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Talkin’ Zinfandel blues


ZAP, the annual Zinfandel tasting at Fort Mason, is this week. I haven’t gone for years. At the last one I went to, along with 20,000 other people, all the toilets overflowed, not a happy thing under any circumstances, much less when everyone’s drinking.

I used to actually drink Zinfandel, rather than just critically review it, which is the main reason why it passes my lips these days. The first Zinfandel I have any record of having had was from Wine and The People, a 1976 bottling whose origin is listed as “Sonoma.” Not Valley or County; this was before labeling laws were initiated by the Feds. I must have bought it in San Francisco, where I was living, in 1979, although I did not open it for another four years. I remember the wine store clerk explaining to me what Wine and the People was, but I don’t remember anything he said. I turn now to Google; find tidbits, like eroded artifacts culled from an archeological dig. Wine and the People was located in “an old warehouse” in Berkeley.  Originally, it was “a home winemaker supply store and later on Berkeley’s first licensed winery [and] a meeting place for many budding winemakers, many now famous names.” The name referred to the fact that you — a person, anybody — could go there and make and bottle your own wine. (A kind of precursor of Crushpad?) It was founded by a gentleman named Peter Brehm, who now runs Brehm Vineyards.

Here are my exact notes on that Zinfandel:

“Date – 6/8/83
Color – rose, garnet, salmon rim
Nose – strong Zin; spicy, cedar/eucalyptus, vanilla & cantaloupe
Taste – powerful and alcoholic. Tannic. Fruit almost overwhelmed. Austere, elegant. Long finish – several minutes.
Food – steak.
Price – $10 (in 1979)”

A few things. Concerning the “salmon rim,” this refers, of course, to the meniscus, the outer edge of the wine in the glass. That Zin was nearly seven years old, and losing color. Concerning the “nose” (where did I learn to use that old-fashioned synecdoche? Broadbent?), I have no idea what I meant by “cantaloupe.” “Fruit almost overwhelmed” obviously refers to the tannins. But then, as the alcohol was 13.5%, it would not have been the kind of super-fruity Zinfandel we see today. (So why did I say it tasted “alcoholic”?)

Interestingly, the next Zinfandel I tasted, two months later, also was a 1976, Ridge’s Lytton Springs, from Dry Creek Valley, and it cost me all of $8 when I bought it, also in 1979. I liked it considerably more than the Wine and The People Zin, and used words like “brilliant,” “magnificent” and “perfect” to describe it. Unfortunately, I did not note what the alcohol was, but would be surprised if it exceeded 14%. Perhaps someone from Ridge will enlighten me.

I’ve had my ups and downs with Zinfandel during my career. I never did care for the fat, extracted, high-alcohol sweet style. Clumsy, inelegant, and undrinkable with almost anything, except for that all-purpose food group, “barbecue,” by which is meant “If you’re in the backyard gorging yourself on roasted animals, feel free to drink anything your hostess provides. Yes, even if it’s from a paper cup.”

On the other hand, given Zinfandel’s tendency to clumsiness, I am suitably impressed when an authentically balanced one comes my way. If you ask me where the best ones come from, I’d say, off the top of my head, Napa Valley, because they tend to show balance and richness, while remaining dry; and then, there are those Napa tannins, still the best in California. However, top-of-the-head truths can often by upset by bottom-line facts, as a search of my Zinfandel reviews (about 550 in all) in Wine Enthusiast’s database demonstrates. My highest-scoring Zinfandels all have come from Sonoma County’s valleys (Russian, Dry Creek,  Sonoma). I did like a Ravenswood 2007 Dickerson, and also a Zinfandel I had only two days ago, Rubicon’s 2007 Edizione Pennino. Both vineyards, interestingly, are in Rutherford. Although the Sierra Foothills are famous for Zinfandel, I haven’t cared all that much for them. Too alcoholic, often unbalanced. There’s some pretty rustic winemaking up in them thar hills. Coincidentally, as I turn the pages in my old cellarbook, I come to Zin #3 from those long ago daze: Also from Ridge, but this time it’s the 1980 Shenandoah Vineyards, which hailed from the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County. Of it I wrote: “warm…prickly and tart…bit hot on finish.” As too many Foothills Zins are today.

Zinfandel styles come and go, like women talking about Michaelangelo. We’ve had white Zin, blush Zin, carbonically-macerated Zin a la Beaujolais, Zinfandel port, “claret-style” Zin, knock-your-sox-off Zin, even (a crime against Nature) sparkling Zinfandel. Who can blame the public for being confused?

  1. If this was truly your first Zin, how would you be able to classify the nose as “Strong Zin?” What would be your reference point? Were you merely describing it as a strong wine or strong in comparison to other Zins? Maybe you’d previously tried a Zin and since forgotten?

  2. bob gustafson says:

    Steve, when I first started drinking wine seriously in the early 1970’s I saved wine labels in a scrapbook. Looking at those today I have four different Ridge zinfandels. Two from 1972: Lodi, 12.2% alcohol; Coast Range, 11.4 % alcohol; 1973 Montebello, 12.6% alcohol and finally a 1974 Fiddletown, 14.5% alcohol.

  3. Peter Brehm ran Wine and The People for about ten years, maybe more, I am guessing. His partner in the business was Dennis Kelly, also an English professor at St. Mary’s College just over the East Bay hills in Moraga. Dennis is one of those renaissance people–he has written cookbooks with Bruce Aidells, the sausage king, for example.

    These days, Peter Brehm splits his time between his home in Berkeley and his vineyard/winery up in Washington. But, his very large contribution to the world of home winemaking continues. Brehm is a major supply of frozen must from a variety of vineyards sent all over the U. S.

    Incidentally, Wine and The People was more than a dumpy little store in some backwater. It was a big place with all kinds of supplies and equipment for both home winemaking and for home brewing.

  4. Re ZAP:

    I go to ZAP every year. Indeed, my rag is one of the many sponsors of ZAP. And I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the bathrooms no longer overflow.

    In the early days, ZAP was the bastion of the wine geek. Nowadays, the tasting is much more of a social event in the afternoon. The morning session for trade is still a serious event, by the way. With over three hundreds wineries, this is not a place to make important wine judgments. But, it is a good way to meet new wineries and to say hello to old friends like Ridge and Ravenswood–and to taste the new wines they will have coming to market.

  5. Steve!

    Say it ain’t so! You don’t like Zin. OMG. Next time, I think you shouldn’t sugar coat it, just tell us what you really think. As a wine writer, reviewer, suppose it’s your right not to like certain wines, and so can’t critique you for that. Have you thought of simply telling folks not to send you Zins for review? I never realized your “bias” on Zins – no critique, but do you think your dislike of the grape might skew your write ups when you taste Zins? I mean, many writers have a skew toward Zin (I think) – like Robert Parker who seems to like the high alcohol, oak, fruit, extracted style of Zin and I believe they may rank Zins higher – they may not – I don’t know. Just curious if you think you can still offer your readers a balanced view of Zinfandel wines, given your seeming intense dislike of Zins? Out of curiosity – what are your “highest rated” Zins?

    But I have to take up for my poor little Zinfandel grape… It is uniquely California (yes, we all know it originated in Croatia and it is ‘DNA identical’ to Primitivo, so let’s not go there) and believe it represents the true California spirit of the little grape that could!

    However, I agree with you on ZAP – I was there only a scant? four years ago and it was vastly overcrowded and inefficiently run. People seemed to show up to get drunk, not taste any wine, and I don’t know about the toilets because the line was so long to get in, we waited until we got home!


  6. Nice piece, Steve. Like you I enjoy a Zin that is about more than alcohol and sweet fruit. I remember Peter Granoff serving an approximately 10-year-old Ridge Geyserville to a group of us at after we had learned the venture capitalists were shutting us down. A beautiful, expressive and subtle wine. Wish I remember the vintage. 1991? I still usually get a few bottles of the new vintages of Geyserville and Lytton Springs but am becoming less confident they will improve for a decade or more….

  7. The Zins that got me hooked were from the old Lytton Springs label (before Ridge bought the place). The wines from 1976 through 1979 were just down-right delicious (Charlie, I know you will remember those!). Being a broke college student at the time but having the advantage of working in a wineshop that carried these wines, my friends and I drank many of them. I also cellared a few. I had my last bottle about 3 months ago (the 1979 making it 30 years old) and it was still together and actually could have gone further! A look at the label revealed 12.8 % alcohol. I know that the old Lytton Springs did not put their Zins through M-L so that may have helped keep the wine together, but it’s probably more the reasonable alcohol level. In their youth, these wines were big fruit-driven wines, too.
    Ridge, with all their considerable skill, has not been able to match those old bottlings from that particular vineyard (the “Valley Vista Vineyard” if my memory serves me). Yes, life would be hell without Zinfandel!

  8. I find it very difficult to find good zin’s. Wading through the over oaked, high octane choices these days can be disapointing to say least. At a recent tasting of 2007 Russian River zins, 11 of the 12 wines had no acid, litttle if any tannis, were way too sweet, way too hot and basically undrinkable.

    2 producers that can always be relied on for a great, well balanced bottle are Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen and Dutton-Goldfield in Sebastopol.

  9. David Sharp says:

    Like Bob Gustafson I collected wine labels in early-mid 70’s and here’s what I found in my book:

    Carneros Creek Yolo Co. Zin 1975 – 13.8%
    Carneros Creek Eschen Vyds, Amador Co Zin 1975 – 13.9%
    Ridge Geyserville Late Picked Zin 1975 – 14.7%
    Ridge Coast Range Zin 1975 – 13.5%
    Corti Bros. Reserve Shenandoah Vly Zin 1973 – 13.5%

    I also found a 1970 David Bruce Petit Syrah – 17.5% ouch – boy he made some strange wines back in the 70’s.

  10. Steve,
    The ZAP experience you described was unfortunate but I have seen this happen in large wine events all over the world. I too have not attended ZAP for 6-7 years but started going as a winery employee beginning in the middle nineties. The food & wine pairing event at Rosenblum Cellars on the first night of ZAP was “THE” event to attend, in my opinion. There were smaller crowds (limited to 300) smaller field of wineries (25 wineries) and really good restaurants (also 25) that all paired one dish with their companion zinfandel producer. The only way to taste the many faces of zinfandel. I wish they held the smaller events in other places around the country as I now live on the East Coast and do not get to San Francisco as much as I would like. As far as wine regions, while I am fond of Howell Mountain, to your point another Napa growing venue, I also love Mendocino Ridge Zinfandels for their power. Guess that makes me a glutenous BBQ animal gorger, (guilty as charged).

    I will say that as a home wine maker and grape grower, zinfandel is forgiving where winemaking flaws are concerned, and I personally need constant forgiveness. cheers from a zinfandel lover.

  11. Greetings Steve! Regarding that 1976 Lytton Springs, the alcohol level was 11.6%. And I’m of course very happy to hear that your responses were of the “brilliant,” “magnificent” and “perfect” sort; always very nice to hear! Hope things are well with you, and as always, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any queries I might be of assistance with.


    Christopher Watkins
    Tasting Room Manager/Ridge Monte Bello
    Host: “4488: A Ridge Blog”

  12. Aah, Zinfandel, good times. I live in in the South, but once, while visiting a beau in San Francisco, I tried many Zins there in tasting rooms and elsewhere, because that’s what the beau loved. And I became completely enamored of it too. In fact, for a while it was my very fave varietal; I love it still, though drink it much less these days. I remember the beau telling me about ZAP and how much fun it was, and what a great resource for Zin lovers, and oh, how I wanted to go, just once! Maybe someday. . . .

  13. p.s. very much appreciate the dylan/guthrie/ochs reference in the post title …


  14. Stan Hock says:

    Hi, Steve:

    In 1983, I wrote a cover story for the East Bay Express on Peter Brehm and Wine and the People. (Peter opened the store in May, 1970 and by that fall was selling winemaking equipment and brokering grapes from vineyards like Winery Lake in Carneros.) At the time, I co-owned a fine wine shop in downtown Berkeley. Peter made our house label wines, including the popular Berkeley Red, which proudly stated “Wine for people, not for profit” on its back label. (Our P&L statement proved the point.) The Wine and the People Zinfandel you had was from Kelly Creek Vineyard in Sonoma Valley near Vineburg. I remember it having a distinctive, green pepper spice quality.

    By the way, you can reach Peter at As Charlie Olken knows, he’s a very interesting character who’s seen it all in the wine biz.

  15. This is the first year we won’t be attending ZAP. Last year, a near table was dressed in battery-operated light vests and colored twirling strings to grap the attention of the festivals’ guests. There was a man further down with a mini-microphone yelling at people to come and taste their sauce. It’s also challenging when the trade visit only the established facilities limiting their over all time at the event for fear of the moment the general public is ushered in and the most certain mosh pit ensues.

    Having poured six years consecutively, we are done with ZAP. No real exposure for the little guys, four cases of precious juice poured with little to no sales reaped as the people were so drunk, they more than likely don’t even remember what happened even if they had a good time. Fur coated lady puking at East building in ’07 by 3 pm? Anyone? Anyone?

    ZAP needs to reign in the drunken absurdity otherwise they may find themselves in trouble. Unfortunately, the ZAP festival encourages and condones Zin’s bad reputation of being a bastard California varietal that is at best out of balanced and at worst raisiny jet fuel that will forever hopelessly chase the heels of “noble” varieties. I hope Zin one day gains world respect. Although the ZAP org is on point, the ZAP festival is not helping.

    BTW, the four-six recommended cases are too many.

  16. Theo, it wasn’t the first Zin I’d had, far from it. It was the first one I recorded in my first tasting diary.

  17. What started out as simply a home winemaker supply by Peter eventually segued into an actual commercial wnry, selling at retail, for a number of yrs. Reportedly JerryBrown’s favorite wnry when he was Guv. The W&TP wines were sold/well-made wines and good values. The even did a Zin one yr in 4-5 different oaks, so the consumer could compare. I never did meet Peter, alas.
    You decry the vast range in styles, Steve, as leaving the consumer confused as to what to expect from a btl of Zin. To me…that is the big attraction of Zin. Many people make the same complaint about Calif Syrah these days as well. The converse (a narrow range of styles) is exactly why I no longer (or seldom ever) drink NapaVlly Cab. They’re all so monolithic in style and I find them just plain borrrrring (not to mention overpriced).
    The characterization of Calif Zin has alcoholic/over-oaked/over-the-top/over-extracted is a trite/tiresome cliche. There are plenty of them out there that don’t fit that description. True…many/most these days are over 14%…but they carry that alcohol much better than they did back in the ’70’s.
    Cute story: Back in the late ’70’s, one (of a number) of wine writers ranted and railed against the increasing alcohol levels in Zin. He described them as “overblown monsters with shabby table manners” (or some such words….sorry I don’t remember exactly, Charlie). The winemakers listened and we got what we deserved for listening to them whiney wine writers…the “food wines” of the early ’80’s. Danged near killed the market for Calif Zin for almost 10 yrs. Anemic/eviscerated wines that went with nothing. I still give ol’ Charlie a hard time about that!!!
    I’ve not attended ZAP for over 10 yrs now. Got to be too much of a zoo for me. It’s a good social event to reconnect with people, but not an event where you can do some serious tasting. As mentioned above, the pre-ZAP event at Rosenblum was where the action was.

  18. Steve,
    Thank you for the retro moment! I went back and found my old Jack London labels, and few notes scribbled. My love affair with Zin dates back to very early 80’s.. the wine that made me leave my home in the midwest and go to work for a winery making Zin. Did you ever taste Ravenswood first vintages when he was making it at Russian River Vineyards (old Topolos I think…) great fruit and some wines to remember. Thanks again for the post! By the by, I stopped going to Zap in 2002.

  19. Steve,

    Not for anything, if done right, single vineyard RRV sparkling zin is quite nice if it’s done correct and it pairs with a wide range of food. The pepper and spice come together very well with nice crisp acid and little to no r.s. at dosage.

  20. Steve – I look forward to sharing my memories of Wine and the People when I see you next…at Gainey. Sounds like it’s all for the best that they don’t make a Zin…

  21. Arden Burt says:

    The tide seems to be turning on Zinfandel with more elegant and balanced options getting recognized in the marketplace. I had a wonderful Carlisle the other day, and Nalle does a terrific job. Both of these wines are really well crafted. My uncle used to harvest a ton from my family’s Zinfandel vineyard in the ‘70’s’ at 24 Brix, and after 20 years the wine was still good enough to quiet a noisy room, it was ‘stop-you-good.’
    Arden Burt

  22. Dear Steve,

    The continued sheer popularity of the event would seem to indicate that ZAP and Zinfandel producers are on to something.

    Attendees, older and increasingly younger alike, are drawn to Zinfandel for its down to earth approachability, taste satisfaction, Californian uniqueness, tradition, value, and relative lack of elitism – no millionaire types in suits and ties there. And how cool is it that that wine lovers can hang out and taste with wine legends such as Kent Rosenblum, Joel Peterson, and Paul Draper?

    Then there are the ever-increasing new stars to be discovered – setting the bar ever higher for style and quality.

    To set the record straight, attendance is big but not 20,000 as you state but more like 8000.

    And in all fairness, your readers should know that ZAP does make accommodations for the trade by putting on the Flights seminar, hosting a media venue – The Zin Zone – and allowing early admittance to a trade only portion of the Grand Tasting. And the bathrooms work fine.

    There are a dozens of producers out there you may not have reviewed, striving to grow and produce Zinfandel that stands alongside the world’s most distinctive wines. Perhaps in the spirit of journalistic fairness it’s time you give today’s Zinfandels and ZAP events another look.

    Dave Pramuk
    Co-Founder, Robert Biale Vineyards

  23. I am not sure when you last attended the Grand Tasting at the Zinfandel Festival, but I am sure it was quite a while ago. There is quite a bit of difference between now and say 10 years ago. There have never been even close to 20,000 people there. In fact we almost reached half that number years ago, but never close to that number.
    As someone who had attended all 18 previous Tastings, I find them to have the most positive energy and excitement of any other tasting that I attend. What other tasting can you try so many versions of the same varietal? With the classic producers like Ridge and the new exciting brands like Orin Swift pouring their wines, you have a chance to really learn about Zinfandel. You can find out that not all Zinfandels are overbearing and over oaked. There are many that have character and balance.
    There are 4 events that make up the Zinfandel Festival. The last event on Saturday is the Grand Tasting. This year over 200 wineries will be pouring their current and future release wines for your education and enjoyment. There will be about 8,000 people over the course of the day; this includes Trade, Volunteers, Winery Staff and the Public spread out over 8 hours. I always find it interesting that people remember the few people who have had too much wine, but not the thousands including themselves who are fine. Though I bet you will have purple teeth, but then again what wine tasting can you go to and not end up with purple teeth? For full disclosure; I am Winemaker of D-cubed Cellars and the current President of the Board of Directors for Zinfandel Advocates and Producers.

  24. For balance sake, I have to come to the defense of the Zinfest. I’ve attended from the beginning, I think, and even in the last few years have been amazed at how seemingly unintoxicated the 20 somethings appear given the amount of wine they have most likely consumed. Only a very tiny minority were visibly showing the effects. Most were trying to get to know the grape, though were understandably overwhelmed, asking each other, “whatdya like?”. How to choose among so many options. It’s the scale that ZAP must do something about.

    The organization though knows about their rep and is taking steps this year to stem over consumption, such as greater visibility of the park police earlier in the afternoon.

  25. A little bit of truthtelling is in order.

    It was Frank Prial (NY Times) whose article around 1980 or so influenced CA producers into the production of what Prial called “food wines”. I appreciate the credit I have been given by Tom Hill, but the comments in Connoisseurs’ Guide about flabby wines with no table manners were directed at the late harvest wines of the 1976, 1977, 1978 harvests. Not only were they high in alcohol but many had residual sugar.

    Gee, sounds like the Turley wines of today. But, back then, folks like Ridge were making balanced wines and still are.

    The comment that someone made about tasting 12 RRV Zins and finding 11 of them to have no acid and no tannin cannot be refuted without knowing which wines were tasted. But, the list of wines from that area that come with balanced and good table manners is quite long–Ridge (Ponzo), Ravenswood (Belloni), Valdez (Lancel Creek), Dutton Goldfield and Loxton as mentioned, Ottomino (Von Weidlich), Gary Farrell, Pellegrini, Paradise Ridge. No need to go further; the point is made.

    As for the Grand Tasting at ZAP, it is big, roiling mess but folks love it. I prefer the Thursday night Good Eats tasting (75 wineries/ each with a food match) that now takes place at Fort Mason, not at Rosenblum.

    But, as mentioned, the trade tasting on Sat morning is very comfortable and manageable. And, ZAP members get into the public tasting an hour early so membership does have its privileges.

    We have noticed far less public drunkenness in the last few years, but, frankly, no public tasting with 300 wineries is going to be free of that effect.

    The tasting lasts until 5 PM, and we (the folks who work the Connoisseurs’ Guide table with me) have noticed that the last hour is noticeably louder. Some folks drink and start talking. Others stop drinking and start talking.

    Our measurement of when it is time to pack up and leave is when folks start dropping their glasses on the floor. The first one will be sometime after 4 PM and by 430 or so, it happens regularly enough that we head for the door.

    That said, there are plenty of serious wine drinkers at ZAP who come to taste the new offerings and to find the new wineries. It is simply unfair and inappropriate to tar the good behavior of most folks with the bad behavior of the few.

  26. Well…Charlie….you know how it is with old folks and their memories!!! You’ll be there someday, too. 🙂
    I just recall your comment containing “shabby table manners”, but maybe it was something else, close. There were a slew of wine writers there in the lat-’70’s complaining about the proliferation of LateHrvst Zins; you, certainly FrankPrial, maybe TerryRobards or NateChroman. But I always like to blame just you for the onset of “food wines”….makes for a better story!!!
    I guess I’d also dispute your characterization of the Turley Zins. I can’t remember a one of late that had any RS. But, yes, certainly the alcohol is there. I think Turley has been getting a bad rap as the poster child of over-the-top Zins. Much of that I think is a leftover of HelenTurley’s winemaking style that she imposed early on. True…they’re alcoholic…sometimes painfully so. But they seem to carry the 15%+ alcohol a whole lot better than those LateHrvsts of the late-’70’s.
    Your list of current Zins with “good table manners” is pretty spot on; many, plus a few others (DryCreekVnyds, Cofarro, Cabot, Cassayre-Forni) would be on my short list as well.
    Nice talkin’ to you Charlie. Forgive the memory lapse. Maybe see you at RR in March??

  27. What a shame that you couldn’t enjoy your ZAP experience last week, Steve, wrapped as you are in your evident predilections. I found this year’s Fort Mason event to be quite civilized. No jostling, no unruly mobs… just regular people enjoying their wine and company… whoops, isn’t that wine is for?

    The Good Eats zin/food event two nights before, in fact, was downright rarified. Kudos to the ZAP organizers for putting on something so enjoyable, and offering proof, once and for all, that zin is indeed one of the most food-versatile wines in the world (it’s outperformed pinot noirs in many of my own wine/food seminars).

    But like all really big shows, ZAP is a great place to find the wonderful winners. Sure, many of them are fat, or sweet or alcoholic. But there are always those few dozen that are intensely zinful yet elegant, crisp, zesty, fine, silken, freshy, buoyant… you get the picture. That’s the great value of annual events like ZAP: you get to see what’s shakin’ in the world of zin, and what ain’t. For consumers and professional wine buyers alike, what’s not to like?

    Re my personal review on, and my personal thanks to the zin producers and organizers for this wonderful annual affair!

  28. Randy, I’m sure ZAP is way better than when I last attended. The reasons I don’t go anymore (or to things like Family Winemakers, Rhone Rangers etc.) are because (a) I get sent a lot of that stuff anyway and (b) those big walkaround tastings are not the best way for me to do my job, i.e. tasting wine, making critical judgments and putting it into writing. So I am not putting ZAP down or suggesting it’s not a great venue for most people. It just isn’t for me.

  29. Chris Bee says:

    I have two wines from Turley the 1995 Grist and the 1995 Moore which state 1% rs on the label and a marking to identify the wine has RS. Tom should know about late harvest when his answering machine message is”the wine of the day is the Ridge 1970 Occidental late harvest”.A great wine and it was in it’s day a late harvest but in 2010 many wineries would not label it as such.
    So many wines cabs,merlot etc. are made to a formula that they are boring after a while .Not so zinfandels they vary from AVA to AVA ,various oaks,and yes RS .even some with botrytis.Zins are like a box of chocolates in that they are full of surprises and to me that is what makes them fun to drink.
    As for high alcohol try some of the Syrrah coming out of CA as high as 19.9% unfortified Clos Mimi 2002 and 2003. and now many others with RS.
    cheers Chris Bee


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