beekeeper 2010 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The fruit is just starting to turn the corner, going from primary to bottle bouquet. Where the ’13 is all jam and licorice, this nearly six-year old Zinfandel tastes of dried fruits and prosciutto. It’s still vibrant and fresh, but, even with alcohol at a heady 15.4%, it feels light and lithe on its feet, an Astaire of a wine. Mid-palate, cocoa dust kicks in, sprinkled with cinnamon. The tannins are thick but so remarkably soft and silky, the wine just glides across your tongue. I have no doubt it will hold and change in interesting ways over the next 15 years, but it’s really compelling now.

94 Beekeeper 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. There’s a succulence to this Zin that testifies to intensely ripe fruit, which of course the grapes do get in this hot, sunny appellation that rises above Dry Creek Valley. The wine brims with raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and mocha, while alcohol brings a pleasantly mouth-warming quality; fine acidity provides clean balance. Thirty percent new French oak is discernible in the form of toast and vanilla bean, but it’s completely balanced with the fruit. The tannins are smooth, complex and sweet. With a briary, brambly spiciness, this really is picture-perfect Sonoma Zin. It seems to be hovering at that interesting point where the primary fruit is evolving into secondary characteristics, shifting to reveal notes of bacon fat and leather. A wonderful, complete, wholesome Zinfandel, definitely big, but never ponderous. It should hold and evolve in interesting ways over the years.

94 Beekeeper 2011 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel (Rockpile): $65. The 2011 vintage was the coolest in a long time, and we certainly haven’t seen any cool vintages since. It was the year summer never came; grapes along the far Sonoma Coast in some cases failed to ripen, or were moldy, but Rockpile is a hot inland region. So here we have a wine that, while in the Beekeeper Rockpile Zin tradition, is somewhat more structured and not as massive as the ’10, ’12 and ’13. That’s in the wine’s favor. It still has the cassis and wild black currant fruit, the briary leather, and the spices, but there’s a savory herbaceousness, like dried sage and thyme, and tangy volcanic red rock iron. The wine has power, but also elegance and control: there’s a tension within that’s delightful, in no small part due to excellent acidity. Quite a bit of French oak, too, but it’s seamless. This distinctive wine makes a case for Rockpile Zinfandel even in difficult vintages that is persuasive. I quite like it. Only 90 cases were produced.


When does “different” become “flawed”?

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Went to a nice little Sauvignon Blanc tasting yesterday at Josiah and Stevie’s Bay Grape wine store.

It was only four wines, but they pretty much spanned the gamut of world Sauvignon Blanc styles: cool-climate, warmer climate, unoaked, lightly oaked. For me, the top wine, an absolute charmer and classic, was the Francois Cotat “Les Caillottes “ 2013 Sancerre. Just what I want: bone dry, fierce acidity and super-racy, brimming with minerals and grapefruits. There was that slight herbaceousness, like a whiff of green bell pepper, that added to the complexity. For food pairings, I thought of a salad of frisée, goat cheese and grapefruit sections, in a vinaigrette; but something also made me think of tempura, in a light, tamari-based dipping sauce.

Next in my faves was Domaine d’Alliance “Definition” 2013, with an IGP Atlantique appellation. It was quite similar to the Sancerre in the racy acidity and lemongrass, but the addition of 50% Semillon fattened up the middle. A very classy wine.

Compared to those two the Sarapo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, with a Sonoma County appellation, seemed somewhat flaccid and heavy-handed. A good wine, but this just shows the importance of context when tasting. We were told it’s a blend from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley. I fancy Dry Creek brought a riper note of figs, but the wine just didn’t have the lift and savoriness that I want in Sauvignon Blanc. Others liked it more than I did.

If I were formally reviewing the fourth wine, I’d give it a failing grade: Momo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough. One sniff was enough to make me wince: I picked up a strong, offensive smell of dirty, sweaty sox. To me that signals brett; another taster insisted there was no brett, that this was just a signature of Marlborough. The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk. It always troubles me when another respected taster has an opinion so different from mine. I looked up other professional critical scores: 86 from Wine Spectator with no mention of dirty funk; 87 in the Advocate; nothing in Enthusiast; and nothing for the ’14 in Vinous, but Tanzer did review the ’12 and called it “musky…with a complicating note of game.”

Fair enough: but speaking for myself I don’t want musk or game in my Sauvignon Blancs! I made this point rather forcefully at the tasting, and a few of my compatriots replied that, while the wine is not “classic” nor for everyone, it does represent a certain eccentricity that some people, somms in particular, are looking for these days.

Here’s what I think: There’s a reason why “the classics” are the classics. Being different just for the sake of being different does not mean the wine isn’t bad! Some people are looking to break the rules, but at what point does breaking the rules result in dirty wines that would get you thrown out of U.C. Davis? I realize that progress has to be made in wine—styles don’t always remain the same, otherwise we’d all be drinking the resinous wines of ancient Greeks. But I do think that there’s a tendency on the part of some somms and other younger tastemakers to go for the bizarre. If you have a wine like that, you may like it—or think you like it, because you think you’re supposed to like it, because somebody better known or more experienced than you liked it and therefore you fear that if you don’t like it, you’re not cool.

But these are wines I call Andy Warhol wines: they will be famous for fifteen minutes, and then fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. There are standards; there are rules, established not by authoritarian fogies but by a thousand years of human experience. Outliers do not last.


A tasting of current Cameron Hughes wines

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Cameron sent me another batch of wines, which I was glad to review. In general, the Cameron Hughes brand continues to provide fantastic value for the money. His business, briefly, is to function as a negociant: vintners who want or need to sell their wine, privately and off-the-record, know and trust Cameron. We never know where the wines come from, although Cameron does provide “hints.” I did have a problem with one bottle, as you’ll see, but the rest are wines I would gladly drink anytime.

95 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 596 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma Valley); $35, 15.2%. This is one of the more expensive Cameron Hughes wines, but it is from the deservedly famous Monte Rosso. And it’s quite a good Monte Rosso: dark, deep, rich and ageable. Cabernet hardly gets more intense than this, with an explosion of blackberry jam, black currants, blueberries, cassis liqueur and a penetrating minerality suggestive of graphite. Throw in the oak, and you get smoky-sweet vanillins. This is a serious wine for red wine drinkers, a wine of sinew and muscle, potency and mouth-filing depth. But it never loses that inimitable grace and dignity we expect from the vineyard, far above Sonoma Valley. The alcohol is admittedly on the high side; there is some jalapeño heat. But it’s an integral part of the wine’s personality. Delicious to drink now despite the massive tannins; a good steak will cut right through them. But I would not be surprised if this wine were not evolving over the next ten-plus years.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 597 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $32, 14.9%. This wine is so inky black and tannic, you might think it was a Petite Sirah. Cameron says it’s from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard, and it does have fantastic mountain concentration. The tannins are considerable: they sting the mouth and shut it down. A fatty, char-broiled steak would work, but far better is to age this wine for eight years, maybe even longer. There’s so much going on way down deep under the astringency: black currants and black raspberries, cassis liqueur, leather, violets, dark chocolate, mushu plum sauce, smoky oak, herbs, spices, the works. The wine is absolutely dry, none of that semi-sweet cult thing going on, and while there’s some headiness from alcohol, it’s even-handed, just enough to let you know this is a wine of heft. I really admire this Cabernet.

94 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 470 Petite Sirah (Oakville); $19, 14.9%. And while we’re on the subject of Cabs that might be Petite Sirah, here’s a strong, young Petite Sirah that might be a Cab! It’s black in color, except around the edge, where it glows garnet. The aromas and flavors are thick with blackberries, black currants, blueberries and dark chocolate, wrapped into firm, authoritative tannins, and finished with significant new oak. There’s also a meatiness, like the salted, charred fat on a steak. This is a big, big wine, entirely dry, but sweet in fruit. Cameron calls it “bombastic”; not a bad word. It’s Petite Sirah, Napa-style. In fact, Oakville-style, which is to say, classy and sophisticated. This is by far the greatest value in Petite Sirah I’ve ever seen. Get as much as you can; it is not only fantastic now, it will develop in the bottle for many years.

93 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 457 Meritage (Napa Valley); $18, 14.9%. Great price for a blend this rich and satisfying. It’s a little generic, in the way of a good New World Bordeaux blend, but I can’t imagine that anyone would fault it for that. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot, it’s fleshy, with broad black currant, bitter chocolate, plum and cherry fruit flavors. Shows its pedigree in the finesse of the tannins and crisp acidity. Very good now, and should hold for six years. A steal at less than twenty bucks.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 444 Meritage (Napa Valley): $19, 14.9%. This is quite a distinguished wine, but it’s very young and rather impertinent at this time. (“Impertinent”: I always liked that old-fashioned term for a wine that’s immature, gawky, all primary fruit and barrel influences.) Here are the particulars: bone dry, full-bodied and tannic, with deep, complex blackcurrant, dark chocolate, espresso and oak flavors, and a firm minerality that adds to the architectural integrity. Cameron suggests that the wine, a Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend, comes from Oak Knoll, which might account for its fine structure. The wine will improve over the next 5-6 years, maybe a little longer, so decant and enjoy with its ideal partner, steak. Nineteen bucks? You have got to be kidding.

92 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 599 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $29, 14.9%. This is a very good Cabernet and a good value. Cameron says it’s from a producer that “sells for $135.” I don’t doubt it, given the plethora of Napa Cabs that now cost triple digits. The wine is inky black. It smells of black currants and oak, a young, vigorous aroma. Flavorwise, it’s very rich in black currants, cassis, unsweetened baker’s chocolate, charred beef fat and spices such as cloves and black pepper. The finish is long, clean and thoroughly dry. All in all, a fancy wine that gives lots of pleasure, and develops in the glass as it breathes.

89 Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 503 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley): $15, 15.3%. At a time when Pinot prices are rising, this is a very good value. On the minus side, it’s a little too hot, with a distinct red chili powder heat from high alcohol. That aside, it’s dry and silky, with pretty tannins and good acidity. The flavors, of cranberry, raspberry, cola, spices and leather, are complex. Ready to drink now, especially with grilled lamb or salmon.

88 Cameron Hughes 2013 Lot 600 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $29, 14.9%. The grapes got exceptionally ripe, to judge from the flavors of chocolate-covered raisins and raspberry jam. There’s also a lot of smoky oak, and thick, sweet tannins. It’s a good wine, full-bodied and soft, and benefits from some olive and herbaceous complexities, but it’s not really what you except from a top-notch Oakville Cab. If it cost a lot more, as Oakville Cabs do, it wouldn’t be worth the price, but for less than $30, it has enough fanciness to recommend it. Drink up.

Not Rated But Reviewed Cameron Hughes 2012 Lot 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $75, 15.5%. This is a big, rich, soft wine, made in the modern cult style of high alcohol and generous oak. For me, though, it’s marred by bretty aromas, which may be why the actual producer unloaded it. It may have been an off-bottle, but I can’t recommend it.


How I choose wines for my tastings

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As you may know if you read me regularly, I’ve been having some wonderful wine tastings with my friends at Jackson Family Wines. Over the last 1-1/2 years we’ve done multiple sessions of mainly California wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhone blends and so on. Our next theme is sparkling wine. It’s been, like, forever since I went to a bubbly tasting, so I’m particularly excited.

When I set up these tastings, I first develop the theme. But then it’s time to choose the wines. There are so many choices that you have to have some kind of system, and I do. I realize it may not be perfect, but what system is?

My initial criterion is to pick wines I, myself, have given high scores to. It’s been a while since I was an everyday critic, but not that long. Of course, you can learn a lot from tasting average, or even mediocre, wines, and I’ve included some of those in my tastings. But for the most part, I want to try wines that are high-end, and the best way to do that, IMHO, is to look at critical scores.

Here are the critics I routinely check out: Robert Parker/Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator; Antonio Galloni’s Vinous; and my former employer, Wine Enthusiast. I have subscriptions to three of them; Enthusiast doesn’t charge (I think they should, but that’s not my call). I also try and look at Food & Wine and a few other publications, but those four are my must-sees.

If all of the major critics give a specific wine a high score, it’s a go for my tastings. Usually, the critics are pretty close. Someone may give something 96 points, someone else may give it 92 points, but that’s okay, it’s ballpark. Every once in a while, I come across a wine somebody gave mid-90s and somebody else scored mid- or even low 80s. The lesson is that sometimes the critics can’t agree amongst themselves. In that case, it’s fun to see how my score, under blind conditions, matches up to the other critics’. My impression, which is simply that—an impression, not the result of a database crunch—is that Galloni and Parker tend to give higher scores to California wines than Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast is less predictable. But then, they’ve had some turnover in their California coverage.

I wonder how people who don’t like the critics or the 100-point system go about choosing wines for tasting. In Europe you can always do hierarchical tastings since they have formal tiers, but here in California, we don’t. You can’t do a First Growths of Napa Valley the way you can in Bordeaux. Some writers try to get around this absence of rankings by producing their own: I Googled “first growths of napa valley” and got 4,180 results. These can be interesting to read, but they have problems: They’re only the writer’s opinion, the writers may not have had access to everything (who does?), and even worse, the rankings change over time. One year Chateau Montelena is in; the next, it’s not, and Futo is, or Kenzo, or Yao Ming, or some other newcomer. So if I was doing a Napa Cabernet tasting (and I haven’t yet, but I will), I’d make things simple for myself by looking up what the major critics say. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get the wines I want! I have some pretty good connections, but even for me, some of these wines are totally impossible to buy.

At any rate, comparative tasting, done blind, is one of the most thrilling and instructive things a wine writer can do. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the job. I’m very fortunate that Jackson Family Wines gives me the budget for it. I sure couldn’t afford to do it on my own!


A tasting of Sonoma County Cabernets and Bordeaux blends: Call me a Verité kinda guy

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I couldn’t have been more pleased that in yesterday’s tasting I gave the Verite 2012 La Joie * a perfect 100 points. (All wines marked with an asterisk are from Jackson Family Wines.)

It was back in 2009 that I gave the 2006 La Joie a near-perfect 98 points. A year later I gave the 2007 Verite La Muse 100 points. So you could say these wines, produced by Pierre Seillan, delight and amaze me and rise to my highest expectations of what California-Bordeaux can and should be.

Our tasting was entirely blind. The other wines and their scores were Matanzas Creek 2011 Journey * (96 points), Rodney Strong 2012 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon (88 points), Hall 2012 T Bar T Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (90 points), Hidden Ridge 2012 Impassable Mountain Reserve 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon (91 points), Lancaster 2012 Nicole’s Red Wine (91 points), Arrowood 2012 Reserve Speciale Cabernet Sauvignon * (92 points), Stonestreet 2012 Legacy Red Wine * (98 points), Stonestreet 2011 Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon * (88 points), Silver Oak 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (92 points), Cenyth 2010 Red Wine * (93 points), Anakota 2012 Helena Montana Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points) and Kendall-Jackson 2012 Jackson Estate Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon * (93 points).

The vintages all were either current releases or the most current releases I was able to obtain buying direct from the wineries. I should add that I also was pleased that one of my fellow tasters, Chris Jackson, also scored the Verite ’12 La Joie a perfect 100 points. When the paper bags came off, it was high-five time.

As some of my readers know who followed my career, I never gave very many 100 point scores, but one was that ’07 La Muse. These Verités are extraordinary wines. They are of course blends from mountain vineyards throughout Sonoma County; it was those wines, in part, that led me to understand that a California-Bordeaux does not have to be sourced from a single vineyard in order to attain perfection. In fact, quite the opposite can be argued: That having your choice of multiple pedigreed vineyards, rather than having to source from only one, allows the winemaker to fill in the divots in order to produce a more complete, wholesome wine. Of course, this implies a very high level of skill on the part of the blender! Nor would I concede that such a blended wine doesn’t display terroir. (Another blend I gave 100 points to was the 2006 Cardinale, made from grapes grown in Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville.) I do think a great Pinot Noir should probably come from a single piece of dirt, but even here I could be wrong.

It often is said that the difference between Sonoma-grown Bordeaux wines and Napa Valley Bordeaux wines is that the former are earthier and more “French.” I think that is largely true; the tannins are firmer and there is slightly more herbaceousness in the form of sweet dried herbs and often a floral character reminiscent of violets. Most of the wines in yesterday’s tasting were grown on the western slope of the Mayacamas, not far from places like Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain, in fact just on the other side of the ridge. But Napa Valley is one mountain range further inland and so is that much warmer and drier; the resulting wines tend to be lusher, more opulent, and higher in alcohol. But I would not want to over-emphasize those distinctions. Suffice it to say that some of these Sonoma Cabs, especially from the west side of the Mayacamas, are stunning and ageworthy.

I don’t hesitate to praise the Jackson Family wines just because I work there; in fact it makes me very happy to see them do so well. As I said, the tasting was absolutely blind. Nobody had any idea what the wines were, although that didn’t stop us from guessing. I was troubled by the relatively modest score of the ’11 Stonestreet Christopher’s, a wine I’ve always liked (I gave the ’06 and ’07 both 96 points, for example), but as you know 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and this wine, grown at 2,400 feet on the winery’s Alexander Mountain Estate, is exquisitely sensitive to vintage conditions. I think the fruit, in that brutal environment of 2011, just didn’t get ripe enough (although it’s only fair to add that Wine Advocate gave that wine 94 points. So maybe I just didn’t “get it”).

Anyhow, bravo to Sonoma County for doing so well. I think for our next tasting we’ll do Jackson Family’s Napa Valley Cab/Bordeaux blends against some of the top-rated wines in the valley. That will be interesting, if expensive, and I’ll report on the results right here!


What you know influences what you taste

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If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?

Raphael

Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?

What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?

Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?

I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?

This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.

Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)

See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.

This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.

But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.

By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.

P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.


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