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PONZI VINEYARDS
ponzi.gif (5437 bytes)When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  The Ponzi's left California for greener pastures (or vineyards) and started planting vines in 1970, vinifying their first wine with the 1974 vintage.   

Dick and Nancy Ponzi uprooted their young family from the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Oregon in 1969, purchasing 20 acres of prospective vineyard land southwest of Portland.  A year later they began planting vines on the property and the rest, as they say, is history.



Nancy Ponzi doing the manual labor while her husband had the "sit down" job.


They are now viewed as "old-timers", having so many vintages under their belts.  As a result, people blinded by the newest, latest, "hippest", hardest-to-get brands often overlook Ponzi.  Pity.  Because this winery routinely turns out some of Oregon's best wines and they have down-to-earth pricing policies.  This sort of philosophy is to be applauded and deserves support.  I have been at trade tastings of Oregon wines and taste the wines from the "new kids on the block" which have amazingly high prices because "they're scarce".   Try pouring "scarcity" into your wine glass! 

Ponzi has long made good Pinot Noirs.   Dick Ponzi had the idea of making wine which reflected the particular grape variety more than spotlighting the work of the barrel builder.  As a result, the wines have been lovely expressions of Oregon Pinot.  And with the "kids" taking over the business, marketing and winemaking, the Ponzi winery has evolved into a wonderful family enterprise.  It's still rooted in the Willamette Valley "terroir" and winemaker Luisa Ponzi-Hamacher (there's a law, we understand, in Oregon requiring winemakers to have three names...hence, Harry Peterson-Nedry, Lynn Penner-Ash, Luisa Ponzi-Hamacher) continues to build on her father's early successes.

We've long teased Nancy and Dick, creating a label for them which makes them blush to about the color of their Pinot Noir Rose.

 
Of course, this is meant in fun as they don't claim their wines are on the level of those made at Burgundy's top domaine, Romanee-Conti.  ((There is a producer in Oregon who WILL tell you their wines are better than those of the famed DRC!))

The Ponzi family has ties to our very own Piemontese family, the Currado's of Italy's Vietti winery.  Another great and similar family enterprise, Alfredo and Luciana (Vietti) Currado were extremely generous in offering hospitality and wine-growing expertise.  As a result, the Ponzis make wine of two Piemontese grape varieties, Arneis and Dolcetto.  

Winemaker Luisa Ponzi spent time in France, learning Burgundian techniques in the vineyard and cellar, but I recall meeting her in Piemonte back in the early 1990s when she'd take a break and escape to Italy.  She learned her craft well and despite her relative youth, she's making wines which are admired by many of her peers.
 
Winemaking operations have been moved from Beaverton to nearby Sherwood as the Ponzis vinified their 2008 vintage in the new facility, dubbed the Collina del Sogno (Hill of Dreams). "If you build it, they will come."

This is the location of their 6th vineyard site.  The winery was designed by the ever-innovative Dick Ponzi (he designed theme park rides for Disneyland, once upon a time) and it's a multi-level facility that's constructed be environmentally-conscious inside and out.  We had the pleasure of visiting the place a couple of times and it's a spacious, functional facility.

Ponzi, by the way, founded a small brewery years ago in Portland, giving birth to the "craft brewing" or micro-brewing industry in Oregon.  And they also started a wine bar and restaurant in their neighborhood, hoping to shine a spotlight on local culinary delights as a way of featuring not only their wines, but those of some of their esteemed neighbors.

I've been privileged to be invited to vertical tastings of Ponzi's Pinot Noirs...


In March of 2004 we were invited to sit in on a "vertical tasting" of Ponzi Pinot Noirs.
Check out my notes by clicking here.

Click Here for some notes on a tasting held in August of 2010,
Along with Photos of the Ponzi Gala



wpeB.jpg (16848 bytes)


The very young Nico Ponzi-Hamacher shows off some vines which are nearly the same age as he was!  (The kid was three when we snapped this shot.)




 



Here's a more recent photo of "The Nico-Teen" with his sister Mia and his winemaker Mom.

Mia, Luisa and Nico...Summer of 2010


Carlo "The Nose" Hamacher, Future Winemaker or Sales Manager???
2013
"I smell sunshine!" commented the perceptive Carlo!

 

We currently have Ponzi's 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot in the shop.  This is showing nicely and it's a good example of Ponzi wine-growing and winemaking.
The vintage looked quite promising but they had a bit of a challenge when a September rainstorm dropped typhoon-like weather in the Willamette Valley.  Ponzi met the challenge by hiring helicopter pilots to fly over their vineyards and "dry" off the vines!

The resulting wine is elegant and quite different from most California Pinots.  For one thing, it's a mere 13.2% alcohol.  For another, there's no Syrah, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah in the wine to add body.  

We like the cherry-like fruit and the touch of brown spice notes in the background.  The 2013 is showing well now and it will probably develop a tad more with another couple of years of bottle aging.  Then, well-stored, it will keep nicely for another 5+ years, if you like.
 

In response to market demands for wines which are sensibly-priced and of good quality, the Ponzi's offer a new label called "Tavola."  They've been making this for but a few years and the past couple of vintages have been really good.  These have been quite good and one of the best buys in Oregon Pinot Noir.  The 2014 is beautifully aromatic and it's dangerously drinkable, too.

The wine was matured for eleven months in French oak, 20% of the barrels being brand new.  It's terrific quality, comparable to good "village" level wines from Burgundy, for example.  I've chided winemaker Luisa Ponzi for making a wine of relatively modest alcohol in this day where critics look for power, huge levels of alcohol and tons of oak.  Tongue-in-cheek, I suggested she make a 15 or 16% alcohol wine for future vintage so that consumers who drank a few glasses of this would be "sotto la tavola."


 

 

We've been fans of their "Reserve" Pinot Noirs for years.  While many wineries along the west coast use the "reserve" designation for entry level wines, Ponzi uses this for a wine of "reserve" quality.

Production levels tend to be fairly small.  It tallies to  a small percentage of their total Pinot Noir production and the wine is routinely good.  

The 2009 produced a really top wine at the Reserve level.  There's a note of sweet spice and some forest floor tones to this wine. It shows a touch of wood, despite being aged in 50% new French oak. Nice dark cherry notes to this...  It's medium-bodied and very nice now, though we've tasted 10 to 20 year old Ponzi Pinots which have been very fine.


 

 

 
Pinot Gris (or grigio, if you prefer) is also made.  I find it more along the lines of the drier wines from Alsace (that small percentage of winemakers who still make "dry" wines) more than a typical Italian Pinot Grigio.  This means it has the floral, hinting-at-spice notes on the nose and is dry and flavorful on the palate.  The 2014 is spot-on!  Screw cap bottle, as they've now offered for several years...
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
Arneis is a wonderful wine here.  The Ponzi family is friendly with the Currado family in Italy's Piemonte.  Alfredo Currado is the first (we think) to dabble with the Arneis grape in 1967.  Alfredo had read about this grape and, one day in church in 1967, he got up and asked if anybody had some Arneis grapes..."Please bring them to the winery and I'll buy them."  That afternoon, a large procession of trucks and wagons rolled into their little town and the first Vietti Arneis was vinified.

Today, thanks to his efforts, many wineries in the Langhe region make Arneis.  

And the Ponzi family makes Arneis, too.  Early vintages showed "promise," but they've been reliably good for a number of years.   It's quite dry, fresh with hints of lemon, white flowers and a touch of a pear note.  
This is perfectly suited to a wide range of dishes, from Prosciutto & Melon (at Ponzi's 40th annual Gala in 2010, the first plate served featured thinly sliced Prosciutto which had been cured by Dick Ponzi!) to Seafood pasta or a Fritto Misto of veggies or seafood...The wine stood up beautifully with the mildly spicy red sauce and a parsley-based (I think) green chili sauce served with a tri-tip.  
And it has just the right amount of oak: none!   We are currently sold out...
 
 
 


Pinot Blanc is an overlooked variety and, frankly, most are worth over-looking.  In Italy, we know of an Alto Adige producer where this grape rises above the 'norm,' and, of course, in Alsace it's periodically treated with respect.  A number of producers make this along the west coast, but it's often more of a rarity than a serious attempt at top drawer white wine.

California's Chalone winery made a remarkably Burgundian Pinot Blanc and theirs had been a benchmark for that style of winemaking. (The most recent bottling we tasted was sweet, following in the footsteps of Rombauer Chardonnay and Caymus Cabernet!  Ouch.)

 We'd offer that for the past few years, Ponzi has become the benchmark for a wine handsomely mirroring those of top estates in Alsace.  Luisa used to vinify a small portion of the wine in seasoned oak cooperage, but the 2014 was made exclusively in stainless steel.  She used to induce a secondary, malolactic fermentation, but this vintage was inhibited from undergoing an "ML."  The 2014 is a delight and it's a good candidate to pair with an appetizer course, beautifully setting up a Pinot Noir.
 

Dick Ponzi, as noted earlier, was a mechanical engineer and was solicited to be a judge for a competition to design and build a "weather machine" in downtown Portland.   

He's such a creative soul, he declined the invitation saying he'd prefer to participate as an entrant in this competition.

Ponzi's design won and you'll find an interesting "sculpture" (or contraption) which is Portland's "official" weather machine.  He probably wishes he could have built something which would help control the weather, rather than merely "indicate" what the conditions are.   

They'd, then, no doubt, have more outstanding vintages in Oregon!


Currently in stock:  2009 PONZI Arneis  Sold Out
2014 PONZI Pinot Blanc $19.99
2014 PONZI Pinot Gris $15.99
2009 PONZI "Reserve" Pinot Noir Sold Out
2013 PONZI  "regular" Pinot Noir  SALE-PRICED  $35.99 
2014 TAVOLA Pinot Noir List $25  SALE $22.99




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THE EYRIE VINEYARD
The Eyrie Vineyard was the home of "Papa Pinot," a real pioneer of a fellow named David Lett.  David, who passed away recently, was the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon after working to match various grape varieties to regions where the fruit would "just" attain ripeness or maturity.   

What bigger challenge than to plant Pinot Noir in a place that was un-tested?  

Lett did this in 1966 and started making wine shortly thereafter.  His early Pinot Noir wines were most encouraging and soon you had a couple of other crazy fellows in the neighborhood (those would be Dick Ponzi, Dick Erath and Dave Adelsheim).  

Lett, though, is viewed by many as the "father of Oregon wine-growing" and his wines set the standard back in those early days, bringing much-needed attention to Oregon as a potentially fine wine region.   
 


David had long been frustrated, in my view, that his wines have not been more glorified and sought-after.  We conducted a tasting some years ago and included his 'normal' bottling of Pinot Noir amongst a group of similarly-priced wines.  He sent a rather defensive note saying "this is like comparing a 'village' level of Burgundy to premier cru or grand cru wines."  I did not think the tasting was unfair, since his wine was priced in the same neighborhood as the other wines.   The Eyrie wine did not fare well in the tasting, frankly and Lett probably found selling wine to be challenging an endeavor as growing grapes and making wine.  I suspect part of the dynamic was simply a case of David being "cellar blind" and he simply was comfortable with his own wines.

David & Diana Lett's son Jason runs the winery these days.  I stopped in recently and found the wines to be, frankly, better than I'd expected.  
 
 
The estate comprises four vineyard parcels in the Red Hills area covering a bit more than 50 acres.  The wines are produced in a low-tech, traditional fashion.  Lett prefers to do minimal rackings, lengthy "lees contact" (this comes through nicely in their Pinot Gris), spontaneous malolactic fermentations, with no fining and minimal filtration.  

These are wines which are lost on those looking for fruit bombs or oak monsters.  Eyrie's bottlings are far too subtle for many wine drinkers (and certainly the critics who seem to prefer a more exuberant style of wine).   If you look at the color of an Eyrie Pinot these days, you'll find a wine that's marginally darker than some rosés.  The critics deduct points from their 100 Point Scale if the wine is not inky purple.

David Lett would defend the relative lack of color in Pinot Noir saying something along the lines of "the intensity of color in a wine of, say, the Minervois appellation is inversely proportional to the quality and complexity of that wine."

Having had some success with Pinot Noir, Lett planted Pinot Gris to test its ability to ripen and to produce a good white wine. It was the first vineyard of this grape in the United States and he made America's first Pinot Gris in 1970, a decade before others began dabbling with this variety.

Lett had some early success and told us he'd trade bottles of this wine with local salmon fishermen who knew to stop by the winery to exchange their catch for some bottles of David's unusual little white wine.
It was also a good match, on the dinner table, with the salmon and this wine had quite a staunch following.

Other producers followed suit and today Pinot Gris is "the" major white wine in Oregon (there's three times as much Pinot Gris planted as Chardonnay).  

As noted earlier, they have a rather minimalistic approach to making this wine.  It has a lightly brassy color and there's a mildly smoky character on the nose.  There are some pear-like fruit tones and the wine is dry and medium-light on the palate.  

The current Pinot Noir is perfectly nice, but, for my taste, over-shadowed by the wines produced by neighboring vintners.  I think the wine is a bit costly for what it delivers, but it's well-made, light and elegant.  You can tell it's Pinot Noir, however.

Jason launched a new label called "Black Cap."  The first vintage was 2002.  We had not seen this wine in our market until recently and purchased a bottle of the 2009 from the distributor.  Wow!  

As we're wont to say, "Now you're talkin'!"

 

The wine gets its name from three Oregon natives:  the black capped Chickadee (a local songbird), the black-capped Morel (mushroom) and the black-capped Raspberry.  

Jason Lett has the idea of making a wine which expresses its roots.  The 2009 is a very fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir...we like the dark cherry notes and there's just the right amount of sweet oak lurking in the background.  It's young, but certainly showing well now...
 

Currently in stock:  2013 Eyrie PINOT GRIS  SALE $17.99  
2009 BLACK CAP PINOT NOIR  Sold Out
 


The winery tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12-5.
The place used to be staffed by Jacques Rendu, though I understand Monsieur Rendu has changed jobs...

 

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DOMAINE DROUHIN
drouhin.gif (4965 bytes)Drouhin is a French family from Burgundy.  Their label in Beaune is "Joseph Drouhin".  The head honcho, "Dad" (Robert Drouhin) was very impressed when he tasted an Oregon Pinot Noir from David Lett's "The Eyrie Vineyards".   So impressed, he ventured to the Willamette Valley and found a vineyard site near Dundee.  Established in 1988, Robert's daughter Veronique is "Boss" in Oregon. Really.  She's married to a fellow named "Boss".  (I don't make this stuff up, you know.) 



The first wines were mighty impressive, having lovely Pinot fruit and a nice touch of oak.  Drouhin's Burgundy wines have been, generally, "correct", I suppose, but I've rarely been excited by them (though I have had some nice and enjoyable bottles....they are simply not the most "dramatic" wines being made in Burgundy).  Their Oregon wines have, to my taste, often been a bit more interesting than most of what I've tasted of their French bottlings.  They don't use tons of new oak in either location.  

The wpe8.jpg (7382 bytes)Oregon bottlings seem to take a year or two to start to blossom.  At least, I've often found I seem to prefer their Oregon Pinots when they're 3 or 4 years old.   The 2013 is their current release and this is very nice, balanced, mildly-oaked Pinot Noir.  It is a lovely wine and one which is drinkable now and should age handsomely, too.  We like the floral aspects of this wine along with classic cherry-like Pinot fruit.


Their "reserve" bottling of Pinot Noir is named after Veronique's daughter and is called "Laurene".  It is a shade more rich than the normal bottling.  

Chardonnay is a relatively recent addition to the portfolio.  When you taste it, keep in mind Drouhin has extensive holdings in the Chablis area.   Hence, their Oregon Chardonnay is not a big, voluptuous, oaky white wine.  Like Chablis, it is a bit more reserved and subtle.

Our experience with these wines is that they start out nicely elegant and they get even better with time in the bottle.  I recall having a Pinot Noir from a prominent Russian River producer alongside the Drouhin wine.  When they were first released, the Sonoma bottling was superior.  A decade later the Sonoma wine was still good, but the Drouhin had eclipsed it, blossoming beautifully.  
 
2013 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir  (list $48)   SALE $41.99
2011 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir (1/2 bottles)  $23.99
2009 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir "Laurene" List $70 SALE $62.99  

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PENNER-ASH
Continuing the tradition of Oregon winemakers needing to have a hyphenated surname, Ms. Lynn Penner-Ash has been a part of the Willamette Valley wine scene since the late 1980s.

She was a botany major at U.C. Davis until she changed to viticulture.  Then Lynn spent a crush season at Domaine Chandon and changed her major again, this time to enology.  After a stint at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, she was hired at the Rex Hill Winery in the Willamette Valley and made some lovely Pinot Noirs there.  In those early days, Rex Hill was a sought-after producer whose wines were amongst Oregon's best.

 
In 1998, while still at Rex Hill, she started her own label and now she does that, full time.  Lynn's husband Ron works in the vineyards and cellar, as well as handling some of the marketing duties.

They built a winery and planted a wonderful vineyard overlooking the Chehalem Valley.

The winery and the Penner Ash brand were both purchased by the Kendall-Jackson folks.  In addition to the cellar, there are 15 acres of vineyards, too.
Both Lynn and Ron say they'll stay on with the winery, at least for the foreseeable future.  We'll see.  





There are about 15 acres of vineyards on the property where the winery is located.  It's called the Dussin Vineyard and Lynn selected several clones of Pinot Noir which she felt matched the particular terroir of this site.  This is in the Yamhill-Carlton District.

They buy fruit from nearly a dozen top vineyards situated in 5 regions, including Southern Oregon's Rogue River Valley (where they source some Syrah and Viognier).

Viognier is especially good here.  It comes from two vineyard sites in the Rogue River Valley and is vinified in stainless steel with around 5 months of lees contact.  The resulting wine really captures the heart and soul of this Rhone variety, displaying a wonderfully peachy character with some pear-like fruit on the palate.  It's fairly dry and has reasonably good acidity, so it's a nicely zesty wine.  

There's good Riesling to be had here, as well.  It's a three vineyard blend and the wine has some nice "petrol"-like fragrances which will appeal to hard-core Riesling fanatics.  The wine, in the 2008 vintage, is off-dry, having less residual sugar than Rombauer's famous Napa Chardonnay (which people will tell you is dry, even though it's not).

Penner-Ash produces a range of Pinot Noirs.  I liked their estate-grown wine the best of those I sampled at the winery.  The vineyard is young, but testimony to Lynn and Ron's studious efforts in planting several clones in order to create a complex wine.  The aromas are wonderfully ethereal, with an underlying fragrance of rose petals.  At $60, it's a bit of a splurge, but the wine is lovely.

A table wine blend of Pinot and Syrah hit the mark nicely.  It's a twenty buck bottle and a good value.  So many of these sorts of "declassified" blends are washed out wines where they apologize, saying "but it's only $20."  They need not apologize for this and "it's only $20."  

I think they do very fine work with their Syrah.  The wine has red cherry fruit and some cola notes, along with an underlying spice tone.  It's a good example of a Pinot Noir winemaker's Syrah...there's an elegance and restraint to the wine and I think a winemaker from France's Rhone Valley would recognize the variety here.  I understand there's a drop or two of Viognier in the blend.  I also found some sweet spice notes, perhaps coming from a bit of time in oak?  Very nice.
 
Currently in stock:  2006 PENNER ASH Oregon SYRAH $34.99
 


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RAPTOR RIDGE

Scott and Annie Shull own this lovely winery and they've been making wine since the mid-1990s.  

They've enjoyed a fair bit of success over the years and now their business is on fairly stable footing in the Newberg area.  Previously they've rented space in other wineries and so the wines were made here and there.

Shull's day job has been (or had been) working for Intel, though today he's up to his eyeballs in wine.  His Intel gig is as a consultant.  He also consults for a few other wineries in the neighborhood and produces wine for a couple of brands apart from his own.



The Shulls recently built their own winery and tasting facility and this should also help continue their escalating the quality of their wines.

They cultivate a bit of Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, but most of their home vineyard is planted with Pinot Noir.  

We're partial to their 2013 "Barrel Select" Willamette Valley bottling.  They make a number of single vineyard wines, too, but this one hits the mark for tasting like Pinot Noir and being affordable.  It's a blend of their Estate Pinot Noir with purchased fruit from different vineyard sites and numerous Pinot Noir clones.  A touch of new oak adds complexity to the wine, but it's not dominating the Pinot Noir fruit.
Some describe this as the "entry level" wine, but there's not much "entry level" about it aside from the price. 
The wine is medium bodied, showing notes of cherry and a touch of pomegranate with a suggestion of oak.  The tannins are mild, so it's drinkable in its youth. 

 

Currently in stock:  2013 RAPTOR RIDGE Willamette Valley PINOT NOIR "Barrel Select" (list $30)  SALE $25.99  

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ARCHERY SUMMIT
archery.gif (17689 bytes)They've been right on target for several vintages of Pinot Noir at this modest-sized property a mile south of Dundee, Oregon.  The winery was founded by the late Gary Andrus, former owner of Napa Valley's Pine Ridge Winery.  
 
Andrus was a fellow who was viewed by his Napa neighbors as a bit of an eccentric guy. 

The wines of Pine Ridge were always a bit restrained, so it was surprising to find the Pinot Noirs from Oregon to be so expressive and lavishly oaked.   While his Napa Cabernets were a bit shy and introverted in their youth, the Pinot Noirs were extroverts.

Gary also set up a winery in New Zealand where they made some good Pinot Noirs.  This was called "Gypsy Dancer."  

Today the winery is owned by a big investment group, Leucadia.  It's an odd mix of "cousins," Pine Ridge and Archery Summit being loosely affiliated with a biopharmaceutical company, a Mississippi casino, an Oklahoma oil drilling company that used to be called "Goober," a long distance telecom outfit, several mining operations and they're involved in the commercial mortgage and credit business.  

When we visited this estate in their early days, the gate was locked and you had to ring a bell and asked to be allowed to enter.
Now things are different....
 
 
I tried to make an "appointment" for a winery tour, identifying myself as a wine merchant.  The kids in their tasting room were perfectly friendly, telling me what each wine tasted like as they poured it, but when I asked about seeing the winery, I was advised to "head out the tasting room door, hang a left and open the double doors.  Have a nice day."





They have a nice little photo-op for visitors, roped off at the end as they don't want people roaming around in their winery...
 
The vineyards close to the winery are impressive and the current crop of wines is quite good.   There are approximately 115 acres of grapes and these are meticulously tended, with some vineyard hands working there since the first vines were planted.  
 
 
Today the make only Pinot Noir, typically bottling a blended, entry-level wine and 5 single vineyard offerings.  With low yields in the vineyard in an effort to maximize fruit quality and toasty French oak in the cellar, the wines are quite flashy when young.

We have a fondness for their "Premier Cuvee," a blend of fruit from five vineyard sites, numerous clones of Pinot Noir and a significant percentage of new French oak barrels.  The wine features a sweet perfume of the toasty oak and it's a lovely bottle of wine, especially if you enjoy the wood.
 
The "crus" are Archery Summit Estate, Red Hills Estate, Arcus Estate, Renegade Ridge Estate in the Dundee Hills region and the Looney Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge viticultural area.  

The 2010 entry-level wine from Archery Summit will give you an idea of their style and quality.  We're especially delighted since the wine is far less costly than their fancy bottlings and is, if not better than one or two of them, pretty damned close.   We tasted it alongside a single vineyard bottling and found this to be better balanced and more charming.  Sweet, toasty oak is displayed from the outset and this is somewhat typical of their wines...(you get higher numerical scores, usually, when the wines are sweetly-oaked).  

I've tasted a few older vintages of Archery Summit wines...my preference is for this sort of wine in its youth when the oak and fruit shine brightly together.
Your mileage may vary.

Currently in stock:  2010 Archery Summit "Premier Cuvee" Pinot Noir  Sold Out
 

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