Jon Bonné set off quite a stir the other day with his San Francisco Chronicle column on “natural wine.” I even had people Facebooking me to ask what I thought about it.
He treated the issue in a very fair-minded, repertorial way, dealing straight down the middle. Jon granted that we all want “a wine that’s honestly made, compelling and — crucially — delicious.” But he also warned that the whole “natural wine” movement can “tip into greenwashing.”
I couldn’t agree more. As the daily recipient of pitches, press kits and propaganda from wineries that want to get a little love from me, I’ve developed something of a thick skin when it comes to claims. “Greenwashing” is the perfect way to describe a large part of the whole natural, green, sustainable, organic, biodynamic thing. Everybody wants to portray his practices as purer than the other guy’s practices. It’s a holier-than-thou world out there, and IMHO that goes for the whole greenie-natural crowd.
I obviously have no problem with people doing whatever they want to when it comes to growing grapes and making wine. In principle, I’m in favor of the cleanest, least polluting, most sustainable practices. I’m glad when a grower gets his vineyard certified organic, if that’s what he wants. I just don’t want to get drubbed over the head by constantly being told about it.
Besides, what does “natural” mean, when you break it down? Basically, nothing, as far as I can tell. I was talking to a winemaker the other day who was telling me about a machine that can take the sugar out of grape juice. That would result, in theory, in drier, and possibly more balanced, wines. When I observed that that intervention didn’t sound very “natural” — in fact, there’s something Franken-wine about it — he countered that, since the technology wasn’t being applied to the fermented wine, but only to the grape juice, the wine itself could be considered entirely natural!
I didn’t think so, and I made an analogy, inappropriate to reproduce here, that demolished his notion. But then I added that, personally, I don’t really care what winemakers do behind the scenes with their juice or wine. Why should I? Like Jon Bonné said, all I want is a compelling and delicious wine.
I try to put myself into the mindset of a vintner who decides to go the natural route, whole hog. I guess that means using indigenous yeasts, the kind that are flying around everywhere. That’s a philosophical decision, but I bet you that winemaker has some “spare” bags of commercial yeast on the shelf, “just in case.” These sorts of winemakers are elevated to mythic status by a select group of wine writers for whom they’re darlings. Wine writers love to discover such garagistes who are the outlaws of the wine world. They strike the pose of rebels against the academy, purists disgusted with the pandering of the status quo, and wine writers (some of them) are intellectually attracted to them. It’s good for a wine writer’s career to discover and promote a darling, and if that darling is on the side of goodness and purity and “naturalism,” some of that stardust spills onto the wine writer, who then basks in the reflected glory. What, you don’t think that kind of thing happens all the time? Trust me, it does.
I wiki’ed “natural wine. Here’s how they define it: “Natural wine is wine made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine.” Do you see anything in there that guarantees quality? Does “as little…intervention as possible” mean that the wine will brim with terroir? Is there a direct relationship between degrees of intervention and scores? The answers, respectively, are no, no and no.
Author’s note: This is a natural column. The words were produced entirely out of the writer’s head, without the use of a dictionary, Thesaurus, or other intervention.
On the road again
I leave today for Santa Barbara for the rest of the week. Will try to blog from the road.
My old friend David was complaining about wine yesterday. He doesn’t know much about it, despite my mentoring him for all these years, but he does know he’s looking for, and missing, “tannins.”
What does David mean when he talks about “tannins”?
He said he wants to feel something solid in his mouth when he sips a wine. Something grippy, structural. I told him that, if he didn’t mind spending $60 or $80 a bottle, there were some Barolos and Barbarescos I could recommend which would fulfill his tannin quotient. He replied that he buys Super-Tuscans, but even they seem too soft for him.
This set me to thinking. I probably use the word “soft” in my wine reviews more than any other adjective, except, possibly, for “dry.” (Maybe “fruity,” also.) Sometimes when I call a wine soft, it’s a compliment. But most of the time, it’s not. For example, I called an Esser 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon soft, but then I explained it “lacks structure, which makes it taste too sweet.” Sometimes, a wine without firm tannins and at least some decent acidity will taste sweet even it it’s technically dry.
This is the problem with so many California red wines. They’re too soft. That makes many of them taste alike, even when they’re made from varieties as different as Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, Syrah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. We inherited from Old Europe the concept that different grape varieties should and do taste differently from each other. They’re grown in distinctive places to which they’re adapted their dna to thrive, and they express distinct qualities. I don’t suppose it has been easy, all these centuries, to mistake a Beaune Pinot Noir with a Saint-Estephe Cabernet Sauvignon (despite Harry Waugh’s wry “not since lunch” reply when asked if he’d ever confused Burgundy and Bordeaux).
But here in California it is very easy to confuse virtually any red variety for any other, with the possible exception of Pinot Noir. You’d think Sangiovese, that other “transparent” red wine, would show its telltale signature, but it doesn’t. Not when it’s made everywhere from Howell Mountain to Temecula, and the prevailing style is as I described an Andretti 2007: “Firm, chewy tannins and jammy black cherry flavors mark this dry red wine. It has nuances of currants and anise.” That could be almost anything, couldn’t it, even Pinot Noir.
Yet I must taste and review all the California wines that come my way and try to provide some help to readers. If so many things taste so similar, how do I distinguish between an 85 and a 92? My initial response would be “structure,” but that brings me back to David’s complaint about tannins. There are very few California wines that possess great structure. Even when I praise a wine’s structure, it must be seen as being relative: compared to most other wines, such and such a wine has a good structure. An example: of a J. Lohr 2006 Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon, I wrote: “rich in tannic structure, with deep, complex flavors…” etc. Did I mean, then, to suggest it had the same tannin-acid structure that my colleague, Monica Larner, praised in Luciano Sandrone’s 2005 Cannubi Boschis, a Nebbiolo from Barolo? Of course not. But for a California Cabernet, and particularly one from Paso Robles, it showed good structure. This is what I mean when I stress that wine reviewing has to be done in context. Not “Is this a wine that can stand next to anything in the world” but “Is this a good example of its variety, region and winery?”
California grapegrowers and winemakers are aware of this problem of lack of structure, but some of them don’t seem to give a damn. They keep churning out soft wines that taste like melted dessert pastries, and I keep giving them low scores and wondering who in heaven’s name is buying this stuff. But check out this article from the current issue of Western Farm Press, which caters to the grower community. Researchers at Fresno State are tinkering with ways “to extract more anthocyanins, total phenols, tannins and color to improve wine quality,” which is to say, they’re developing “smaller berries [that] produce a higher skin-to-pulp ratio,” which in turn increases tannins, leading to better structure (as well as deeper flavors). Which giant wine company is Fresno State working with? Bronco. Good for Fred Franzia. He could probably sell anything he makes no matter what it is, so he deserves credit for trying to boost quality.
As always, my full scores and reviews will appear in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.
Chateau St. Jean 2005 Reserve Merlot (Sonoma County). $90, 150 cases, 14.6%
Chateau St. Jean 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County). $90, 344 cases, 14.6%
Foxen 2009 Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard Old Vines Chenin Blanc (Santa Maria Valley). $22, 575 cases, 14.1%
Belle Glos 2008 Taylor Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast). $44. ?? cases, 14.6%
Riverbench 2008 Chapel View Chardonnay (Santa Maria Valley). $30, 160 cases, 14.6%
Bugay 2007 The Empress Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County). $75, 575 cases, 14.2%
Gainey 2007 Limited Selection Merlot (Santa Ynez Valley). $38, ?? cases, 14.1%
Mirabelle NV Brut Rosé (North Coast). $27, 6,300 cases, 13.1%
Tercero 2009 The Outlier Gewürztraminer (Santa Barbara County). $20, 160 cases, 12.5%
Pedroncelli 2009 Vintage Selection Chardonnay (Dry Creek Valley). $12, 4,500 cases, 14.2%
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I want to give a shoutout to a friend, an upstanding winemaker, who is launching a new venture. Many, and probably most, of you have heard of Greg La Follette; many of you no doubt know him. Greg’s been around for a while, from his days at Beaulieu working under Tchelistcheff, to a stint at Jess Jackson’s Kendall-Jackson, and thence to a little startup on the Sonoma Coast called Flowers. Greg also served, until recently, as head winemaker at DeLoach. His first personal brand was Tandem, in partnership with Greg Bjornstad. One thing led to another, Tandem was ended, and now Greg is out with the brand he probably should have had a long time ago: La Follette.
I’ve followed Greg’s career for quite a while. I profiled him in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff (which is out this summer in a new paperback edition), and have delighted in seeing him from time to time over the years. Greg came down to Oakland yesterday and, over chai teas, he told me about his new brand. He’s eliminated many of the outlier varieties he used to make — Tempranillo, Zinfandel — as well as about half the SKUs, and will focus on what he does best: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, along with a small-production bottling of Pinot Meunier, “just because.” Grapes are sourced from some of the same great vineyards Greg used at Tandem, including Van Der Kamp and Sangiacomo. Production is quite low. I’ve already reviewed a few of the wines and given them high scores.
I’m glad Greg has entered this new phase of his life. While he acknowledges the difficulty of the market in these perilous times, he knows he has a solid team behind him (including Pete Kight, who made his money in financial services and also owns Quivira, which recently acquired the talented Hugh Chappelle from Lynmar).
Greg is out there now, trying to gain some traction for a new brand, not an easy thing to do these days. I wish him and the new La Follette winery well.
Winemakers who inspire me
Two posts for you today. I was originally going to post only the second one, but an email I received prompted me to write the one immediately below.
My blog on Helen Turley elicited lots of comments, but one of the most striking, to me, was this:
…you would come off less petty if you spent less time giving WS and Turley a hard time and more time expanding on the question by discussing the winemakers who have inspired you, etc. Otherwise, it’s just a tantrum.
I replied: fair enough. May just do that. Anyhow, it’s my blog and I’ll throw tantrums if I want to!
Well, it is my blog, and one man’s tantrum is another man’s legitimate expression of feeling. However, I will now talk about some winemakers who inspire me.
First, some parameters. I’m inspired by every winemaker, even those whose wines I give poor scores to. Winemaking is an ancient, honorable profession, and every winemaker is a person worthy of respect. (Wish I could say the same of politicians.)
Second, the reason I’m loathe to name certain winemakers is because I know I’m going to forget some people who are deserving, and I don’t want to do that. I’ve met a lot of fantastic winemakers in my 22 years as a wine writer, and I can’t remember them all. So just because your name isn’t here doesn’t mean you didn’t inspire me.
O.K., in no particular order, here goes. Living winemakers only.
Josh Jensen. He was one of the first winemakers I ever met to write about. I liked his story, his pioneering spirit, and today I admire the fact that he’s managed to stay active and successful in a very stressed-out industry.
Genevieve Janssens. Another great story. A woman who dreamed big and made it happen, and who has survived tumultous changes at Robert Mondavi Winery.
Greg La Follette. For being a great winemaker and the world’s nicest man.
Greg Brewer. Because of the purity of his vision, his articulation in both wine and words, and his spirit, which embodies the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills. On my list for both Brewer-Clifton and Melville.
Randy Ullum. He oversees something like 5 million cases a year at Kendall-Jackson and manages to make everything interesting, from Vintner’s Reserve to the tiniest production Cab and Pinot.
Heidi Barrett. Because whatever else you can say about her wines, she’s carved out a successful niche and nobody does it better. She’s a hard worker. (And, no, she doesn’t send me hardly anything she makes!)
Margo van Staaveren. Like Genevieve at Mondavi, Margo has led the team at Chateau St. Jean for many years and through all kinds of ups and downs, and always produces wines of charm and finesse.
Bob Cabral. He was called in to pinch-hit at Williams Selyem and smacked it out of the park. An awesome winemaker and an all-around gentleman.
Ehren Jordan. Mainly because of Failla. Such great wines that show the essence of the true Sonoma Coast. He saw barren hillsides, had a dream and made it happen.
Steve Pessagno and John Falcone (Rusack). Two salt-of-the-earth guys who work it hard year in and year out. They may not get the credit more famous vintners do, but they are California winemaking.
Dan Morgan Lee. He helped pioneer Santa Lucia Highlands. He gets all kinds of awards for his wines, and deserves them. A guy who worked his way up from nowhere to the top.
Nick Goldschmidt. He’s had more jobs than Colonel Sanders has wings, and always delivers. His personal brand, Goldschmidt, defines Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. And he’s the most charming Kiwi you’ll ever meet.
Rick Longoria. Santa Barbara County winemaking could hardly exist without him. Behind the scenes, in front of the scenes, he’s The Man. Plus, his own wines are tremendous. A hard-working, honest and talented guy.
Looking back over my list, I notice a few things. Most of my winemakers
- are hard-working guys who made it on their own
- are collaborative
- are survivors, and somewhat older. In order for me to be inspired, a winemaker has to have a track record
- were in my last two books
- have earned high scores from me for their wines
I guess it’s hard for me to identify “inspiration” without including the personal qualities of the winemaker — what Dr. King called “the content of their character.” I think a good character goes into the making of great wine as much as any objective qualities of terroir. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s what I believe.
Finally, I also want to say I’m inspired by all the young men and women who continue to get into this industry everyday. They go to school, apprentice, work their butts off, stay up long hours in hot and cold, sometimes work for numbskulls, and do it all against long odds; the chance of success in the wine industry today is not as great as it once was, and the risks are high. So I’m lifting a glass to all the newbies. Here’s looking at you, kids!
The greatest wine I ever had
Did you read about that 220-year old Champagne that divers found at the bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia?
I just happened to be staying in Reims at Veuve Clicquot, which made the Champagne. I was actually with the Countess when news of the fantastic and improbable find reached her. We were in the garden, sipping — what else? — ‘87 La Grande Dame.
The Countess’s iPhone rang. At first I was mildly annoyed that our conversation — about social media in the wine industry — had been so rudely interrupted. But then, as the Countess grew increasingly excited, my interest was piqued.
“Oh, my!” she exclaimed.
“You don’t say? Sacre bleu! Incroyable! When? Where? What? How? Mon Dieu!”
I was dying to know what was going on. Eventually, the Countess switched her phone off, and said, “You won’t believe it, cher ami. They have found cases of old Clicquot at the bottom of the sea!”
We had to celebrate, of course. More Grande Dame was brought out: ‘71, ‘52, ‘29. The bells in the abbey church were rung 50 times, summoning the townsfolk to the ancient rituals. The Countess caused numberless bottles of Yellow Label to be poured, while monsieiur le curé gave thanks to the Almighty.
I was scheduled to leave the following morning, but the Countess insisted I postpone my departure. “Etienne, you must be here. You must! They are sending the wine for us to taste! It is said to be in excellent condition!”
“Who said that?” I asked
“The captain himself, a person called Jacques, or Jean, or perhaps it was Jérome. He assured me.”
“And who is this captain?” I enquired. “Is he an expert? Un homme de Champagne? Does he have the proper experience?”
The Countess’s face fell. “I had not thought of that,” she confessed.
“Think about it. What if he is a complete simpleton? What if the wine is, enfin, undrinkable? All the world’s critics will demand a taste. James Suckling, for example, will be banging on your door–”
“Not anymore,” the Countess purred. “Now that he has left Wine Spectator, he is nothing, rien.”
“You miss the point,” I insisted. “It will be someone else. Parker, or Roger Voss, or someone else of equal luminescence. They will insist upon tasting the fabulous Champagne from the bottom of the sea, and you will be compelled to allow them. If you do not, you will be subject to the most vile attacks in the press. And if they find it undrinkable, they will announce to the entire world, ‘Veuve Clicquot cannot age for 200 years, even in the world’s coldest cellar’! The reputation of this house, and of yourself, will be ruined.”
“How true,” the Countess mused. “But how will we know if the wine is undrinkable, or a gloire a Deux?”
“We shall taste it,” I replied, logically. “Which means we shall have to await its arrival.”
The next few days were spent in unbearable tension. We had to arrange for proper shipping. What if the wine had been splendid, once it emerged from its 200-year cold water bath, only to be spoiled by the rigors of travel across half a continent? It was, after all, summer in Europe, the hottest in 100 years, thanks to global warming. We had to make sure that the conditions of travel were impeccable — a difficult task, even for someone as powerful and well-connected as the Countess.
But we did it. The wine arrived safely, yesterday morning. When the refrigerated lorry drew up before the chateau’s main gate, the Countess and I, and her considerable household staff, were anxiously awaiting it.
Butlers lifted the heavy cases onto pneumatic carrying machines, which transported them quickly to the cool cellars. The Countess’s cellarmaster, M. Hungue, lifted a bottle. It was crusted with the detritus of age. There was, obviously, no label. M. Hungue looked at the Countess; the Countess looked at me; I arched an eyebrow. She gave the cellarmaster a silent cue. He removed the capsule.
The cork snapped out with a satisfactory explosion. A puff of smoke, a white whiff of cloud evaporated into the chill cellar air. M. Hungue brought the bottle to the tip of his pointed, red nose. He gave a sharp sniff. He looked at the Countess.
“Well?” she said, imperatively.
M. Hungue smiled, a small, profound grin spreading beneath his bushy white mustaches, and said not a word.
A servant handed out glasses. M. Hungue poured. The liquid came out clean and clear, the color of molten gold. The mousse was excellent, consisting of fine, small, violent beads of gas. I inhaled. Perfect old Champagne aroma, all honey and marzipan. In my mind, I gave it 100 points.
The Countess called for food: beluga caviare on toast points, paté de foie gras, smoked sturgeon. A celebration was in order! The Mayor, the priest, the chamber of deputies all were summoned. The Marsellaises was sung. The Countess was generous enough to offer each guest a tiny sip of the precious nectar. And then she summoned her secretary.
“Arrange for M. Parker and M. Voss to visit,” she commanded. “Inform them they are invited to taste my Champagne from Le Vintage de Mer, the Vintage of the Sea, which was created by my great-great-great grandmother herself, La Veuve Clicquot.” And then, turning to me, she added, triumphantly, “You see, cher Etienne, I still know how to market.”
And that is the story of how I tasted the rarest, most wonderful wine it has ever been my good fortune to enjoy! (My full review of the 1785 Clicquot Champagne will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)
Oded Shakked is throwing down the gauntlet.
“When you go to most good restaurants these days,” writes the winemaker/owner of Longboard Vineyards, “you often hear the staff talk with pride about the fact that local produce is used to make your meal…You now can understand why I get irritated when I go to the grocery store and see a person wearing a ‘Slow Food’ t shirt putting a $5 Argentinean Malbec in their shopping cart.”
Oded blogged on the topic of talking local, then buying non-local, the other day, where he let his emotions out for a run. Give it a read, then come back here.
His point is that these are extraordinarily tough times for many wineries — not just little ones like Longboard, but even big, entrenched wineries. (You think Diageo would have sold Beaulieu and Sterling if times were good?) Wineries are in a Darwinian struggle for existence; when Oded concludes his post with a poignant, “So please, make you next purchase from us, your neighbors,” he’s speaking not just for himself, but for California winemakers from Temecula to Boonville, Murphys to Lompoc. Some wineries are as endangered as the northern right whale, and Oded is telling wine drinkers that they — we — have an obligation to support our local wineries.
I’ve known Oded since the early 2000s. I put him in my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River” (which University of California Press has just re-issued, with a new preface) because he’s such an interesting guy, and his Longboard wines (mostly from Russian River Valley) are quite good. He used to be the winemaker at J Wine Co. before taking the plunge to devote himself fulltime to Longboard. That was before the recession.
Lots of winemakers with their own personal brands continue at their day jobs. It must be a terrific decision to go out on your own, especially if you have a family, as Oded does. Part of you wants the freedom and independence that go with running your own company, doing things your own way and not having to take orders from anyone. On the other hand, you covet the security of a real job. In Oded’s case, I think, he made the jump because the economy was booming, and it seemed like a hard-working young winemaker, with access to good fruit, could make a go of it.
The recession, of course, took Oded, and everybody else, by surprise. I don’t know how Longboard is doing, but from the sound of Oded’s cri du coeur, I’d guess there’s some wear and tear on the balance sheet. Hence his plea. “Next time you are in a restaurant and see no California wine…ask to talk to the wine buyer and give them a piece of your mind. Understand that supporting your local winery helps preserve a heritage and make our local communities more diverse and therefore stronger.”
If you want to know what I think, it’s that I fully understand where Oded is coming from. In these tough times we should support our local businesses. It’s the patriotic thing to do, but it also helps our neighborhoods and, ultimately, ourselves, by keeping our spending money in our communities.
On the other hand, buying strictly local does limit your choices. There’s no Riesling, Tempranillo or Sangiovese in California that approaches its European counterpart. So what’s a consumer to do, especially one with a conscience? Next time you’re in the wine store deciding what to buy, do you go with that Argentine Malbec, or that racy imported Sancerre? Or do you take your locovore sensibilities and stick with California (or Virginia, or Texas, or Washington State, or wherever you happen to live)?
Easy question. No easy answers.
Had a call from a guy working on his WSET. He’s doing a paper on rising alcohol levels over the last 20 years and wanted my viewpoint.
He began by listing 6 reasons that, in his judgment, account for higher alcohol: later harvest time, climate change, locale (planting in warmer areas, is what I think he meant), viticultural practices, vinification techniques and consumer demand. Then he asked if I thought any of them was more important than the others.
Here’s what I said. “Obviously, one of them is driving the rest.” He knew I was going to say “consumer demand.” The others (excluding climate change, which I’m not sure has a place in this discussion) are manipulatable — they can go any way the owner wants. An owner or winemaker can pick earlier or later, farm the way he wants, make the wine any way he wants. The one uncontrolled factor — the only thing he can’t manipulate — is consumer demand. Which is what matters: a winery is a business, not a charity. Therefore, consumer demand drives all else.
So we have to ask, why is the consumer demanding these high alcohol wines? Well, they’re not demanding high alcohol in itself, they’re demanding lots of fruit. And the way to achieve lots of fruit is extreme ripeness, i.e. high alcohol. It’s an unintended consequences type thing, like energy consumption. Consumers don’t consume gasoline (with all the political, financial and environmental problems it causes) because they like gas. They buy it because they need gas to drive.
Winemakers don’t want to make high alcohol wines; it’s the price they pay for ripeness. Which is why the holy grail is to achieve physiological ripeness at lower brix levels. If there was an easy way to do it, everybody would know, but there’s not. You have to try lots of different things, over many years, and even then, it’s not entirely in your hands. There’s no formula.
The WSET guy wanted to know if the high alcohol trend is reversible. I said that, while cooler vintages in California may be helping, and there’s a critical backlash against high alcohol, in general the answer is, no. We’re not going back to 11.5-12 percent alcohol.
Then he asked if high alcohol leads to homogenization. I said it does, because it leads to similar flavors in all varieties. I’ve said this before, but everytime I do, somebody — usually Charlie Olken — smacks me upside the head. But I do think fruit flavors are all pretty similar across varieties in California. (Do we really need an argument that one area is red cherries and another is black cherries? I don’t think so.) Flavor isn’t hard to achieve: I could grow grapes and get them really flavorful. Just don’t pick until they’re super ripe! But what I couldn’t achieve in wine is structure. And structure requires 3 things: money, talent and good taste (that’s assuming a good vineyard). Even if a winemaker has the first two, that doesn’t mean he has good taste. You’d be surprised at how much bad taste is out there. I constantly am.
So does high alcohol mask terroir? I said I don’t think so. The wines of Saxum have terroir. I know that vineyard. It’s a very special, unique place. It also happens to be in a hot area. Justin Smith’s wines routinely approach and sometimes exceed16%. And yet they’re delicious and compelling. So high alcohol in itself does not mask terroir. (And low alcohol doesn’t necessarily guarantee it.) I told the guy, “If you want to talk to someone who’s on an anti-high alcohol crusade, find Dan Berger. High alcohol doesn’t bother me, if it’s balanced.”
In the end, it all comes down to the consumer. Justin Smith caters his small production to his admirers. So does everybody else. And until the broad mass of consumers says “We’re sick of high alcohol and we won’t take it anymore,” high alcohol isn’t going anywhere.
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