A Sneaky Preview of a Work in Progress: “Around the World in Eighty Wines”

80daysI am busy working on the third draft of my next book, which will be released at about this time next year (lots of work left to do!). It is called Around the World in Eighty Wines and I am sure you have already guessed that it is inspired by the famous Jules Verne adventure story.

It is too soon for details, but I thought I would tease you just a bit with a pair of maps. The first map (above) is my lame attempt to plot out the route of Jules Vernes’ hero Phileas Fogg. He started in London and worked his way from east to west around the world and back to London again.

My quest, which also starts in London, is to travel the world in eighty wines, not eighty days. Each individual wine needs to represent something important about wine and the places and people and cultures that produce wine. Since there are thousands of wines in the world, you might think this is an easy task. But you would be wrong (or at least that’s the premise of the book).

Telling the story of wine and its world with just eighty bottles — that’s insane. But I think it will be fun and I promise that the readers who come with me for the ride will find much to learn, love and laugh about along with (as in the Jules Verne story) some inevitable challenges and confounding frustrations.

80winesThis map (above) is my obviously amateur attempt to plot out the route that my book seems to be taking us (books have minds of their own — sometimes it is the story not the author who calls the shots).

If you compare the two maps you will see that circumnavigating with eighty wines is obviously much more difficult than doing it in eighty days. Just look at how much more complicated our route is than Phileas Fogg’s!

My maps are terrible, but that’s OK with me because I don’t want to give away too much just yet. Maybe you can guess where the journey will take us and perhaps you can even channel some of the wines. But I guarantee some surprises even for the most clairvoyant readers!

Where would you go on this adventure? Which wines would you choose to fill the eighty spots in your wine case? What fun we will have together finding the answers and the wines to go with them!

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BBC presenter Michael Palin took on the 80 day version of this challenge in 1989. Here’s a snippet of the 7-part television series that recorded his adventures. Enjoy!

It’s Complicated: Four Things I Think I Learned at Riesling Rendezvous 2016

rrSue and I are back from Riesling Rendezvous 2016, a gathering organized by Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Loosen. The conference brings together winemakers and industry leaders from the four corners of Planet Riesling for three days of tasting, discussion and debate.

I have been fortunate to attend four of the five editions of Riesling Rendezvous beginning with RR2 in 2008. Herewith a quick accounting of my takeaways from the 2016 meeting.

1. Talking around in circles

One constant of the conferences has been a tendency to talk around in circles during the formal tastings — twenty dry Rieslings on Monday and twenty more off-dry wines on Tuesday. (Twenty wines for three hundred participants each day– that, my friends, is a lot of stemware to set up, fill, dump, and replace and a lot of bottles to organize.)

Don’t get me wrong — these tastings are amazing. What a great opportunity for winemakers to benchmark their own wines and assess the state of the industry than by tasting forty of the finest Rieslings on earth and hearing from the winemakers. Truly a priceless experience.

But as the discussion unfolds I have found that the same issues seem to come up over and over again. Do you really think this is a dry Riesling (often stated as an accusation more than a question)?  The focus often shifts to the analytical data (RS, TA, PH), which is another set of circles. Then the big question: is this Old World or New World (the wines are tasted blind)? It is as if each wine must fit neatly into a set objective category and, of course, they don’t because wine isn’t really like that.

These debates, unlike the actual tasting of the wines, seem like a dead end to me. Perception of sweet and dry is individual and subjective, so what is dry to you might be sweet to someone else. The analytical data have limited significance, as Jamie Goode, who also attended the meetings, recently explained.

And it doesn’t matter to me very much if someone can guess where the wine is from — wine should not be a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. In any case, even the experts usually couldn’t answer the Old/New geography question with confidence and there were many surprises when makers and regions were revealed.

Talking around in circles doesn’t lead anywhere by itself, but I think it does serve a purpose. Like the tasting itself, it brings people together and often puts them in a frame of mind to take action either in their own winemaking or address the industry’s collective problems.

2. Actions speak louder …

The good news is that once the Riesling folks get beyond ritual circle talking they can and do accomplish quite a lot. One problem that is often noted is that many consumers think of Riesling as a sweet wine, unaware of its great diversity of styles and unable to figure out what is what. The International Riesling Foundation and its very useful Riesling  scale came out of earlier Riesling Rendezvous gatherings. Not every winery uses the scale as a back label way to communicate with wine drinkers, but those that do give consumers useful information and the confidence to try a new wine.scale-300x103

Chateau Ste Michelle uses the scale, for example, and has seen significant growth in both its Dry and sweeter Harvest Select wines that share shelf space with the big-volume off-dry Columbia Valley bottling. Consumers seem to be able to find the particular wine style they like best and come back from more. That’s progress.

The “winemaker only” sessions at Riesling Rendezvous allow for transfer of knowledge as well as a frank exchange of opinions and it seems like these discussions have had an important impact. The quality standard of Riesling has risen as technical expertise about vineyard and cellar practices have been shared. That’s progress, too.

3. Riesling’s rising tide

One impact of the rising quality tide, as noted earlier, is that even the  experts find it more difficult to tell Old World Riesling from the New World wines. At one point in the dry wine tasting, for example, Tom Barry (of Jim Barry wines) responded to a question by looking at the unidentified wine in his glass and saying simply and approvingly, “This is a nice wine from somewhere.”

The days are gone when Old World wines were typically better made than their New World competitors. Now there are well-made wines from all the regions that participated in the program. But I don’t think the wines have been reduced to a homogeneous “international style” — there is still great diversity even if there is also a trend, well documented in John Winthrop Haeger’s recent book Riesling Rediscovered, toward market-friendly drier styles.12182-110

The big moments of the earlier meetings happened when we found a stunningly good wine (and great wines still earned applause in 2016). This time most of them were stunners and the oohs and aahs were loudest when we encountered a wine that surprised  by walking a tightrope defined by terroir, vintage or technique with great success, like the memorable 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling from British Columbia. The rising quality tide has served to accentuate and reward originality and authenticity, which is a good thing in my view.

4. Keep it complicated (and tell stories)

Riesling is special — it is my Desert Island wine if I have to choose one. The wines that we tasted spoke clearly and truthfully about Riesling’s progress around the world.

But as quality has increased Riesling has also become a bit more like other wines in the sense that the key factors are not simple dichotomies — Old versus New, dry versus sweet, good versus not-so-good and so on. And this is also a good thing.

Riesling Rendezvous revealed a wine world taking the next step from dichotomies to richer ways of thinking. As Ernie Loosen said at the opening session, complicated things need to be understood in complicated ways. How is this done?  People understand complicated things through the stories they tell about them.

And that’s where I see Riesling headed now. The story of what is happening today is complicated and important. It’s time to move beyond dichotomies and develop richer narratives about Riesling wine in the Loosen style that will attract and engage consumers, especially younger ones, by connecting them more persuasively to the people and places behind the wines and to their friends who they invite to share them.

Riesling Rendezvous has an important role to play in shaping those stories and helping producers get their complicated messages out. Can’t wait to see (and taste) the next chapter.

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Thanks to Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Loosen for sponsoring Riesling Rendezvous and allowing us to attend. Thanks to everyone we met and talked with for your insights.

The Three Ages of Wine Cork Production: A Visit to Corticeira Amorim

corf_forests

It is impossible to drive through the Alentejo region of Portugal without seeing the dark trees that dot the landscape. Pretty soon you notice the lines on the trunks where the bark has been harvested and then you know for sure that you are in a cork oak (Quercus suber) forest, the densest concentration of these trees in the world (see map above).

Cork’s Medieval Roots

Planting a cork oak tree is a statement of faith in the future. The first harvest must wait for 15 years and then the cork will be of low quality, unsuitable for natural cork closures. The second and better harvest that yields more usable cork comes 9 years later. Only 9  years after that (and every 9 years into the future) can the highest quality cork be taken. Few other things in the world of wine (producing 40-year old Tawny Port, for example) can compare to cork in terms of optimistic forward thinking.

Sue and I visited both Porto and Alentejo during our recent trip to Portugal and Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus of Corticeira Amorim, the world leader in cork closures, invited us to visit their factories in these two regions to see first-hand what I am calling the Three Ages of cork.

Cork is an ancient product — the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans all sealed their wine jars with cork. The harvesting of it is laborious hand work since each tree has its own configuration. Photos of modern cork harvests could easily be mistaken for medieval paintings.Cork1

Industrial Revolution

Stepping into the Amorim factory in Coruche, you get an initial sense of moving forward in time to the industrial revolution. There is still a lot of hand work here. Sorting the processed cork bark pieces, for example, still requires human judgement as they are inspected and graded for quality one at a time. The key to making a profit in cork is to waste nothing, so each cork piece must go to its best use and the waste at each step recycled into a lower-priced product.

Almost nothing is thrown away. One item that was headed for the power-supplying waste burner was a piece of cork that was badly infected with TCA, the source of cork taint. What a horrible smell!  Until a machine can consistently detect all the potential problems with cork including TCA, cracking, insect damage and so on, these workers’ jobs are very secure.

The factory was loud with the clamber of industrial machinery as every task that could be mechanized was mechanized. It gave me a sense of what those 19th century British textile mills must have been like.

Interestingly, the finest corks closures made from the best quality raw material are hand-punched by skilled craftsmen (see photo above). These corks need to be as close to perfect as possible and so far nothing can replace the human eye for seeing just where the cork’s sweet spot is (and what parts should be recycled down the line for other products).

NDtech: Cork for the 21st Century

It would be easy to think of cork just this way — a medieval product made using industrial revolution technology — but this viewpoint misses a lot as we learned when we visited Amorim’s second factory near Porto.

Here we saw many of the same processes as in the south, but the focus was different because Carlos and Antonio wanted us to see the progress that has been made at improving cork closures and addressing the issues that allowed synthetic stoppers and screw cap technology to make dramatic inroads in this market.

Innovative new production processes and seriously obsessive attention to detail have now all but eliminated the incidence of detectable TCA contamination in Amorim corks throughout the product line, which is a big deal and came only after intense and expensive research and process innovation. But that was not good enough and so earlier this year Amorim unveiled its latest innovation, NDtech corks.

Amorim scientists guided us into the controlled environment that you see in the video above and we saw the NDtech (think non-detectible TCA levels) process at work. ndTech really does individually-inspect each and every cork that goes through the process and guarantees then all to be TCA-free at human sensory threshold levels.

Amorim is convinced that the process works and we saw persuasive data about these and other Amorim cork closures. Now the challenge is to scale up to meet the demand for these, the very best corks that can be made.

Three Ages in One Product

I find  it interesting that cork is so many things at once. It is a natural product, of course, but one that is necessarily harvested and then processed by hand and manufactured using machines and processes from a variety of periods. It is also increasingly a technological product.

Making excellent cork closures is complicated as we saw at the Amorim factories and doing so profitably is even more complicated. We were impressed with the way that every scrap and bit of cork is put to use in closures and other cork products and every ounce of value realized. Environmental and economic sustainability go hand-in-hand.

Meeting the challenge of synthetic and screw-cap closures has not been easy for cork producers, who saw a some of their market share disappear. Hard work, expensive research and technical innovation has turned this around, however, and now many consumers and wineries who moved away from cork in the past are taking a new look.

Someone once accused the economist John Maynard Keynes of expressing a view that was inconsistent with his previous statements.” When the facts change,” Keynes replied, “I change my opinion. What do you do?” The facts about cork — especially the TCA situation — have changed in the past few years. No wonder many people in the industry have revised their views on cork.

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Many thanks to Antonio Amorim and Carlos de Jesus for he opportunity to see the three ages of cork with our own eyes and learn about the scientific progress from the experts. This concludes the short series of past-present-future stories from the Alentejo. Come back next week for a look at some unexpected wine tourism opportunities we found in Portugal.

Swirling Wine Export Currents: China, Australia, Portugal, Angola, USA, Brazil

wine-glass-swirlSue and I are in historic Évora, Portugal where I am speaking at the 10th Alentejo Vine and Wine Symposium. This visit has given me an excuse to learn more about Portugal’s wine export markets and it is eye-opening to see how the economic landscape is changing.

Australia Plays the China Card

International wine trade patterns are changing rapidly and in surprising ways for Portugal and other wine-producing nations. I have many friends who still are not convinced that China is now or ever will be an important factor in global wine trade beyond high end Burgundy and Bordeaux, for example. They just can’t imagine China as a wine power.

They will be surprised at the news from Australia that exports to China now exceed sales to the big U.K. market, putting China #2 after the U.S.for Australian producers  And if you combine exports to China with those to Hong Kong, this market rises to #1 on the Australian wine export league table, surpassing both the US and UK. Imagine that!

This dramatic change, which Kym Anderson predicted a few years ago, is the result of rising Chinese interest in wines in the middle market — not just cheap bulk imports and not just high end trophy wines. Australia is benefiting from this movement and earning a return on their determined investment in the Chinese market in terms of branding and reputation.

Here in Portugal, the currents are shifting, too, and China is part of the story. Consider the latest international trade data provided by “Wine by Numbers,” a project of Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers.

exports1

Portugal Plays the Angola Card

The first table shows total Portuguese bottled wine exports (including both table wine and Port) for 2015 and it is fascinating to see the huge shifts that are taking place. Note strong gains in both volume and revenue in the U.S., Canada, Poland, China and Sweden. Portuguese wines have definitely gained traction in some key markets as quality has continued to improve and distribution and marketing become more effective.

Some of these gains are offset by declining exports to Angola, however. A former Portuguese colony, Angola has benefited from a petroleum-fueled economic boom in recently years and become a good  market for Portuguese wine producers. These data indicate that the oil bust has severely affected the wine market. It is a good thing that the rising exports to other countries offset the falling sales here.

You may be surprised to see Angola on this list, but Africa is a diverse continent in terms of its economic profile and has experienced rapid economic growth creating a number of significant wine markets. A recent Economist newspaper survey forecasts continued robust growth in Africa’s key middle class consumer market, even taking the oil impacts in Nigeria and Angola into account.

exports 2

[Not] Any Port in a Storm

The second table breaks out Port exports and adds an important dimension to our understanding of Portugal’s export environment. Although the bottom line shows that Port exports are relatively stagnant overall, there are tremendous market shifts, particular falling exports to Brazil and Germany and rising sales to Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and the UK. The U.S. is a rising market for Port, but only #5 on the list.

Now please compare the two tables, mentally subtracting Port exports from total bottled wine exports to get a sense of where Portuguese table wines are being sold. A number of interesting patterns are revealed. The first is the critical importance of Angola, despite its recent economic problems, and also Brazil. According to these data, Angola imports more bottled Portuguese table wine than the U.S., U.K. or France.

The U.S. is a somewhat distant #2 on the bottled table wine list, but of great importance because the market is growing and prices are on the rise. Taken together, the U.S. and Canada are as large a market for Portuguese table wines as Angola and, unlike Angola, a  source of growth both in terms of revenue and rising unit price.

exports3

Follow the Money (and Growth)

Finally, I thought you would be interested in these bulk wine export data. U.S. bulk wine imports from Portugal grew dramatically in 2015, but from a very low base (similar to the stories in Norway and the U.K.). Other bulk wine export markets (especially Angola) experienced significant declines, however, so that the bottom line is negative.

I’m speaking to the Alentejo region wine producers and data for Alentejo (click here to download a pdf) indicate the importance of the U.S. market to this region, too. Angola and Brazil were Alentejo’s leading non-EU export markets in 2014 followed by the U.S., Canada and China.

Follow the money, that’s what Deep Throat said, and follow the growth is good advice, too. For Portuguese table wine producers, the biggest markets are Angola and Brazil but the biggest growth opportunities may lie in China, Canada and the United States.

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China, Oz, Portugal, Angola, USA and Brazil? Is it just my imagination?

Book Review: Riesling Rediscovered

John Winthrop Haeger, Riesling Rediscovered: Bold, Bright, and Dry. University of California Press, 2016.

John Winthrop Haeger’s new book is a worthy addition to a growing bookshelf on Riesling wines, including Stuart Pigott’s recent Riesling: Best White Wine on Earth. It is a thorough, rigorous and quite fascinating analysis of Riesling’s world, focusing on dry Riesling production in the Northern Hemisphere.

How Riesling Is Like Bach

Dry Riesling reminds me of J.S. Bach. Both Bach and Riesling are clean and precise without sacrificing a certain deep emotional engagement. And both invite serious study. If you enjoy Riesling (or Bach?) and have a nerdy interest in where it comes from, how it is made, and who is making it, this book is for you.

Riesling Rediscovered is split into two sections, but not Old World and New World as you might expect. The second half is a detailed examination of some of the main Riesling vineyards and producers in Germany, Austria, France (Alsace), Italy (Alto Adige), Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), and the United States (Washington, Oregon, and California).

These profiles, the result of extensive on-site research, are unusually detailed and informative — perfect for the reader who wants to drill down into a particular region or maker’s story.

The book’s first half provides a rather elegant examination of the Riesling experience, with chapter-length analyses of history, sweet and dry wine styles, production methods, the importance of clones, and Riesling habitats in the Old World and the New.

chateau-ste-michelle-dry-riesling-2013-bottleThe Sweet and the Dry

At the center of the book are several interesting issues. The first involves style. When you say Riesling to people they will often respond quickly that it is sweet and indeed for many decades Riesling was known and even treasured for its sweetness. Spectacular sweet Rieslings were at one point the most valuable and sought after wines in the world.

And then things began to change, even in Germany and Austria. Now it is the case that most Riesling wines around the world are dry and sweet Riesling is the exception. The rediscovery of Riesling as an elegant dry wine is one of the book’s important points.

Riesling’s reputation for sweetness, however, has been slower to change than the wines themselves, which is a problem for those who would like to see this wine’s domain expand. Consumers are too often surprised that what they pour from the bottle doesn’t match their expectations — either “too sweet” if they expect a dry wine or “too sour” if they expect something sweet.

The United States is a special case in this regard. The U.S. is not just the largest wine market in the world by total sales, it is also an important actor in Riesling. The U.S. is the second largest Riesling producer by volume after Germany, for example, and it is also home to the largest-selling Riesling wine in the world.

That would be Chateau Ste Michelle’s Columbia Valley Riesling from Washington State, which may also be one of the world’s great Riesling bargains. I have sometimes purchased this wine for less than $6 per bottle, a ridiculously low price given the quality.

Wine drinkers in the United States made the move away from sweet and fortified wines surprisingly late, but today by and large they prefer dry wines (the recent Moscato and Sweet Red phenomena notwithstanding). When it comes to Riesling, however, they talk dry but like to drink on the sweet (or “off dry”) side. Chateau Ste Michelle’s off-dry Columbia Valley wine vastly outsells its Dry Riesling twin.

And so the U.S. is the odd one out in world Riesling, according to Haeger — the last line of resistance in the movement from sweet to dry.The rediscovery of Riesling as a dry wine is still gaining momentum here.

Elephant in the Room?

I enjoyed Riesling Rediscovered quite a lot and learned something new on every page. I look forward to diving into the details again and again in the years ahead. But as big and tightly packed as this book is, the world of Riesling is bigger still. It obviously isn’t possible analyze every important vineyard or producer in the world (the vast Wine Atlas of Germanywhich appeared in 2014, shows how complicated this is for just a single country).

But the biggest omission — the elephant in the room — is the entire Southern Hemisphere. Any list of the most important dry Rieslings would surely include wines from Australia, for example, along with some from New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Australia does not even appear in Haeger’s index. Pewsey Vale Museum Reserve  “The Contours,” one of my desert island wines, is nowhere to be found.

The reason is purely practical, Haeger explains — no disrespect intended!  The world of Riesling is gloriously big and growing. Any single study has to draw the line somewhere and Haeger needed to do so here to finish this book in just five years. Haeger chooses depth over geographical breadth and that’s understandable. But I hope he has a second volume in the works!

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Riesling and Bach? Am I nuts? Well, here’s what I mean.

Bach, Beethoven, Bordeaux? Classical Music & the Terroirists’ Revenge

The Future Symphony Institute has published an essay that I wrote for them titled “The Revenge of the Terroirists.” It talks about the complicated relationship between fine wine and classical music in the modern world. Because it is very brief the arguments are not fully developed, but I think you will see where I am going with it.

I invite you to click on the links above to read the essay and to learn about the Future Symphony Institute and its ambitious mission.

What Can Wine Teach Classical Music?

The idea for this essay springs from a series of conversations I have been having with Andrew Balio, the principal trumpet of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the executive director of the Institute. Balio’s mission is to try to help the musical world think through the economic and intellectual crises that confront classical music and to begin the process of rethinking and renewing it for the 21st century.

The website puts it this way: “Our mission is to formulate a strategy for the renaissance of live classical music and to translate that strategy into programs made freely available to everyone they may benefit.”

Balio was interested in wine because it seemed to him that the wine world had resisted some of the forces that are plaguing classical music. Not all wine is great, but there is substantial and expanding support of and interest in the practices, values and traditions associated with authentic wine and wine culture.

And the interest in fine wine is not limited to the rich or the elderly. It is a very broad movement and an expanding one. If wine can do this, he wondered, maybe classical music can do it, too.

The Terroirist Cause

I am interested in this project for three reasons. First, I see Balio and his colleagues as “terroirists” who push back against commodification and unnecessary simplification.  I wrote about and championed the terroirist cause in my 2011 book Wine Wars. Second, I am a fan of classical music, especially chamber music, and I hope they will achieve their ambitious goals.

Finally, as a member of the board of trustees of a liberal arts college, I recognize that many of the issues that confront classical music organizations are similar to the challenges facing the liberal arts.

Once upon a time there was broader understanding and appreciation of the value and purpose of both classical music and liberal arts education. But for somewhat similar reasons both have become very expensive to produce and their critical role in civilization seems to have been forgotten by many.

Both sets of institutions need to rethink their business models to address the new reality, but that will not be enough. Both need to engage society in new ways that will renew understanding and appreciation without diluting or distorting the values that made them important in the first place. Both need a strong dose of terroirism combined with thoughtful and effective strategy.

The Future Symphony Institute seems like one place where this might happen. I hope my brief essay will help the Future Symphony Institute as it launches a series of articles examining ways that wine can inform classical music and help move it back to center stage.

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The illustration above is from a poster created by the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra that uses the language of wine to talk about their music. That’s a great idea that works both ways. Haven’t you heard a wine described as “harmonious?”

“Wine By Numbers” and the Wine Market Data Trilemma

Readers send me email every week looking for wine economics data because they frequently get frustrated trying to find current information about wine consumption, production, prices and trade. Lots of data are collected, but it isn’t always easy to sort through and it is often available only at a cost (frequently a very high cost).

Sometimes it seems like there is a wine economics data trilemma (I talk about trilemmas in my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated).  Researchers want the three Cs: data that is current, complete and cheap (free is even better), but it is hard to get all three.

Current and complete will cost you. Current and cheap is sometimes available, but it might not be complete. Complete and cheap, yes, but maybe a bit dated. You can probably think of examples of all three “trilemma” trade-offs.

There may not be a solution to this trilemma, but I am always looking for resources that can help fill in the gaps and I think I have found one in “Wine by Numbers,” which is provided by Il Corriere Vinicola and the Unione Italiana Vini, an association of Italian wine producers whose 500 members account for 70% of the nation’s wine.  The website explains its purpose this way

The first web magazine dedicated to the international wine trade. Data and figures of the main exporter and importer countries at a glance: Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Russia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Brazil.

The data are exposed in tables and figures with details on packaged wines, bulk and sparkling, showed in volume, value and average price.

Free monthly and annual pdf publications are provided by “Wine by Numbers” and, while they don’t eliminate the trilemma issue, they are great resources for anyone wishing to know more about world wine markets.

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