All the latest and other musings from Simon.
Thursday 1st September 2016 16:22pm
Hampshire’s Hidden Award-Winning Wine Merchant celebrates shop reopening on September 24th
Tucked away on a farm estate in Twyford is one of the country’s top independent wine merchants. 2016 has been a year to celebrate for Stone, Vine & Sun, recently winning two national awards at the 2016 International Wine Challenge: Specialist Wine Merchant for both South Africa and Languedoc-Roussillon; and also being shortlisted this August by Decanter magazine as one their Top Intermediate-sized Wine Merchants of 2016. The success of the business is based on prospecting – travelling the world to find brilliant small growers, whether in France, Italy, South Africa, or South America, and introducing their wines to British drinkers.
Shrugging off any concerns about Brexit or competition, and buoyed by an increase in sales to restaurants and the growth of their acclaimed Doorstep Dozen Wine Club, the owner of Stone Vine & Sun, Simon Taylor, is investing in his warehouse wine shop in Twyford by expanding and improving the retail space and increasing the capacity for tastings.
Stone, Vine & Sun is planning a celebratory reopening on Saturday 24th September, 9.30am-6.00pm. As well as the chance to see the new look shop and taste a large selection of bottles, all wines will be discounted by up to 20%. Delicious wood-fired pizzas will be available with a free glass of Chianti to accompany them; there will be a cheese and wine matching opportunity, with the chance to try a range of cheeses with varied wine styles; and a light-hearted blind-tasting competition to win a magnum of Champagne. Hampshire cricketer, Twyford resident and wine enthusiast Jimmy Adams will cut a symbolic ribbon on the new shop at 12 noon.
Simon Taylor reports: “There’s a huge advantage in operating from a converted chicken shed – low-cost warehousing means we can offer better value, and there’s plenty of parking space. However we are hard to find. We sell our wines so successfully all over the country – to Michelin starred restaurants, Oxford Colleges and private customers from Cornwall to Aberdeen – but after 13 years here we are still being ‘discovered’ by wine drinkers who live a mile away. So we thought we would push the boat out, have a jolly open day and welcome more Hampshire wine lovers”.
Wednesday 13th July 2016 13:39pm
Last week I attended (Simon was at the opera) the IWC Awards dinner in the hope we might pick up an award for either Languedoc & Roussillon or South Africa. We didn't win one but two, all credit to Simon and Francois for sourcing such great wines.
Friday 22nd April 2016 17:57pm
Vinitaly: another week, another mammoth wine tasting
Last week I spent three days in Verona tasting Italian wine. If I wanted to see the greatest number of our growers and producers - from all over the world - in one place I should have gone to Prowein a few weeks ago. Prowein has matchless transport links and superb Teutonic organisation. But given a choice between Dusseldorf in mid March and Verona in early April, there really is no contest. Yes, there’s a huge queue to get into the enormous halls of Veronafiere every day at 9.30 am because the Italians can’t be bothered to invest in more electronic gates; yes, there’s a frustrating wait to leave your suitcase because there are only two staff working (whilst a few metres away numerous “customer service” ladies are sitting practicing dolce far niente); and yes, it’s absurd that one of the most visited tourist spots in the city is the home, with decorative balcony and aged creeper, of Shakespeare’s wholly fictional Juliet (or rather Giulietta). But the city centre, ringed by the river Adige, surrounded by pretty hills, and with snow-covered mountains in the distance, is just so beautiful, marked in particular by a lovely pink marble. It’s not a sterile museum city either, but full of smart shops and bustling and bicycling locals. I love the way the city embraces local wine too, particularly Valpolicella and Amarone, whose bottles adorn not just food shops but boutiques, antique shops and even chemists. At the end of each working day I dined outside on fine Italian cuisine (avoiding the donkey and horse dishes which have studded Veronese menus since the locals ate them all whilst cooped up by the Austrians in one of those typically theatrical late nineteenth century sieges) and excellent local wines by the glass. Surely this is more civilised than bratwurst and lager (don’t you love national stereotyping?).
What was I doing when I wasn’t sitting in Piazza Bra watching the world go by, or admiring the balcony where Garibaldi famously declared “Rome or death!” (he has to be the greatest non-artistic Italian of the last millennium)? Well, I tasted a lot of wine. In particular I spent much of the first two days tasting Barolo – hard work as high levels of acid and tannin took their toll. But I have emerged triumphant with the wines of the Boasso family, who own vineyards in famed Serralunga. Expect those to arrive in the summer, along with terrific new vintages from our organic stars, Fiorano in the Marche and Di Filippo in Umbria.
One last thought: until this trip I hadn’t realised quite how difficult the cold and rainy 2014 vintage was pretty much all over Italy, especially for red wine. I became slightly paranoid, imagining every 2014 wine to be dilute and weedy. Of course there are some super wines, but do be warned.
Thursday 21st April 2016 10:50am
Bordeaux 2015 - the hype begins
The first prices are coming out for 2015 Bordeaux, and, like spring, so are the first efforts by certain UK merchants to hype the vintage. Here goes an early sighter from one well-known London merchant:
"15 is the perfect opportunity to get back to Bordeaux. Analytically the wines are very impressive, lots of concentration and good pH… I can never remember a vintage where the mid-palates have been so sweet and so exuberant and delightful to taste… It’s going to rank up there with one of the best vintages of Bordeaux in the last 20 or so years.”
One of the best vintages? 20 years encompasses 1995, 2000, 2001, 2003 (which they no doubt hyped too, although some wines are falling apart), 2005, 2009, and 2010. What does one of the best mean? In the top half? Perhaps this is why we remain a small merchant - we're just too honest...
Friday 8th April 2016 16:28pm
Bordeaux 2015: primeurs week
A first for me – attending the bizarre whirl which is the primeurs week in Bordeaux. It’s an absurd ritual. First, there are dozens of tastings going on every day: at the Chateaux themselves; held by any number of associations such as or Le Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux; tastings of organic wines; umbrella tastings organised by the consultants such as Hubert de Bouard or Stephane Derenoncourt for all the estates they and their large teams advise (there were over 60 at de Bouard’s tasting at Angelus); and tastings at the negociants, the businesses with great holdings of Bordeaux stock. There is a frenzy to it - can one fit in yet another tasting? - and snobbery too. For example, the grandest will only present their wines at their own Chateaux, and strictly by select invitation. Secondly, I heard about a big tasting of classed growths held by the Union des Grand Crus to be held on Monday at the new football stadium. As this is 10 minutes from the airport, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get an overview of the vintage - and it was, with a chance to chat to many Chateaux owners. But, wow, was it difficult to find out about (it wasn’t mentioned on the Union’s own website) and get into: one had to be accompanied by a negociant and booked into a two hour time slot. Surprise, surprise, the event was so discreet that there was hardly anyone attending – a bit like the empty stadium itself!
At these multiple and overlapping tastings one inevitably tastes samples of supposedly the same wine which can vary alarmingly in colour, aroma and flavour. How the journalists are meant to make definitive pronouncements or wine buyers make important buying decisions on such young wines which can appear so different, I do not know. And that is without the way the samples are prepared: in theory these are to give a representative sense of the Chateaux’s efforts, but they may be made up differently for different audiences – there is muttering about a “Parker” sample, one which is on the turbo-charged side!
So why did I go, when we at SVS have never yet made an en primeur Bordeaux offer? Let me tell you – to benchmark the wines from some of the vignerons we work closely with and Chateaux we follow against higher classed and much more expensive names. For example, on the right bank it was really exciting to see that the 2015s I tasted from our young(ish) stars like Frederic Borderie at Gravieres de la Brandille and Chateau Les Combes, Mickael Moze-Berthon in Montagne Saint-Emilion and Gregory Naulet at Vieux Chateau Palon stood up really well against many more famous St.-Emilion Grand Crus. So we may well make a selected en primeur offer of our favourites later in the year. (There was also the vital matter of topping up our Bordeaux stocks with wines which are already drinking well rather than being for drinking from 2018).
Now I suppose you want to know if it’s a great red vintage? Well, it’s certainly a very good vintage, and some wines this year are great, but the wines are not homogenous. I won’t bore you with a lengthy exposition on the weather, but after a very hot midsummer it rained a lot from August to October, especially in the northern Medoc. So vineyard management and the choice of picking dates were not easy. Some wines in the northern Medoc did appear dilute this week, but on the other hand many others felt more balanced and promising than a lot of wines on the right bank where the fruit at times seemed a little figgy and over-ripe. So it’s very difficult to make generalisations. 2015 is not 2009 or 2010, when one could buy anything with confidence. And I do have one specific concern. In the summer heat of July I think some winemakers may have decided that this was another 1982 or 2009, that they had a “great” vintage on their hands, and they were determined to make the most of it. They then had to wait for the Cabernets to ripen, especially on the left bank, and in some cases the fruit, left to hang too long, lacked freshness. But some, still in pursuit of that anticipated greatness, over-extracted as well, compounding the problem. One could spot immediately those overdone examples: with inkily flat hue, a lack of perfume, crushing tannins and a total absence of aromatics. But it’s mean to end on a bad note – I enjoyed some really lovely 2015s: in no particular order these (many from the consistent over-achievers) offered a hint of greatness: Carbonnieux, Malartic-Graviere, Troplong-Mondot, Petit-Village, Cantemerle, Beychevelle, Grand-Puy-Lacoste and Phelan Segur. And remember that Norman No-mates didn’t taste the first growths and super seconds!
Friday 18th March 2016 13:27pm
We are open-minded here, so yesterday I went to The New Bulgaria Trade Tasting, in a rather pokey basement of the Bulgarian embassy in Queensgate, South Ken. It was a strange event, not what I expected, perhaps because many of the estates came from Thrace. I was hoping to taste local varieties, Mavrud for example, but I seemed to be mainly tasting the same international varieties one can find all over the world: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier; and for the reds almost exclusively Bordeaux varieties and blends, plus some Syrah.
The second disappointment was the price tariff usually quoted. I gently explained to one man that his Sauvignon Blanc (perfectly good, but unexceptional) was priced at more than we paid for Sancerre. Under communism the Bulgarian wine industry became a sea of mediocrity. On the evidence of this tasting (presumably highly selective, tilted towards wineries with aspirations to penetrate what they perceive as the made-of-money UK market) it is possible that the see-saw has gone too far. This bunch of producers were mainly focussed on boutique production (several wines I tasted were lots of only a thousand bottles or less), with rather exciting ideas of achievable prices in euros.
Having said that, some of the wines tasted were really excellent. I am not sure we are ready to jump in yet, but you never know. Anyone for a £20 Bulgarian Bordeaux blend? It would put many St Emilion Grand Crus and Pomerols in the shade..
Tuesday 16th February 2016 12:42pm
Great new wines from the Cape
It’s a quiet time of year at SVS for sales: the fun is seeing what’s arriving in the warehouse, and in particular lots of new wines from South Africa. In the autumn I did a buying trip to the Cape, the first for four years, and wow, did I notice a change for the (even) better. We have long championed South African wine, winning the International Wine Challenge award for Specialist Wine Merchant in 2010, but now the country has become a perfect hunting ground for Stone, Vine & Sun, buzzing with bright young men and women crafting intriguing, small volume wines. Just outside Cape Town, back in September, I kicked off with The Young & The Restless Tasting (presented by the weirdly named Zoo Biscuits), a select but stimulating tasting of some twenty of the Cape’s young stars. We will be working with two of them, Gavin Brand at Cape Rock (wait for the Capa Roca, a blend of Portuguese varieties); and Leon Coetzee at The Fledge & Co (as in a fledgling, soon to fly). Like many of this gang Leon doesn’t own vineyards, but he is adept at sourcing great grapes, in some cases from unlikely places. I believe Leon’s wines will create the same buzz as Pieter Walser’s from Blankbottle did when we introduced them five years ago. We are shipping a superb old-vine Chenin, a white Rhonish blend, a terrific single vineyard Pinot Noir and a cool, understated Syrah (definitely not Shiraz) from shale soils in Tradauw in the Klein Karoo, which comes in at a refreshing 13.2 degrees.
But that’s not all we have coming. We have sung the virtues of the great Chardonnays from Chamonix and Ataraxia, but as these have rightfully become more expensive, we were determined to find a classy cool climate Cape Chardonnay that we could sell more reasonably: so step forward Domaine des Dieux, a small estate just above Ataraxia at the top of the valley in the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge zone. Their 2012 Chardonnay arrives any day now, and at £12.95 this is stunning, a full-flavoured, perfectly ready to drink oaked Chardonnay of concentration and length. We are going to sell a lot of this…and their Pinot isn’t bad either!
From the classic to the off-beat: already here are wines from Lemberg in Tulbagh: Pinotage, to be sure, but also two remarkable whites: a dry, mildly oxydised, and almost savoury Harslevelu (the grape of Tokay); and Lady, a Viognier and Harslevelu blend, creamy, rounded, intriguing and persistent. We are not wilful – we don’t buy wines for their weirdness alone, but we are not frightened of the unusal so long as it tastes great!
So…. Await our big South African offer at the end of March: as wines from a whole new bunch of growers join the old favourites like Cederberg, Chamonix and Ataraxia.
Monday 2nd November 2015 13:21pm
1989-90 Sweet Loire with Jancis Robinson, MW
It's not often one gets to taste 29 25 year old wines in the company of the world's top wine writer: it's even rarer if these wines originally cost between £8.50 and £23.99 a bottle! But at 10.30 on Saturday morning I sat down to taste six flights of sweet Loire wines from the two vintages of 1989 and 1990, widely acclaimed in the region to be the finest since 1947. Here are some conclusions.
First, by modern standards many of these wines were not that sweet: Moelleux wines in the Loire then tended to 30-45 grams of residual sugar per litre, and whilst many wines in these two super hot years obviously showed a lot more than that, many of the wines would now be classified as demi-sec - although none the worse for that (Deletang's 1990 Mountlouis Les Batisses, Moelleux was brilliant in this vein, silky, spicy and long). Chenin's best quality is to keep acidity even in picked very late. As a result no-one present was overwhelmed by sugar and some wines were delighfully refreshing for bottles a quarter of a century old.
Second, there was no question that the three flights of 1990s were both more consistent and more interesting than the 1989s. Two reasons? In 1990 there was more botrytis and that gave more marmaladey richness and complexity to many of the year's best wines; and perhaps the growers' winemaking was more assured with one hot vintage already under their belts (some had also invested in refrigeration as well). Charles Sydney, the English courtier resident in the Loire, had told me that 1989 was the last of the old vintages, when the quality of the wines was determined only by the weather, as opposed to 1990 as the first of the new, where improved viticulture and winemaking became more significant, and this tasting bore that out.
Third, honours were pretty evenly split between Vouvray to the east of Tours and the Coteaux du Layon south west of Angers: wines from the the former were perhaps more subtle, and had less disappointments, but Quarts de Chaume also came up trumps: the 1989 Domaine de Baumard Quarts de Chaume (quince and honey, rich and powerful); the 1990s from Pierre-Bise (Claude Papin's first vintage of QdC, toffee and oranges, unfolding superbly); and Chateau de Fesles (bittersweeet, textured and energetic, with mineral and sandalwood hints). Matching them for complexity, quality and longevity - some of these wines have at least another ten years in them - if not sweetness, were Huet's 1989 Le Haut Lieu Moelleux 1er Trie (all ripe pears, lime, honey and beeswax); Domaine des Aubuisieres Vouvray Selection Grain Nobles of 1990 (really ripe and honeyed, candied oranges cut by fine acid) and Champalou's 1990 Vouvray Cuvee Catherine (concentrated, caramelly yet with a floral accent).
On the down side, we had one bottle badly corked, one bottle a little musty and several oxydised, including two of the four Huet wines on tasting - which was disappointing but not surprising in my experience. This tasting is probably totally impossible to replicate, short of begging for a lot of bottles in the Loire (our current growers, Domaine des Forges and Pierre-Bise very kindly sent samples), as this collection, including many tiny production special cuvees, was assembled in the 1990s. This extraordinary morning concluded with a really wonderful lunch at The Portland (just one highlight alone worth a detour - intensely fungal white truffle macaroons), the recently starred restaurant run by Jancis Robinson's son, Will Lander. So hats off to the Robinson / Lander clan for a pretty amazing event!
Monday 10th August 2015 10:02am
Laithwaite’s – Boutique Wines at everyday prices ?
It’s a quiet Saturday in August, the sun is shining, few will come to the shop, so there’s time for a meditative review of one of the UK’s largest wine businesses, Laithwaites (and for those who don’t know already, Laithwaite’s also owns Avery’s and runs just about every wine club you might have heard of, e.g. Sunday Times, British Airways, National Trust, etc. etc.). Laithwaite’s tale of growth - from Tony Laithwaite bringing back a van load of wine from France in 1969 to a huge wine business operating in several countries today - is amazing. One should be proud of this great British success story….
….BUT (there’s often a large BUT in an SVS blog) this blog was prompted solely by the appearance through my letter box at home of their latest offer trumpeting “Boutique Wines at everyday prices” (and everything in quotation marks below comes from this brochure or their website). I was piqued. Leaving aside the actual desirability of “boutique” wines – as so many tend to be over-made, over-priced wines owing more to the pretensions of some rich owner than the land on which the vines are grown - this is an absurd claim. “Boutique” has no legal status in the world of wine but it does imply small-scale and precious. In Australia the rules of the Association of Boutique Winemakers are clear: “A Boutique wine company is one which crushes and bottles 250 ton or less annually under its own label and is owned independently, i.e., not owned by a larger wine company”. Well, as to the precious idea, ignoring the discount in the Laithwaite’s brochure, the average bottle price of the wines featured, is, in theory (for more of the “in theory” part, please see below) over £9.00 a bottle, not really boutique territory when it comes to wine.
Anyway, investigation followed, and as I researched more, I got tetchier…
First, the selling pitch is based on claims that “boutique” wineries are “queuing” to work “so closely with wine drinkers”, with, wait for it, “no middlemen, no money wasted on expensive marketing”. Umm, what exactly is Laithwaite’s but a middle man? And whilst it’s good news of course, that these humble peasants are spared all this marketing effort, it’s bit rich to imply this cost has vanished given that Laithwaite’s spends squillions every year on marketing in advertising and sponsorship! Incidentally the idea that the Laithwaite’s customers are “helping…wineries to keep costs down by ordering together” is a shameless rip-off of the more innovative Naked Wines philosophy (and it does seem a bit unfair to steal Naked’s clothes!).
So who exactly are these “talented winemakers struggling along selling a few cases at a time to restaurants and private clients”, these guys who are making “handcrafted wines at remarkable prices”, pathetically grateful to Laithwaites for so graciously taking “the lot in one go”, thus enabling them to have “more time to make great wine”? The briefest perusal of the brochure comes up with these: Vina Tarapaca in Chile, part of the VSPT wine group, Chile’s second largest wine exporter; Franschhoek Cellars, a former co-operative and now part of DGB (which was Douglas Green Bellingham) in the Cape, producing a very unboutique 8,000 tons, equal to 560,000 cases a year; Martinez Bujanda in Rioja, with over 200 hectares of vineyards; Mcpherson wine with 225 hectares in Australia; and Luis Felipe Edwards, the largest family owned winery in Chile, who somehow make ends meet by picking every last grape on their 1850 hectares and exporting to 70 countries. (Just to put this in perspective, many of the growers we buy from in France and Italy make wine from less than 10 hectares of vines, and Frank Balthazar in Cornas has just 2.25!). Doesn’t one’s heart bleed for these impoverished, time-poor souls, and applaud Laithwaite’s philanthropy in saving them. Laithwaite’s say they are selling wines “made in quantities too small for the supermarkets”, but when you claim to have 100,000 thirsty customers and a turnover of £300m it’s quite hard to supply them without going to the big boys of the wine world.
Next, the pricing: I examined one case of the twelve on offer in the brochure, no. 9, Pinot Grigio and Friends. This cases includes two bottles of each of four Pinot Grigios - from Romania, Hungary, Australia and Italy - plus a Chenin Blanc (from the Franschhoek Cellars mentioned above) and an Italian blend. The headline printed price is £105.49. (I accept the brochure is three weeks old, but when I totted up the bottle prices of the wines on their website in the case I came to £101.88). But the idea that these particular bottles are worth an average of £8.79 is ludicrous. C’mon guys…. eastern European Pinot Grigio, making up a third of the case, is just NOT boutique wine in either style or price!
Then there’s the exclusivity claim - your chance to taste “wines not otherwise seen in the UK!”. Wow, lucky you. The reason these wines are not otherwise seen in the UK is that they are specially made, in some cases in Laithwaite’s own winemaking facilities in France and Australia, and labelled solely for Laithwaite’s (and their numerous affiliate clubs). This is very bad for two reasons: the obvious downside is that they can control pricing and make sure price comparison is impossible. (When you do find a wine on their website which is available elsewhere Laithwaite’s look expensive. For example Guigal’s white Cotes de Rhone is £13.99 on their site, but available from the Wine Society at £9.95 or widely available from independents at £11.95). But, far more serious, if Laithwaite’s are controlling what goes in the bottle, you aren’t necessarily getting a wine with authenticity and local character (god forbid it should be unfiltered and have sediment in it, as that might lead to complaints and refunds): you will be getting a safe, boring bottle for MOR taste.
Then there are the names and brands. I am all for making wine names accessible and demystifying wine, but is it helpful to have Romanian wines branded Paris Street? Surely someone casually looking at the bottle might just think it was from France - or is that the idea, duh? Or Spanish wines sold under Lime Leaf, Silver Route and Cherry Orchard? When it comes to Italy the highly paid branding team at Laithwaite’s must have been giggling as they dreamed up catchy names. Basically they like to add an O to the end of english words - so Laithwaite’s purvey wines called Massivo, Il Bruto and Visionario. Can anyone take this seriously? Somehow I just can’t see someone with boutique wine aspirations naming their wine Massivo. Why stop there – may I propose Diluto for a light dry white, and Ruffo for a rustic red?
Then there’s the hyperbole. Do their copywriters really believe that the 2013 Orange Grove Chardonnay from Spain at £5.99 is “world class Chardonnay”? Do they get out much? Do they actually drink wine at all?
Then there are the introductory discounts - £50 in the case of the brochure I received. This would enable me to buy a case of wine with free delivery at £4.39 a bottle, with two free glasses thrown in. It’s a great deal by any standards, but if I send that siren coupon in there are consequences. I will get another case 12 weeks later, if I forget to cancel, without that great discount; and I will be subject to warm-calling if I don’t order more, by a huge team of client advisers trained to push particular wines; and if I still don’t order my name will be transferred to another branch of their organisation who will also send me their lists. Finally, if you do give them the feedback they request, then, google-like, their algorithms will ensure you are pushed more and more of the same. Returning that coupon is like signing your palate away to the vinous devil.
Laithwaite’s is a great business, with thousands of happy customers. I have tasted lots of perfectly good (if often unexciting) wines from them, and they work with plenty of excellent partners – Luis Felipe Edwards in Chile being a good example. But if the gap between the claims made in the “Boutique wines at everyday prices” brochure and the reality of their business can’t be investigated under the Trade Descriptions Act, at least it can be challenged by someone who genuinely does work with small growers. Just as they have cynically adapted their marketing spiel to make Laithwaite’s look more like Naked Wines, their fast growing challenger - “Together it’s easy” it says on the front of their brochure - so they shamelessly continue to pretend that they are supplying small production wines from artisanal growers. When we started SVS over a decade ago, one customer was kind enough to describe us as the “the new Adnam's”. I took that a compliment, given Simon Loftus’s great ability to seek out interesting wines. I am glad to say no-one has ever called us the new Laithwaite’s. But then I could just be jealous of that £300m turnover….
Monday 20th July 2015 11:48am
IWC Dinner, 16th July 2015
As promised, more on the IWC dinner where SVS was awarded the Specialist Wine Merchant for Chile award. It was quite an evening. Much as I don't want to bite the hand that awards me, the inner old fart in me had some issues. OK, I can just about cope with the disco lights and the incessant, pounding pop music (does this have to punctuate everything now, from international cricket downwards?). BUT... the dinner. If you are going to charge 200 quid a ticket, and put bottles of trophy or gold medal-winning wines on each table, you must serve decent food. But what did we get? OK, I didn't see the crib sheet, but what I appeared to be served was a roundel of Shippam's meat paste with pickled vegetables; followed by some dark-skinned fish in sweetish teriyaki sauce. So the august organisers of an event celebrating the world's wines managed to come up with one course dominated by vinegar and one by sugar...both well-known wine-destroyers. No red meat, aaargh....A real shame, as it was in many ways a jolly occasion with some top merchants and producers there. The best dressed group were the Japanese, there in force for sake awards, but I also loved coming across the couple in the photo, winner of the Taiwan Fortified Trophy (yes, there's a big world out there....)
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