Category Archives: pinot noir

Wines of Chile best-in-class awards 2017

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Cabernet Sauvignon grape cluster, shown by DNA...
Cabernet Sauvignon grape cluster, shown by DNA studies to be a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon blanc. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve ever wondered how to choose a good wine from South America,  this holiday season would be a great time to try one or more. And there’s a new group here to help. The 14th Annual Wines of Chile Awards (AWOCA), a program that  underscores the excellence of Chile’s world class quality, was held recently in Washington, D.C. in honor of the U.S. being one of Chile’s most important markets.

The Chilean wine industry has undergone a revolution in quality and innovation as more producers than ever are now involved. The unique geographic conditions in Chile provide ideal terroir and microclimates for making wines of many types. Meanwhile, governmental agencies like ProChile and Fundación Imagen are helping the wine industry flourish in Chile. Consider these AWOCA winners as you look for the best wines from Chile:

The winners of the 14th Annual Wines of Chile Awards are:

  • Best Sparkling: Viña Undurraga, Undurraga Rosé Royal N/V
  • Best Sauvignon Blanc: Viña Haras de Pirque, Albaclara Sauvignon Blanc 2017
  • Best Other White: Viña Casas del Bosque, Gran Reserva Late Harvest Riesling 2015
  • Best Chardonnay: Luis Felipe Edwards, Marea Valle de Leyda Chardonnay 2016
  • Best Pinot Noir: San Pedro, 1865 Selected Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016
  • Best Syrah; Best in Show: Viña Casas Del Bosque, Gran Reserva Syrah 2015
  • Best Carignan/Secano: Luis Felipe Edwards, LFE100 CIEN Carignan 2012
  • Best Carménère $25 and over: San José de Apalta, Carménère Blue Label 2015
  • Best Other Red: Viña Valdivieso, Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2013
  • Best Red Blend: Viña Cousiño Macul, Lota 2011
  • Best Cabernet Sauvignon under $20: Viña Requingua, Puerto Viejo Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
  • Best Cabernet Sauvignon $20-$50: Viña Maipo, Protegido Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
  • Best Cabernet Sauvignon over $50; Best in Show: SANTA EMA, Catalina 2014

Wines of Chile is an organization committed to promoting the quality and image of Chilean wine throughout the world. It has offices in Santiago, London and New York, as well as representatives in Canada, Ireland and Denmark. Wines of Chile also works closely with ProChile to develop and offer promotional and educational programs in Asia, Latin America and Europe. Wines of Chile’s 86 member wineries belong to Vinos de Chile and represent 88 percent of Chile’s bottled wine exports. More information is available at www.winesofchile.org.

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Wisdom from Jackson Family winemakers – Masters of Oregon Pinot Noir

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Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley
Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley

If you’ve ever thought a Pinot Noir from Oregon tasted like a Burgundy, you’re not alone. Though half a world away from each other, both regions are located on nearly the same latitude and many winemakers in each area practice similar vinification techniques. Early makers of Pinot Noir in America had to go to Burgundy to study because no wineries here were making Pinot Noir at the time. Willamette Valley has been focusing on Pinot Noir for the last 51 years, and its capricious weather keeps winemakers on their toes.

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Oregon, according to a panel of Jackson Family Wines Collection winemakers from there who visited Chicago recently, is a state of mind that’s slightly different for each of them, but all of them speak about the need to be flexible and creative and collaborative because of the challenge of Oregon’s cool, fast-changing climate conditions.
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Chicago is 6th in the United States in consumption of Oregon Pinot Noir – consumption here is up by 26% in the last year. And one of the big reasons is the excellent quality of the Pinot Noirs produced in the Willamette Valley by these very winemakers.
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Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Va...
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is a glimpse into the collective wisdom of these passionate and skilled winemakers – a somewhat loose arrangement of interesting bits about winemaking from the half-dozen panelists – who were, by the way, having more fun up there than we’ve ever seen in a wine tasting program!

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  • The soils in Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it, dammit) are actually oceanic, which is really good for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As the earth’s tectonic plates scraped against each other creating mountains in that area, they dislodged soil that was formerly at the bottom of an ocean and deposited that in the valley between the two mountain ranges, Cascade and Coast that both influence the environment and protect the grapes that grow here.
  • In 1988 there were only 49 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 700.
  • Unlike in Napa Valley where many owners don’t live, Jackson Family winemakers live on site. They also meet regularly and readily share information with each other. For example, when one grower decided to try earlier thinning than tradition, he readily passed along the results: vines mature better and the grapes have more flavor.
  • California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, is too warm to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It seldom has difficult growing seasons, whereas Oregon’s climate is a constant challenge to wine growers.
  • Julia Jackson, born in Sonoma, said her mother had a vision of going to Oregon, and then the whole family fell in love with wines grown there. Julia herself loves being out in the vineyards, being stewards of the land, a sense of discovery about the great wines.  Jackson Family winemakers also believe in educating visitors and so sponsor collaborative trips for that purpose.
  • The grapes in Willamette are more transparent than those grown in Burgundy, yet the finished wines can easily be aged 10 to 15 years. Burgundy has many different producers. Willamette offers multiple mesoclimates. Producers must be in intimate touch with the features of their terroir, and most consider their big markers as the specific site and the vintage – yielding wines with a rustic nature and a nice backbone of tannins. Even though Oregon Pinots have a darker profile, they tend to be fresher and more acidic than California’s.
  • Napa is most known for its Cabernet; Willamette is identified with Pinot Noir; Argentina with Malbec. La Crema was the first Jackson Family winery to move into Oregon. They definitely don’t try to make a California version of Pinot, but rather work on discovering what’s there and stay true to that. Willamette’s vintage-to-vintage variability necessitates constant continuing education. Jackson Family winemakers are required to dedicate 5% of land to biodiversity as part of the goal of keeping the land healthy.
  • Lots of volcanic soils are good for winemaking and viticulture. They have greater water holding capacity. Results in plush, fruit-driven wines. Sedimentary soil (as in Willakenzie) drains more freely. Vines struggle more, resulting in wines that are a bit more rustic, firm, structured. Oregon has only these two soil types – sedimentary and volcanic. California has many more soil types than France.
  • Wind is a moderating influence, and in Oregon it is significant. The last two wines listed below are grown in seriously windy areas. Zena-Crown is in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the same strong wind blows all year, even on 90-degree days. “We pick 2-3 weeks later, because vines shut down at night. It’s always been a truism that we can’t plant above 1000 feet, but now we’re considering it because the summers have been so much warmer. Skins get thicker from the wind – which helps grapes defend against weather. Keeps higher acidity, which equals freshness and tannins.” Read more about the cool-climate growing conditions in Willamette Valley.
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The winemakers are taking their program to various destinations around the U.S., and they said the character of the just-opened wines changes with every location – influenced by such things as barometric pressure, humidity, and the altitude at which you drink them. Even being on an upper floor, as we were in one of the beautiful Kimpton Gray Hotel event spaces where the program took place, would make a difference. They all said the wines were giving off more florals and more spice here than they had in the previous city. Ha! Most of us can only dream of one day achieving the level of sensitivity of such highly educated noses and palates…
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Jackson Family winemakers talk to each other and taste wines together. They are individual artists who make their own decisions. The Jackson Family does not prescribe that a winemaker must do something in a particular way. In fact, they even allow them to use blocks of land from partner wineries to make their blends.
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Structure, texture, and aroma are the concerns when putting together a blend. All Jackson Family vintners use French wood barrels and must be instinctive about how many oak barrels to buy – a decision that’s made long before the harvest.
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“Look out for the tannins,” said one panel member. “The fermentation process can get away from you. It’s not good to add salt later in the process – that amounts to ‘remedial winemaking’ and isn’t where we want to go.” In Oregon, it always rains during harvest, but every good winemaker will say that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. They know how to compensate.
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One panelist said they don’t drink their own wines at home, but rather experiment with others. “We go to the grocery store and buy European wines for $18-$20 a bottle. We want to know what the consumer is buying and experiencing.”
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Below are the names of the six wines the panelists provided for tasting, organized from lightest to most substantial in structure. Each is marked with our totally subjective star rating (remember, we tend to love highly structured wines) and a few winemaker tasting notes.
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  • Siduri Willamette Valley 2015. ***1/2  This Pinot is made with a blend of three different regions, uses 25% whole cluster (means they keep the grapes on their stems) and is made using Burgundian vinification techniques. Winemaker notes: “Darker berry and currant flavors, along with hints of cherry joined by earth, dried brush, and even tobacco flavors.” SRP ~$24
  • WillaKenzie Gisele Willamette Valley 2014. **** Blended to produce a rustic, brambly fruit flavor. Winemaker notes: “Juicy acidity and flavors of raspberry, plum and a hint of white pepper. The mouthfeel is elegant and polished with a long, velvety finish.” SRP ~$24
  • Penner-Ash Willamette Valley 2014. ****1/2 A gorgeous dark purple color but transparent. Jammy flavor. Winemaker notes: “Experience ripe, fresh raspberry, red plums and strawberry compote with a hint of subtle cedar. The fine texture and silky tannins enhance the vanilla, brown sugar, and leather notes on the finish.” SRP ~$40
  • La Crema Dundee Hills 2014. ***** Purple/garnet color with a mid-palate richness. Grown by the independent Oregon contingent of this famed La Crema California winery from two clones in an area sheltered from the winds, so with a longer growing season. This vineyard has 18 different soil types within its 80 acres. Winemaker notes: “A nose brimming with violets, cherry pie and earth. Flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and anise. Nuanced yet concentrated.” SRP ~$50
  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton 2014. ***** Another wine made with 25% whole cluster. Lovely pink-purple color. Winemaker notes: “Cranberry and rose hips up front that transform into orange zest and Meyer lemon on the mid pallet. This is followed by morel mushroom, red cedar, and exotic spices as allspice and mace.  Precise but broad; exhibiting restrained power and elegance combined with immense aging potential. Finish lingers giving impressions of pipe tobacco, earth, white sage and pure cocoa. Shaped like a teardrop rippling outward at the point of contact with a still body of water.” SRP ~$45
  • Zena Crown Slope Eola-Amity Hills 2013. ***** Couldn’t put it better than Wine Spectator’s 93-point rating – “Rich and expressive, featuring black cherry and pepper notes set against tangy mineral flavors. Comes together smoothly as the finish gains traction, with a light bite of tannins. Drink now through 2023. 348 cases made.” SRP ~$100
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Armand de Brignac’s Emilien Boutillat intros new champagne at Boka

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Armand de Brignac occupies a premier position among the many prestigious makers of French champagne. Owner Shawn Carter and Winemakers Alex and Jean-Jacques Cattier, freely admit their goal is simply to make the finest champagnes in the world, designed specifically with the luxury wine collector/investor in mind.
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Armand de Brignac champagne line
Armand de Brignac champagne line

Winemaker Emilien Boutillat came to Chicago recently to introduce Armand de Brignac’s newest product, Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, made exclusively with Pinot Noir grapes. They also asked Chef Lee Wolen at Boka to create pairings for the new blend and several other offerings with a view to educating members of the trade and press about their line of fine champagnes.

Armand de Brignac brut rosé
Armand de Brignac brut rosé

All of Armand de Brignac’s offerings are non-vintage, said Boutillat, but rather are created as blends, often from three different vintage years. For the rosé champagne, they actually use a blend of white and red wines that yields an orangey-rose color with a very fine bubble that makes a delightful aperitif.

The blanc de blancs stood out strong and smooth and full of character, which may be why the first course paired it with an unusual fish called Striped Jack – also known as Shima Aji, categorized in the Jackfish family. Served with a bit of seaweed and potato and flavored with lime, this dish was the least favorite dish I’ve ever had at Boka. The champagne, nevertheless, was delicious and stood up well to the somewhat strong taste and very firm texture of the fish.
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Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut
Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut

The next champagne, Armand de Brignac’s Champagne Gold Brut – its flagship wine – was extraordinarily delicate and so beautifully blended that it felt almost ethereal on the nose and palate and in the mouth. It made a perfect accompaniment to the Chef’s incredibly moist-fleshed chicken breast,  stuffed under the crispy skin with house-made chicken-leg-meat sausage. Served with a small pouf of super-fine puree of parsnips, the serving was generous, the dish attractive and satisfying, and the wine a lovely accompaniment.

Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne
Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne

The next wine, of which Armand de Brignac has only made 2333 bottles, was a truly unique taste in champagne. If felt a bit strange at first on the palate, until I tasted it with the imaginative creation of a tiny piece of lamb tenderloin beside a dollop of creamy, thick apricot sauce. The combination was directly on the money. In fact, I’ve never experienced such a strong feeling of “Oh, yeah, these work perfectly together!” as I did with this pairing. This particular wine, said Boutillat, is made with a blend from harvests of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

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Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka
Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka

Dessert, an extraordinarily light combination of coconut and citrus and exotic tropical passionfruit with tapioca and elderflower, was perfectly paired with the world’s only semi-sweet champagne – Armand de Brignac took the plunge some years ago to create its own demi sec champagne, a task no other luxury champagne company has ever undertaken. By all accounts, and by the taste that so complemented this dessert, they are succeeding admirably.

Boutillat, the 30-year-old winemaker who has been with Armand de Brignac for four years, came around to answer questions about the various wines and tell stories about his experiences around the world before settling down with this high-profile family-owned and -operated winery. His experience is multinational and his passion quite obvious. When asked about his comparative youth, Boutillat explained that senior owner Jean-Jacques Cattier likes to hire young people for the energy and the imagination they bring to further inspire the making of their great champagnes. Judging by the lovely champagnes at this event, luxury collectors everywhere can rejoice.
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Toast the holidays with 7 lovely wines from Pasternak

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Toast the holidays with lovely wines!
Toast the holidays with lovely wines!

How do you pick wines you think you’ll like? Perhaps you read respected publications like Wine Spectator or the New York Times wine reviews. You might follow a few well-known wine bloggers or tweeters who do the searching for you.

Another way is to identify an importer that you trust. And it’s good, too, if that importer can also direct you to locations where you can buy the wines they import. And that’s exactly what Pasternak Importers do. First, they select a winery in a specific location. Then they do the taste-testing to make sure the vintage or the blend meets their quality standards. Imagine trying to pick out your own wines from thousands produced in a region, the dozens or even hundreds of wines produced by a particular winemaker! Even master sommeliers, who get paid to do this stuff, have to study diligently and practice for long periods of time before they can do their work of informed recommending.
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Pasternak deals in wines in the affordable category and all the way up to premium and even luxury wines – French, Italian, and more. You can search their portfolio by region, varietal or brand, and they have an extremely handy “Find Our Wines” widget that lets you locate multiple places you can find the wines you decide to try. Just put in your zip or city and state – country? – and click to see who carries what you’re looking for.
Nice red, rose brut and white Pasternak imports
Nice red, rose brut and white Pasternak imports

Recently Pasternak shared a few of their wines in several price categories for review purposes. A few notes about them below:

  • Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco superior DOCG. A light and elegant wine with a nice bubble (Charmat method) and just enough sweetness. SRP $21
  • Valdo Rose Brut, A lovely medium pink bubbly that’s perfect for company or just for fun. Called a “Best Buy” in Wine and Spirits 8/16 issue. SRP $16
  • Thomas George Estates Estate Chardonnay. Aromas of star fruit, lemon, banana and hazelnut characterize Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Subtle flavors of citrus zest and custard  express themselves among stronger notes of stone fruit. The finish lingers long with a nice fullness. SRP $30

    Pinot Noir, prosecco and Chardonnay from Pasternak
    Pinot Noir, prosecco and Chardonnay from Pasternak
  • Thomas George Estates Estate Pinot Noir. Wine Enthusiast says: “Raw earth and black tea combine for a classic take on the variety, high-toned in wild strawberry and red cherry. Tightly wound, it opens in the glass, staying light but with texture and body, a floral wine with just enough weight.” SRP $43
  • Marchesi Fumanelli Terso Veneto IGT. The blend of 50% Garganega, 50% Trebbiano Toscano makes a beautiful white wine. Intense, nutty, and toasty aromas on the nose. The palate is concentrated and powerful with lemony freshness and bready notes. A striking wine with flavors of acacia, lime blossoms and fresh apricots. Amazing acidity. SRP $40

  • Marchesi Fumanelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore DOC. Brilliant ruby red color, with a pleasant aroma of dark cherry and mature forest fruit. Dry and velvety on the palate, with a hint of bitter almond. Enjoy the touch of sweet vanilla and the soft tannins. A well-structured wine with a soft, intense, long and persistent finish. A beautiful, rich and robust red to love with your Christmas tenderloin roast beef or your finest Hanukkah braised brisket and latkes. SRP $30

  • Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose. Strawberry and wild cherry fruit flavors, with a touch of richness on the mid palate. Dry, crisp acidity and a creamy texture and long finish. 90 points from Wine Enthusiast in 2015. SRP $22
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Chicago meets Mullan Road Cellars at Swift and Sons

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Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars
Dennis Cakebread for Mullan Road Cellars

It’s unusual to find a winemaker – someone whose name is already associated with a justly famous brand – setting out to create another completely different brand. But Dennis Cakebread, long associated with his namesake wine brand Cakebread Cellars, came to Chicago recently to introduce and promote his new wine brand, Mullan Road Cellars out of the Columbia Valley, WA area.

Dennis undertook to showcase his new products at hot new restaurant location, Swift and Sons, 1000 W. Fulton Market in West Loop. This Boka Group affiliate undertook to open for lunch – they don’t usually – to help Dennis Cakebread showcase his new wines along with a few from Cakebread. Dennis takes a warm and folksy approach to touting his products; it was a pleasure hearing his stories about the winemaking life.
The Cakebread Chardonnay a 2014, a 4-star beauty, went perfectly with the butter-poached king crab leg set off with a dribble of miso sauce and a slice of preserved lemon.
Then came a couple of slices of roast chicken – gorgeously succulent and tender – with succotash and bacon lardons, served with an extraordinarily lovely Pinot Noir from Cakebread. We give a rare 5-star rating to this Two Creeks Pinot Noir 2014. The wine is available retail at around $40 and, for the times you choose to spend that much for a bottle of wine, this would be a great one to invest in.
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013
Mullan Road Cellars red blends 2012 and 2013

Next, a narrow but thick slice of medium-rare, firm-textured rib roast came out accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms in a bordelaise sauce. For this course Dennis presented two Mullan Road Cellars reds blends, from 2012 and 2013. Their typical  blend is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  The 2012 was delightful; Wine Spectator gives it 90. The 2013 tasted somewhat tart at first, but smoothed out after it breathed for a while. It’s certainly a wine worth watching. Both vintages are on the market at a retail price of around $45, give or take.

Those who stayed to sample the Blackbottom Pudding dessert – multiple layers of black cocoa crumble, baked dark chocolate mousse, milk chocolate pudding and white chocolate sorbet – raved about it afterwards. From the description, that dessert alone sounds like enough incentive for another trip to Swift & Sons.
Mullan Road Cellars’ biggest distribution for export so far is in Canada, with the Caribean second in line, then Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Look for more from this brand. And Swift and Sons did a stellar job with the pairings to create a memorable occasion.
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area
Swift and Sons beautiful private dining area

P.S. Might want to try the bar, too. Cold Storage, attached to the Swift and Sons’ space, offers appetizers, entrees, and a nice-looking seafood station along with a full bar.

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Pinot Days 2014 coming – highlights of 2013

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Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!
Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!

I’m excited that Pinot Days 2014 is coming to Chicago again – I really enjoyed the wines I tasted in 2013.  Mark your calendar now for April 26 at Navy Pier, from 2 to 5 pm. Believe it or not, this winter will be over before we know it! The festival goes on for days before that party – with Winemaker Dinners, “Meet the Winemaker” pinot and food pairings at local wine bars and restaurants, and tastings at boutique retail stores.

This year more than 50 wineries will come to Chicago to “paint the town pinot.” Then, it all culminates with the Grand Festival at beautiful Navy Pier. To help you get an idea of what you can look forward to at Pinot Days festival 2014, here are some notes from what I experienced at the Pinot Days 2013.

Lucky for me, I have an oenophile son-in-law. I mean this is a guy who actually absorbs what he reads in Wine Spectator. So I emailed him the list of wineries that would be represented and he made some picks. As a result of his educated suggestions, I’d say this was one of the best wine tastings I can remember. Of course I ended up tasting several wines that were so high-end I had to bend at the knees to hoist the price tags. But hey, what better way to get to know these beauties!

Pinot Days Chicago 2013 was packed with celebrity wineries. From bubblies to deep, dark reds, from high-end beauties for $60 and $75 a bottle to more affordable reserves, the selection was huge, the wine-pourers friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. More notes from Pinot Days Chicago 2013: My 5-star pick: Miner Family 2011 “777” Rosella ($75). Some of my 4-star picks:

And here are a few of the other memorable pinot noir tastes available at last year’s Pinot Days:

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