1961 was, as all Bordeaux lovers know, one of those “vintages of the century” when nearly all the chateaux produced rich, ageworthy wines. However, one chateau, La Lagune, a Third Growth of the Médoc that has had a stellar reputation, apparently didn’t fare so well among critics. Eddie Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, wrote that the winery “probably over-sugared the  wine, as it has struck me as excessively sweet.” Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, chose not to review it in depth at all, and merely listed it, along with several dozen others, as not tasted recently. Oz Clarke, in his New Encyclopedia of French Wines, wrote that “the experts say that 1961 wasn’t a success at La Lagune,” although he himself, tasting it decades later, liked it enough to buy 8-1/2 cases.
Then there was Harry Waugh who, in his 1970 diary, Pick of the Bunch, referred to his visit to Chateau Bouscaut, in the Graves, where the proprietor opened a 1962 La Lagune. “With my recollection of the, shall I say, ‘curious’ 1961 vintage of that Chateau, I was reluctant to try it,” Harry wrote, delicately; he must have reviewed it in one of his diaries I do not own, but it cannot have been a good review. Most likely, if we are to believe Penning-Rowsell, if the wine indeed had been over-chaptalised, Harry, who liked his Bordeaux classically dry, would not have cared for it.
Harry did, however, drink that ’62 La Lagune and found it “both charming and delicious…”. He concluded: I “had to eat my words…The prejudices one can form are really frightening!”
It is those “prejudices” I wish to write about today. Harry had formed a prejudice against La Lagune that rose up in his mind as soon as he saw the bottle of 1962. Fortunately, Harry was a fair enough taster that he was able to overcome that prejudice and appreciate the beauty of the ’62. But can we say that of all professional tasters? Indeed, “frightening” is not too strong a word to describe the attitudes of some of them, whose condemnation of certain wines, based on their presuppositions, is all the more pernicious due to their influence.
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Good friend Adam Japko, from Digital Sherpa, sent me this link to an article on CEOs using social media “to drive business results.” Adam is, of course, very high on social media and a passionate explicator of it. The article profiles 5 CEOs who use social media a lot; it goes on to explain in each case how that use “helps drive business results.”
I suspect Adam sent me the link because he (like some others who know me) thinks I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to social media and ROI. Notice I said “ROI” rather than “driving business results,” because I think the two are vastly different. We all understand what ROI means because it’s about money and can be measured. Unfortunately the article doesn’t define the meaning of “driving business results,” so we really have no way of knowing if, say, Doug Conant’s 24,000 Twitter followers are having any impact on Avon’s bottom line: are his tweets selling more cosmetics, jewelry, watches? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s hard for me, at any rate, to make that leap. The article suggests, logically, that Conant’s commitment to social media “is passed on to executives and all [Avon] employees” by dint of his leadership position, but again, just how that translates into increased sales isn’t entirely clear. If we actually knew what “driving business results” meant, we might, however, be able to come to a definitive conclusion!
As I’ve said before, I too encourage all professionals to use social media, as often as feels comfortable. It can’t hurt; it can only help. I myself use it all the time. And my new employer, Jackson Family Wines, is a firm believer in social media; in fact, part of my job is to write for their blogs. I suppose they feel that, given the success I’ve made of steveheimoff.com, I know a thing or two! (And so do they. Remember “A Really Goode Job“? That made social media history.)
If, as Fortune Magazine reports, “70% of Fortune 500 CEOs aren’t using social media,” that’s pretty shocking to me: they should be. But you have to ask yourself why they’re not; after all, these are not stupid men and women. It may be that these CEOs have determined that all the commotion about social media is overblown. On the other hand, they may actually be missing the bus—so overwhelmed by their own sense of genius that they think social media is a ridiculous hobby for only the “little people” who have too much time on their hands. Or—a third possibility—maybe they feel they can just hire employees to do the social media thing, and they don’t have to do it themselves.
It would be nice to have a time machine and see how all this shakes out by, say, 2025. In all my life, I’ve never seen a societal trend whose future, with all its consequences, is as hard to predict, as that of social media. Sometimes when I fantasize about it, all I can think of is humans getting hard-wired with computer chips in our brains, connected all the time to the Matrix.
Some blind tastings confirm what you know. Others do just the opposite, bringing a wrecking ball to your presuppositions. The best blind tastings are a little of both.
That was the case at yesterday’s “Altitude Matters” tasting, in San Francisco’s Financial District, where Stonestreet winemaker Graham Weerts and Gillian Handelman, Jackson Family Farms’ Director of Wine Education, presided over a blind tasting of six wines–four reds, two whites–about which we knew nothing, except that they could have come from anywhere in the world, but from elevations of at least 1,000 feet–and, presumably, that at least one of them was a Stonestreet wine, although not even that was assured.
The objective, Graham explained, was not necessarily to identify what variety or varieties the grapes were, or even where they came from, as this: To discern if we could “tie together” some themes common to the wines, which then might provide a better context for understanding all high altitude wines.
High altitude grapegrowing is itself marked by certain conditions, based on the nature of the terrain. Soils tend to be depleted; water is scarce; the roots of the vines find easy proximity to minerals in the soil, but, on the other hand, the grapes’ exposure to sunlight, and particularly ultraviolet light, is greatened. In the case of Stonestreet, whose vineyards are on Alexander Mountain above the Alexander Valley, the grapes often are above the fogs that swathe the valley and lower elevations, making daytime temperatures warmer, especially in the mornings. But due to the famous effects of temperature inversion, nighttime lows are higher than on the valley floor, making for more consistent overall conditions. Because the grapes struggle, they develop thick skins, hence bigger (often much bigger) tannins than valley floor grapes, but they also, oddly, develop higher acidity. These are all major factors in determining the flavors, textures and longevity of mountain wines; yet, as Graham took pains to state, “We’re not saying mountain wines are better, just different.”
Here are the six wines and some comments about them:
Picher Achleiten 2012 Gruner Veltliner. I didn’t know it was Gruner but neither did anyone else, to judge by the comments (the attendees, numbering about 50, seemed mostly to be somms). I liked the wine’s dryness, grace and power, its amazing minerality and acidity, as well as a touch of green pyrazine.
Finca Dofi 2011 Priorat. This was a massive wine, rich in iron and black currants, with grippy tannins and big acidity. I didn’t even try to guess what it was, but just marveled at its power.
Telle Nere 2011 Etna Rosso. Made from variations of the Nerello grape, this might have been a Northern Rhône Syrah, for all the grilled meat and black pepper notes. But, nope, it’s from Sicily.
Stonestreet 2010 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew it was a distinguished, young wine, probably Cabernet. But with all that graphite and conifer going on, I missed its California origins.
Chave 2008 Hermitage. This was the tightest, most reserved wine of the tasting. I could barely get anything out of it for the first 30 minutes it sat in the glass. Then crushed blackberries and black licorice emerged. One or two of the somms got this right.
Stonestreet 2011 Upper Barn Chardonnay. I knew this instantly: that bright acidity, the pellucid mouthfeel, as pure as mountain stream water, the lemon verbena, peach and honey flavors that finish so dry. Surely it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay from a recent vintage.
But wait. This shows how psychology factors in. We already knew that Wine D was a Stonestreet. Would Graham have included two Stonestreets in a six-wine tasting? Thus I began to doubt myself. When Gillian asked for comments, I raised my hand and said I thought it was a Stonestreet Chardonnay, but, given Wine D, I was prepared for it to be something else.
Well, of course, Graham did include two Stonestreet wines, so it was gratifying to have gotten at least one of the lineup correct. It needs also to be said that I was impressed by how much the somms knew of such a wide range of world wines. I, by contrast, probably was more familiar with the world’s wines before I became a specialist in California wine. There’s only so much time in the day, and my emphasis, bordering on obsession, on tasting California wine leaves me few days in the year to taste much else. Afterwards, I was with my wonderful colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Virginie Boone, and I told her how much I admired the somms’ knowledge.
“Yes,” Virginie replied, “but they probably wouldn’t recognize a Lodi Zinfandel.” Touché.
What linked all six mountain wines?
-Not entirely fruit-driven, but herbs and minerals
-Great structure, including acidity (none of the wines was adjusted)
At the ZAP “Flights! Forums of Flavors” last Friday, I was again reminded of how much “set and setting” impact one’s experience of wine.
It was a pretty straightforward tasting: Wines poured for us at the table, a panel of winemakers upfront. One of the flights was from Monte Rosso Vineyard: the wines were from Charter Oak, Amapola Creek (what a pleasure to see Richard Arrowood again!), Rock Wall, Louis M. Martini and Robert Biale.
Now, Monte Rosso despite its fabulous reputation has always been a problematic vineyard for me. It is famous (infamous? notorious?) for the high alcohol of its wines (which is why that particular flight was the final of the three-flight tasting. It’s a good idea to hold the biggest wines for last). Curiously–and I’m not sure why–Monte Rosso reds also are high in acidity. (Maybe someone can explain that.) I’ve certainly given some high scores over the years to Monte Rosso wines–my highest ever was Sbragia’s 2006 Cabernet, which I gave 95 points. The official alcohol on that wine was 14.9%. It was a dark, big, rich, smoky wine, with years and years of life, which is why I gave it a Cellar Selection designation in my Wine Enthusiast review.
The highest score I ever gave to a Monte Rosso Zinfandel was Rosenblum’s 2004, which I gave 93 points. (My readers probably know that when Kent Rosenblum sold his winery to Diageo, he created Rock Wall.) I’ve also given high scores to several of Louis M. Martini’s Monte Rosso Zins and Cabs, as well as Arrowood’s (which Richard Arrowood owned before starting Amapola).
On the other hand, at times the alcohol of Monte Rosso has overwhelmed me. The best score I could muster for Muscardini’s 2010 Zin, which had 15.5% of alcohol, was 85 points–a “good” score but not a great one. It was just too hot and prickly. The worst score I ever gave a Monte Rosso Zin was Brazin’s 2007, an otherwise great vintage. Its alcohol officially was 15%, and, as I wrote, it was “Too ripe, with pruny, raisiny flavors that are Porty and hot in high-alcohol, glyceriney heaviness.”
That’s Monte Rosso for you. Balancing the vineyard’s tendency to be excessively high in brix (especially in Zinfandel), with associated overripeness, is part of the winemaker’s challenge. He or she can water the wine down, not an ideal solution, but sometimes necessary and effective. He or she also can be severely selective in sorting out overripe (or underripe) berries (Zinfandel in particular can have unevenly ripened grapes on the same bunch), but that is labor intensive and expensive and not everyone is very diligent at it.
The best Monte Rosso wines, it seems to me, are produced by the best winemakers. That may sound obvious, but winemakers, like all of us, vary in their abilities. For the “Flights!” tasting, ZAP chose some of the best winemakers in California. (Joel Peterson, of Ravenswood, moderated all three flights, but I don’t know if he personally selected the wines. At any rate, he did a great job.) This is a shorthand way of saying that I found all the wines terrific. (I missed the first flight. The second one was Zinfandels from the Bedrock Vineyard, which is partly owned by Joel).
As much as I explored the intricacies of the wines I also explored the intricacies of my thoughts. You can’t separate the taster’s basic state of consciousness from his experience of the wine, which is what I referred to in the “set and setting” reference in my opening sentence. “Set and setting,” people of a certain generation (mine) will recall, was how Dr. Timothy Leary described the twin factors that influenced a person’s experience of taking LSD. The “set” was the sum total of the person’s inner life (expectations, fears, understanding, hopes, traumas, etc.). The “setting” was the external environment. Obviously, if a person dropped acid in the midst of absolute chaos (crazed clown killers, policemen, screaming babies, earthquake, you get the idea), the person would in all likelihood not have a pleasant trip.
My preferred “set and setting” for reviewing wine is this: I like to be warm and relaxed. I like to be healthy: it’s not good to review wine if you have the flu. Externally, I like to be in the comfort and safety of my home, practicing my usual routines. Under these circumstances, my “set and setting” are tuned to maximum performance. This also encourages consistency of routine, which is important in judging wines.
Obviously, both my “set” and my “setting” were drastically different at the “Flights!” tasting. My setting was not home, but a ballroom in the Four Seasons Hotel, packed with people. I wouldn’t say I was unrelaxed, but I certainly didn’t experience the utter relaxation and familiarity of being at home (with Gus at my feet if not in my lap). Then too, being in a public sphere, and having a certain visibility in this industry, is a personal feeling my fellow critics can appreciate. Thus, both my set and setting were discombobulated–not so much that I couldn’t deal with the wines, but enough so that I was clearly thrown off routine.
The simple fact (it occurred to me during the Monte Rosso flight) was that I was finding the wines better than I thought I would have, had I tasted them at home. That’s what I meant by saying that I was exploring the intricacies of my thoughts. I remember at one point during that flight thinking, “Can they all be this good?”, because I suspected that at home I would have found some of them too high in alcohol. This of course raises the question of what does “too high in alcohol” mean? As several of the winemakers observed, in response to Joel Peterson asking them if they thought “alcohol destroys terroir,” the answer is, It depends. If the wine is balanced in all its parts, then alcohol, even well into the 15s or even 16s, is perfectly acceptable (unless you’re just an anti-alcohol fascist). Richard Arrowood put it best: “If you didn’t know the alcohol levels [of the Monte Rosso Zins], you’d never guess.” And, as Shauna Rosenblum pointed out, in the case of Monte Rosso “alcohol is essential to terroir.”
The idea of reviewing a wine is to get as close as you can to knowing “what the wine really is.” But there’s a Heisenbergian uncertainty about it, not necessarily because the wine isn’t “what it really is,” but because of the vagaries of human perception, which are so susceptible to derangement by the influences of “set and setting.” This is why as controlled an environment for tasting as can possibly be arranged is the only suitable way of doing it, and also why the critic has to understand his limitations, as well as trust in his abilities.
On New Year’s Eve I opened a bottle I’d had in my little wine storage unit for some years years: Anthill 2005 Demuth Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Anderson Valley.
I studied the wine, in a Riedel glass, as I walked Gus, on a mild, early winter night in Oakland. It was all right–dry, tart and with some good cherry and cranberry fruit. But it was evident that there were problems, chief among which was a pruny or raisiny finish, along with accompanying heat.
The wine, in short, had not aged well.
I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database and looked up my original review, from July, 2007. I gave the wine 90 points and described it this way: “There are suggestions of wintergreen mint and tart rhubarb, but the cherries save the day, giving enough richness to make the wine interesting. Despite the high acidity and dryness, I don’t think it’s an ager, but it’s a beautifully complex, food-friendly Pinot.”
It’s always gratifying to see that I made a good call (although I can already hear some sourpusses whining that I’m promoting myself). I’ll be the first to concede that I don’t always get things right, especially in the matter of predicting ageabiity. So how do I come up with ageability estimates?
First of all, you can age any wine you want. All that means is putting the bottle someplace for as many years as you want. (Obviously, that place should have proper storage conditions: still, cool and dark, and a little moist.) Most wines, probably 99.9% of them, will not benefit at all from aging; they’re meant to drink as soon as you purchase them.
What of that other .01%? They will age–but what does this mean? We’ve all tasted older Burgundies, Bordeaux, Barolos, Champagnes and the like, and so we know what they can do. In my experience, aging California wine is considerably “iffier.” To take, as examples, the best Cabernets, in the ideal situation they lose their fresh, primary fruit, starting at about eight years, and then begin to dry out, showing “secondary” fruit character and bottle “bouquet.” As the tannins precipitate out, the wine becomes clearer, more translucent, silkier in body (which is perhaps the best thing about aging it).
But aged wine is an acquired taste. I try to keep that in mind when I review a wine. If it’s superbly balanced, rich and tannic (we’re mainly talking reds here), it’s much more likely to age well than a wine that has the slightest imperfection, because that imperfection will only grow increasingly obvious with bottle age. In the case of the Anthill 2005 Demuth, if I recall correctly, my impression that “it’s not an ager” was due to certain imperfections, mainly a touch of raisining in the finish. It does take an experienced palate to discern those slight irregularities that prohibit the wine from aging well. I’m not saying I have a great palate, but it’s an adequate one, and you do learn a few things when you’ve tasted as many wines as I have for so long.
I’d love to have the time and opportunity to taste more old California wine, to see how my predictions panned out. Since we’re on the subject of 2005 red wines, here are some from that vintage that I tasted when they were first released, and to which I gave a “Cellar Selection” designation, meaning that I recommended the wine be aged. I haven’t had any of these wines since, and, since they’re now a little more than eight years old, all should be at that exciting, interesting transition point of losing primary fruit and picking up secondary notes. If any of the proprietors wishes to afford me the pleasure of sending me a bottle, I promise to share the results here in the blog–for better or worse.
Trefethen 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Colgin 2005 IX Estate
Flora Springs 2005 Rennie Reserve
Goldschmidt 2005 Game Ranch Single Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon
Nickel & Nickel 2005 John C. Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Far Niente 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Napa Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon
Hanzell 2005 Chardonnay
Chardonnay? Yes, every once in a while a California Chardonnay is worth aging. Which brings up an interesting point. How do I know Hanzell Chardonnay is ageable? Because I’ve had old ones, up to 20 years in age, and they can be remarkable. Does that knowledge influence my appraisal of the wine? Absolutely. Why would it not? On the other hand, I’ve also given Cellar Selection designations to Chardonnays that I’ve never had the opportunity to taste when they’d been properly aged: Joseph Phelps 2011 Freestone Chardonnay, for example. While I’ve only had that wine as a new release, I’d bet my bottom dollar it’s good for at least eight years–and I wouldn’t mind trying it in 2023, when it will be 12 years old. And then, there’s Hartford Court 2005 Stone Côte Vineyard Chardonay. That wine is now eight years old; I sure would like to see if my Cellar Selection call was right on, or an unmitigated disaster.
I was starting to feel like the only person on Earth who had concerns about the 2011 vintage, until I read this post from Jim Laube’s blog, in which he describes “a high presence of musty and even moldy flavors” in too many of the wines.
I’ve been telling Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Department for the better part of a year the same thing. Of course, one is loathe to say, of any given wine, that it’s “moldy” because, unless you actually test it for, say, botrytis, you don’t actually know; that loaded word can kill the wine’s sales. But “musty” and “moldy” aromas and accompanying bad flavors are exactly what plagues so many 2011s. That, and a generalized unripeness across the board.
The vintage was the coldest ever–well, in living memory, anyway. It was the year that summer never came. Brutal for people and grapes alike. This problem wasn’t limited just to the coolest regions: it was coastal-wide, extending into Paso Robles. I’m not going to identify any particular bottlings, but here are some Moldy Hall of Fame 2011 wines; maybe you can figure out what they are.
There was a single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands that was filled with fungus. A Paso Robles red Rhône-blend that reeked of mushrooms, not in a good way. An expensive Russian River Valley Pinot whose asparagus smell reminded me of the Monterey veggies of long ago, as did one from Carneros. Another Pinot, with a Santa Barbara County appellation, smelled like green beans and tomatoes.
As I look over my notes, I see that the variety that was most susceptible to these defects was Pinot Noir, although I also found it in some Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Viogniers, Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including some expensive ones. I guess Pinot was most affected because of its transparency: the very thing that lets us taste the most finely-tuned aspects of Pinot’s terroir also magnifies the slightest problem.
The thing about mold, unripeness and vegetal notes is that they don’t go away. You can’t blow them off with decanting. And they won’t age out. On Wine Enthusiast’s Vintage Chart for 2011 Pinot Noir, I gave Carneros my lowest score in many years. Ditto for Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara, including Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. Having said that, the thing to realize is that 2011 was far from being a “bad” vintage. Yes, there were a lot of mediocre wines, more than usual; but there were also some fabulous one. The problem of moldy berries is easily addressed by the winery: If their viticulture can’t prevent it (and often it can’t, because botrytis moves in really fast), then the sorting table is where bad grapes are plucked out, before they go into the fermenter. Problem is, sorting is expensive. Not every winery can afford the equipment or the staff. It must be a terrible moral quandary for a winemaker to allow moldy grapes to pass into the wine–but what can she do? It’s economics.
Here are some wineries that obviously did have the means and will power to produce magnificent 2011 Pinot Noirs: Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Paul Hobbs, Rochioli, Lynmar, Dutton-Goldfield, Joseph Phelps, Failla, Thomas Fogarty, Flowers, Testarossa, Tantara, Freeman, Sojourn, Siduri and Foxen. The usual suspects, you say? Exactly. The reason they’re the usual suspects is because these wine companies do what has to be done to produce great wine.
Actually, the problems of 2011 (and, to an almost equal extent, 2010) underscore two important things to keep in mind: One, not every year in California is the same! And two, just wait until the 2012s start coming out. They will be superb.
You know those “Where are they now?” articles that appear this time of year? I thought it would be fun to write a version of that for wine, so I went into Wine Enthusiast’s database and did a search of the top wines I reviewed in the early 2000s, to see how many of them are still around and, if they are, are they still performing well or have they stumbled.
The biggest change between then and now is that my reviewing portfolio has changed. Back then, I did quite a few Australian wines: Penfolds, Jim Barry, St. Hallett and Benjamin among others. Nowadays I no longer review the wines of Australia. Back then I also showed some high scores for some Mendocino wines, including a fabulous 1999 Fife “Old Yokayo Ranch” Syrah (95 points). I don’t do Mendocino anymore (I miss Anderson Valley!)–that’s my lovely colleague, Virginie Boone–nor do I do Temecula, which was the source of another 95 point wine then, Stuart’s 1998 Zinfandel. Virginie reviews that part of California, too, as she does the Sierra Foothills. I particularly miss doing the wines of Domaine de la Terre Rouge, for which I always had a fondness. But California is just too big for me to do alone, and Virginie is such a fine reviewer and reporter.
I also miss reviewing Champagne [the real French bubbly], but I’m happy to leave that pleasant task to Roger Voss, who does Champagne for the magazine.
In my coastal regions of California, most of the wineries I gave high scores to back then are still getting them: Robert Young, Shafer, Stag’s Leap, Robert Mondavi, Gainey, Lail, Silverado, Beringer, Pride Mountain, Vine Cliff, Mount Eden, Clos Pegase, Frank Family, Venge, Merry Edwards, Rochioli, Testarossa, Hanzell, PlumpJack, Sequoia Grove, Freemark Abbey, Dutton Goldfield, Deerfield Ranch, Novy, Corison, Hendry, Peju, Clos du Val, Ridge, De Loach and Acacia. All these wines, among others, scored 93 points or more; their names have become the Classified Growths of California, and isn’t that good.
Notable on my list of high-scoring wines from the early 2000s are a few wineries I’ve lost track of, for one reason or another. I gave a very high score, 96 points, to the Carlisle 2000 “Two Acres,” which if I recall correctly I tasted at the old Hospice du Rhône, poured for me by none other than Mike Officer himself; that wine blew my mind. I also wrote about Mike at some length in my book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.
But for some reason, Mike stopped reaching out to me years ago, and I regret it. I also used to give good scores to IO, which made Rhône-style wines from Santa Barbara County. The brand was part of the Robert Mondavi portfolio, but I haven’t seen any bottles of it for a long time, and I’m unsure of its status.
It’s awfully hard keeping track of all the wineries in California, especially over a multi-year period. One can only do so much. Beyond what I can accomplish myself in keeping open the lines of communication, I depend on the wineries to keep me in the loop. There are reasons why they don’t. Some wineries are addicted to only 1 or 2 publications, which is their right, of course; they may feel that as long as those magazines are giving them high scores, why throw the dice and risk a low score from someone else. This is however a dangerous gamble: That publication may destroy you if the critic bends that way. In other cases, changes in employees result in sample mailings falling into the cracks, as databases are not kept up. In general, I don’t like asking wineries to send me wine, because it seems importunate, which is not my style, nor do I need the bottles as I’m already maxed out most of the time. But that’s my job, reviewing coastal California, so I sometimes have to to remind people that I haven’t heard from them in a while. In 100% of the cases, they understand, and apologize. I, too, apologize, if I have to ask you to send me stuff.