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Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé!

17 novembre @ Nicolas Wine Shop: What will the new vintage bring? Strawberries? Cherries?

For all of the years that I've sported flashing red and purple lapel pins and lavished in the craziness that accompanies the annual celebration of a trés simple vin being released in France, I've never actually been in France when the fateful third Thursday of November arrives.  The parties I have been to and/or have thrown look like New Year's Eve, with banners and balloons and confetti and feather boas and the encouragement of donning festive hats.

 We in the wine community of America love that we can feel some sense of solidarity with our older, wiser, more elegant wine cousin, France, as the bars and brasseries along the Champs Elysées await the first boxes of the new vintage to arrive and be pillaged upon midnight of the 17th.  So it was with great curiosity and excitement that I set out on the third Thursday of November to experience this day of carbonic maceration celebration.  And I was met with....well, I guess you could say a faint enthusiasm for tasting the first finished wine of the vintage.  

Most French nationals (or at least Parisians who do know and love wine) detest the day.  But for me, I was quite excited to see what the vintage that I had just put to bed down in the Rhône Valley would taste like.  And, actually, I quite like Beaujolais.  Nouveau can be good, depending on your producer and the vintage, and can be easily enjoyed as an aperitif before delving into the smashed taters and turkey.  Really, what better to pair with Aunt Margaret's Ritz crackers and cheddar cheese chunks than Beaujolais Nouveau?  Ok, perhaps maybe if a single malt Scotch isn't available....

But like the charming window display says, today is the day that the debates on the vintage are open for discussion.  Will 2011 bring notes of cherries, strawberries or small woodland animals to the older siblings of Beaujolais, dutifully resting in their barrels the way proper wine should behave?  Or is 2011 a complete bust, worthy of no inflated wine prices on the auction blocks at Christie's?  Well, after several stops in various arrondissements in Paris, I felt I hit a good cross-section of the selections available, and found a few lovely newbies, worthy of scribbling down a note or two.

Stop No°1: Le Tire Bouchon in the 10éme.  That clay jar is filled with cornichons. Yum.

Walking south from the 18éme and passing the Gare du Nord to my left, I entered into my bordering neighborhood, the 10éme, which is actually quite a lively neighborhood, with lots of cool little hang-out nooks.  I was recommended to try Le Tire Bouchon at Place Franz Liszt, which was rumored to have a creative wine list.  They were showcasing the Laurent Thevenet Beaujolais Nouveau from Morgon, which actually had a bright, fresh palate of strawberries, a balanced midpalate with good tannin and even a little bit of dirt on the finish.  With the assiette de charcuterie, featuring pate, jamon pays, rillette et saucisson sec, it brought out the spicier notes of the wine and downplayed the overdramatic young fruit.  Not a bad start, I thought...

Next on the itinerary was to venture to the epicenter of many quite decent and notable wine bars, le Palais Royale.  In this remarkable neighborhood you can find the likes of Les Fines Gueules, ô Chateau, Alfred, Racines, Juveniles, Willi's, and, oh yes, Le Grand Vefour.

Clearly not dressed for Vefour, I headed just north of the arcade passage that opens up onto one of the loveliest - and wonderfully tourist free - courtyard gardens in all of Paris, to Rue des Petits Champs.  We're in the 1er now, the center of Paris and the chicest of neighborhoods.  This is where you will find the Ritz, the Louvre, the Rue Rivoli, Place Vendome.  And so of course, I had to visit the most famous wine bar in Paris known Stateside, Willi's Wine Bar.  

Which was dreadfully silent.  The sound of two people tenderly placing their glass on the polished oak bar was the only sound I heard. I am used to 'wine bars' being active at all hours of the day, especially 6:30 - 7:00pm.  But the bar à vins in Paris act a little more like restaurants, in that they close during the afternoon and really don't get going until 9pm or so.  However, I had no time to wait until then.  

So I ordered a glass of the BN** (at which time the bartender asked if I really, really wanted to try this wine?  Perhaps something more complex from their carte du vins?), in dutiful research mode.  It ended up to be a rich jammy number from Domaine de Bacarra, a Beaujolais Villages producer (who is also a Vigneron Independent).  With rich forest floor notes and bright plums and cherises flambé, it was the kind of elegant BN I was hoping to find at a place like Willi's.  

And if you've ever been, you know their wine selection is fresh and dynamic, and I did feel kind of ashamed going in to ask for this slop of a wine, but it proves my theory that IF the producer cares and IF the bar or restaurant is discerning in their selections (and serves in proper glassware), there are many lovely BN wines to experience.  

But unfortunately that was not the case at my next stop.  All the corner bars and brasseries were fully decked out in party mode, so I just had to pause at one.  Streamers, balloons, posters, even wine barrels lining the streets as makeshift bar tables.  And the patrons were spilling out onto the street, spilling electric red wine on each other as they went merrily from one table to the next.  Music pumping - strangely a lot of American 80's tunes - and young and old alike celebrating the birth of a new vintage.  

This was the action I was looking for.  But, alas, dreadful glassware prepared me for dreadful BN.  I saw them pour it from a bottle, but other than that, I never bothered to find out what it was.  Oh well, at least I got to hear Billie Jean.

If you see this in your glass, run.

Meandering back north from the 1er, I detoured through a fabulous little pedestrian shopping district,  the Rue Montorgueil which is anchored by some of the most famous cookware magasins in Paris, namely La Bovida and E. Dehillerin (where Julia Child used to shop for her famous copper cookware).  Avoiding the lusty pull of copper pots gleaming in the window, I traversed up the Rue past the many market stalls, friendly cafés, famed patisseries (i.e. Stohrer) and stumbled upon two fantastic little wine shops holding tastings of the BN right outside on the sidewalk.  

With cute marketing gimmicks and free saucisson, I had to stop for just a sip.  The Miss Vicky Wine slogan (in English) 'I'm Cool Because I Drink Wine' and the girl pouring the liquid in a neon pink mini-skirt made it all worth it.  In fact, it wasn't all that terrible, but at 8€ a bottle, I knew I would just be paying for marketing.

Tasting the Miss Vicky BN

But I had one stop to go - and I had been looking forward to experiencing this place for myself ever since Uncle Tony* told me about it on his travel network show.  And although reservations at the main restaurant are impossible to get (perhaps the hype from the show, or perhaps because there are only 35 seats and the food really is good), there is a little wine bar that part of the family, just across the way in the same dark alley.  Yes, Frenchie has a wine bar.  And a damn good one at that.  

Just like 'big' brother across the street, the place is minuscule (so small that there are no stools at the zinc bar - the few you do see belong to the bar tables), but they make every effort to squeeze as many people in as possible. Even with all of us bellying up to the bar asking for a glass of Alphonse Mellot to go with our freshly sliced charcuterie plate, the guys behind the bar were quite patient and helpful.  After getting used to the service levels in France, I thought they gave fantastic service.  And the Carte du Vin is pretty wonderful.  Conterno, Breuer, Fichet, Leguin-Colin, Cos, even Calera made the list.  And the by-the-glass selections?  They ask you what you are looking for, what from the list might interest you, and (within some boundaries), that's what they open for you.

Frenchie Bar à Vins, with Chinon

I opted for a glass of the Mas del Périé Chinon, which was decidedly NOT a BN.  And it paired perfectly with the Burratta et Boudin Noir avec Pomme.

The bread tasted like it was baked in a huge brick oven just a few hours before, with a lovely chocolatey-crunchy crust.  And more than once Chef Gregory Marchand came from across the street to check on the bar and chat with guests.  He asked me about the Cascina Zerbetta Barbera del Monferrato that I had moved on to.  And of course, my French failed me.  

'Ah, trés bon, bien sur! C'est trés jolie cave!' was all I could get out, I believe.

Busy Little Wine Bar 

Beautiful Buratta and Boudin Noir

So perhaps I wasn't a complete purist in my pursuit of bon Beaujolais Nouveau on this third Thursday in November.  But there are times when you just have to draw the line and drink good wine.  Life is too short - and a spot at the Frenchie Bar à Vin is hart to get.  But it was fantastic to get a sneak peek to what vintage 2011 will be like for many of the wines now sleeping away the winter in their barrels.  I for one will be very excited to taste the Northern Rhônes this year.  So enjoy a glass of 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau with your cheese cubes, and love it for exactly what it is:  a preview into a truly fantastic vintage.

Salute, and Abaluche!

*You know you wish Anthony Bourdain was your crazy uncle too.

**Beaujolais Nouveau.  Got pretty tired writing it out all those times.

The Completely True Adventures of a Napa Winemaker Living in Paris

So, somehow, I ended up living in Paris.  Not even one year ago I had the crazy dream that it could be possible, and through hard work, luck, and tons of love and support from my family, it actually happened.  And so with a vintage in the Rhone Valley behind me and recorded in the history books, I face the greatest adventure of all: living abroad.

What's a winemaker from Napa Valley to do for work, you may ask, when she finds herself making a home in a very lovely city with absolutely no wineries to be found?  Luckily, the Parisians like wine and food, and French wine at that, so this seems the perfect place to explore the various brasseries, cafes, bar à vins, restaurants and cavistes that have been serving fantastic wines for decades.  Many of these wines do not make it out of France for us to enjoy in the States, and so I hope to find work in one of these establishments to do some reconnaissance on the best wines that have yet to be discovered.  A difficult task, I assure you, but I am ready to take on the challenge.  One producer to look for now on the shelves in your favorite wine bar or wine shop?  Domaine François Villard.  Not that I have any bias....

But first, some sightseeing.  Paris is quite a magical city, on so many different levels, that it's hard not to look up from your baguette or verre du vin rouge and just marvel in the majesty of the structures in front of you and relish in the tranquility of the gardens hidden behind the gold tipped iron gates.  You see, it's really all about balance.

A tout à l'heure!

 Opéra Garnier

 Jardin du Palais Royal

Basilique du Sacre Coeur

Au Revoir Napa Valley....


Moving soils again....
This time to France, to explore the region of Condrieu with Francois Villard. It's surreal to know that in just a few short weeks, I'll be digging my hands into the fabled soils of Vienne, with the majestic Rhone river snaking slowly below le cave.

But for now, I am living and breathing Paris. Smoke, exhaust, and crowds of people in the summer balances with perfumes of roses, jasmine, Ricardo and the damp chestnut trees. It rained this afternoon, and there is nothing better in the summer to cool off the pavements. Before Paris there was London, where in addition to caving many pints and fish and chips, a most wonderful evening was spent at the American Bar at The Savoy hotel. Cocktail after cocktail were designed with precision by our bartender, Latislav, who was planning to head to New York to open a cocktail bar with some of his friends. I highly recommend searching out this bar.

Then on to Paris, where magic has been happening since day one. For example: I arrived on a Sunday, which happened to be a glorious day, and the city seemed so quiet. Too quiet. It was a dramatic change from the craziness of London. As I wandered over to the Rue di Rivoli, to get across to the Seine, it occurred to me that there might be a parade happening, as the streets were completely blocked off. Slowly I realized that the only way the whole city of Paris would be gathered at the edge of this street would be for one event. The thousands of people wearing yellow jerseys and tshirts confirmed this belief. I had happened upon the final stage of the Tour de France. In a few short minutes, the competitors, leaning in close over their graphite and lightweight bicycle bodies, came hurling past me and in an instant I caught a photo of the Yellow Jersey, le Tour Eiffel, le Concorde Obelisk and le Tuleries, a fantastic shot.

But for now, I intend on taking my time in Paris, and avoiding the hustle that seems to dictate so many visitors to this great city. It is nearly August, and already the boulevards are packed with people from all over the world on holiday. For once, I feel no pressure to see every museum, dine at every great restaurant, see every great monument. I know I will be back, and very soon. This is the beginning of a very long sojourn into the French culture, and for now, I just want to walk the various arrondissements and discover Paris on my own terms. And let those on holiday rush by me on the boulevards just as the riders in the Tour de France did. I'll be happy just to sit back and watch.

Day 1: 1982 Chateau Margaux, among others

Whenever another year comes to a close, we tend to think, 'where did the year go?' and 'what on earth do I have to show for it?' Many times, I always wonder what happened to taking copious notes on all the wonderful wines I've had the good fortune to sample over the year. And the memorable meals I've experienced. And all the exotic locales I've visited (usually with the purpose of eating good food and drinking beautiful wines).

So, I figured the best way to remember all of these great experiences is to share them all with you. So, I will attempt to document, over the next 365 days, 365 memorable food, wine and travel experiences.

Living in Napa Valley, having memorable food and wine experiences is quite an everyday affair. It's really why so many of us decide to pursue the dream of working in the wine industry. Contrary to popular belief, it's not to become an overnight millionaire. It's all about the lifestyle. And last night was a perfect testament to that belief.

I was invited by a good friend of mine to attend his wine company's holiday party, which started off at the wonderfully diverse Oxbow Market in Napa. We then moved on to Taylor's Refresher next door, which has some of the most delicious and sustainably produced burgers, fries and shakes in the Valley.

And then, we saw the line up of wines on the back table:
A magnum of Domaine Weinbach Riesling Schlossburg, Cuvee St. Catherine;
1987 Dominus;
2001 Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape;
2006 Araujo Estate;
1978 Duckhorn;
1974 Camus;
(and the most amazing wine I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing:)
1982 Chateau Margaux

So, with my Blue Cheese burger from Taylors, I paired the 1982 Margaux. Simply beautiful, and the blue cheese did not even come close to eclipsing the beauty and supple elegance and power of the Bordeaux. The Caymus was showing very beautifully, and the Duckhorn still held on to much of it's fruit. The Janasse was just the right balance of earth and structure and fruit, and the Cuvee St. Catherine was actually a great pairing with the calamari!

As if this was not enough, after burgers, fries and ridiculous amounts of some of the best Cabernet and Bordeaux in the world, we all boarded the Party Bus, bound for ??, but stocked with bottles of MV Krug and Kara's Cupcakes. We ended up at a bowling alley nearly an hour from Napa, but the Champagne and playlist on the bus made the trip seem short. Unfortunately, Bordeaux and bubbles gave way to Irish Car Bombs and beer, but when you lace up those rented shoes and start cosmic bowling with a big group of great people all hopped up on some killer wines, and you know the Party Bus is gonna get you home safe, you realize why you gave up your fast-paced corporate life to live the life in Wine Country.

Over the next year, I will attempt to write a post a day on whatever it is that I'm eating and drinking at the moment. With holidays coming up and a year ahead with some interesting trips planned, there should be some very interesting things coming up..... Thanks for following, and Abaluche!

Flat Whites, Icebreakers, Canterbury Lamb and Riesling: March 9, 2009

Just a few of my favorite things I’ve found this short while down here in New Zealand. Although not necessarily in that order. In the relatively short week I’ve spent here in the southern part of the world, I’ve seen my first blue penguin, had amazing lamb prepared several delicious ways, tasted a wild goat meat pie, sampled some of the best and most undiscovered Rieslings from this part of the world, and drank my weight in pints of Tui East Indian Ale while enduring a grueling 8 hour cricket match. In the blazing sun. Which, after 6 hours, turned into a frigid bowl of southerly gale force winds. I’ve also learned to drive on the other side of the road. Harrowing, considering that at every moment you are anticipating a head-on collision. And now, looking out onto High and Manchester streets in the center of Christchurch, I’m finally calm and settling into this new lifestyle, relaxed with my favorite Kiwi invention, the Flat White, as I watch the last of the Monday morning commuters buzz around me in a hurried attempt to begin their day-to-day cubicle life. Not me. Today, I travel with fellow Craggy Intern Patrick south of this Gateway To The Antartic to the Aroaki/Mt. Cook National Park. I have to admit, I couldn’t be happier to leave the city behind. For me, this is where the real New Zealand is discovered.

It’s freezing down here. And it’s March – I was expecting weather not unlike San Francisco in late August: warm, but with a slight chill in the evening. Not the case. So, after a necessary stop at one of the many outdoor stores (which are conveniently placed on every corner in the major intersections in South Island towns like Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin), I’m now all suited up with my North Face Ice Blue Fleece, my Mont goose-down sleeping bag and comfy ThermaRest camping mattress. I’m a fricking walking REI ad. NZed, here I come!

It’s a good thing that I got some civilized R&R in before embarking on this Great Unknown Journey. Prior to meeting Patrick in Christchurch (and witnessing way too much blood out in the streets for an average Saturday night), I escaped the City for a quick minibreak up to the Waipara Valley. Only an hour’s drive north of Christchurch, it is the perfect little getaway from the city. This is a region that is quickly becoming known for it’s delicate approach to Pinot Noirs and it’s ability to produce dry, off-dry and sweet Rieslings. I was able to taste at a few of the wineries in the region: Muddy Water, Pegasus Bay, Waipara Springs, and a little winery outside the region in little Waikari, Bell Hill, who are doing some absolutely fabulous small block, yet densely planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on limestone rich soils.

As for the Rieslings, where Pegasus Bay is king in the region, there are plenty more nipping at their heels. The Rieslings of Muddy Water were outstanding, with their dry Riesling showing delicate aromas of peaches, pears and lychee with a bit of hazelnut on the long finish. At 6gr RS, this is the driest style of the region, but the intense acidity and minerality helps to erase any sign of sugar on the palate. My preferred wine of the day. Their medium-dry, the James Harwick, was again just as minerally, with a distinct white floral nose, but a zesty Key Lime pie palate that kept me diving back in for more. Quite yummy. As for their sweeter style, the 2006 ‘Unplugged’ had a bit of Botrytis-affected fruit included, from a block that sits a little lower than their other blocks near the river. At 53gr RS, the wine was definitely more of a dessert style, but you won’t find any cloying fruit notes with this one. A very expressive nose of rose petals and a hint of petrol, the palate was more glycerine in style verses sticky sweet, and again the presence of the minerality and acitidy helped the wine to be focused and present. Other producers I was able to check out included Waipara Springs, Where I had one of the most delectable lamb salads on the terrace with a bit of dry Riesling.

Although the Riesling was quite expressive and lovely, it was the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from little producer Bell Hill that really stole my heart. Built upon a former limestone quarry and production facility, it is evident why Marcel and Sherwyn decided to turn the property into a home for Pinot and Chardonnay vines. The backdrop was luscious, with a light rain falling on the densely carpeted clover-green peaks and hilly ranges while the spun sugar clouds dotted the sky, tinged with a bit of gray, looking down onto the grazing sheep below. Upon a bluff overlooking all of this extravagance sits Bell Hill.

More vineyard than production space, the love is definitely felt in the dirt, where the vines are planted close together in tough limestone soils, perched on ridges and slopes and fight to be the very best they can be. The soil is actually three distinct layers, with the topsoil consisting of dark clay, the mid section, and largest section, all limestone, and the deepest layer a very fine, packed greensand soil. Wilco, vineyard manager from Holland via Martinborough, shows me each block and expresses just how carefully each row is cared for.

To taste with owners Marcel and Sherwyn is a magical experience, to say the least. After a quick tour of the tiny but functional crushpad and production room, I am escorted though a door in what looks to be an outhouse shaped like a mushroom, down a metal spiral staircase to a magnificent, yet ‘Lilliplutian’ cellar below. 12 oak barrels and a wall of mostly Burgundian wines line the inside of this submerged container. There, Marcel pulls samples of their 2008 Chardonnay, recently finished with ML. It tastes fresh and new, yet resplendent of limestone and mineral. Key lime, kiwi and honeysuckle with subtle tropical fruits accented the palate and finish. A gorgeous texture of Chantilly cream finishes it off. Delightful.

For the Pinot Noirs represented, all were pulled from the barrel, Marcel blending blocks together, and offering tastes of single block samples. All had beautiful expressive fruit, with the resplendent acidity and minerality gained from the soils. A hint of herbality and gaminess was something I could definitely sink my teeth into. The most expressive of the 2008 Pinots was that from a block affectionately dubbed the “Problem Child” block. It was one of the first planted, and so the most mature; however, the soils have been turning up curious deposits from its former life as a limestone processing plant, so each vintage presents new challenges and discoveries. If what was tasted from the barrel is any indication, this block is the one to look out for. The texture was both of lace and satin, with strong expression of fruit tannins and limestone, and the complexity of all the components was outstanding for the wine’s young age. Upon bottling, I can see this particular Pinot becoming even more elongated and defined, with years of aging giving it even more complexity.

Upon returning to Christchurch, I needed to find the perfect dinner experience to compliment the wine experience I’d just had in Waipara. Walking in awe in the shadow of the Arts Complex, directly across from the Botanical Gardens and the Canterbury Museum, I notice a sign for Annie’s Wine Bar. Intrigued, not only because the place looked like Oxford and Hogwarts all rolled into one, but because it also featured a Wine Bar, I headed straight to the hostess stand. A beautiful space accented by the cut stained-glass windows and soaring beams, the ambience was a 10. Apparently, open flame is acceptable in dining rooms throughout New Zealand, and the white tapers at the tables and ledges definitely tricked me into thinking I was in fact dining in the Grand Hall at some prestigious English university. Looking out through the beveled glass onto the green grassy commons with the last bit of afternoon sun filtering in, I felt very much at home, and like I should have a copy of Keats as my dinner partner.

The staff was quite young and friendly, and displayed quite a bit of knowledge about the local Canterbury wines featured on the list, as well as the flavor profiles for the wines found outside the immediate area. All of the wines poured by the glass were presented in the wine list with the actual label pasted onto the parchment page, with handwritten descriptions listed beneath the artwork. It actually created a sense of excitement to be ordering a glass of wine instead of a sense of dread.

To start, a Nobilo ’05 Method Traditionelle paired with ‘Annie’s Breads & Spreads’: Mint & basil, EVOO & Balsamic & Hummous. Quite non-descript, save for the excellent New Zealand Olive Oil. For the main, the South Pacific Grouper with Red Pepper, Japanese Radish, Tempura Pears & Cardomom. Wonderful flaky texture on the fish, if the spice was a tad bit lacking. To pair, the Aurum ’07 Pinot Gris from Central Otago. A nice pairing, that actually helped to bring out the spice in the dish. With a bright stone fruit nose featuring apricots, lycee, melon and flint, there was a hint on spice on the med-dry finish. A lovely, long citrus and floral palate assists the persistent finish. With the Grouper, the flavors seem to be more pure. Delicate, slightly sweet, and a savory texture that is definitely highlighted by the Pinot Gris.

So, although I have not done the bungee thing or the skydiving thing or the rafting thing, or even the work thing yet, I seem to be LOVING NZed, as it were, and can't wait to try all the above things (and perhaps eat a live worm or two). Provided that working down here is half as fun as playing down here, I should be in for a very good time indeed.....

Cheers and Kai Ora

Barreling Down

A funny thing happens to all winemakers when they see their first wines go from fermentation bin into barrel.  I'm sure of it.  Seeing the product that you have cultivated from a simple cluster of berries - or, further back, a mere shoot on a vine in late winter - turn into a living piece of art, it is truly moving.  Perhaps like giving birth (although that is really more the feeling one gets when finally moving the wine from barrel to bottle); or perhaps jumping off the high dive for the first time.  The volatile period of primary fermentation is over.  Your baby now moves into the more permanent home for the remaining months of aging, malo-lactic fermentation, and into the period where the flavors of the wine embark on a roller-coaster of a ride, until (you hope) they culminate into a glorious symphony of flavor and texture that captures the essence of the year, the beauty of the fruit, and the personality of the winemaker.  That's the percice moment that you want to capture the wine and put it in it's bottle.  But, first, it has to find comfort in it's new home - the barrel.

Now, I could go on here about the various tonneliers that produce barrels from oak found in forests from France to Slovenia to Pennsylvania.  How each barrel has a distinct toasting level, and how winemakers regard the barrels as the "spice rack" of the cellar.  But suffice it to say, where you choose to make a home for your wine is very, very important.  When I barreled down my 2008 wines this year, I felt a very anxious void fill my stomach.  No longer able to be caressed with my hands (and punchdown tool) 2 or 3 times a day, it was all going to be consolidated in a few 60-gallon wood barriques.  Hidden away.  Aromas and flavors only exposed by the glass thief, stealing little sips out of the small round hole at the top of the barrel.  It was perhaps like sending your little 8 year old off to boarding school in the Alps - knowing that where little Timmy was headed was indeed going to make a very refined gentleman out of him, but aching to see him grow before your very eyes.  

Luckily, that little round porthole allows us to check in on a regular basis, just to make sure it's on the right path,  growing into a very prolific artistic expression of soil, vintage, and character.  So far, boarding school is treating the Abaluche 2008 vintage very well...
(For more pictures of the barreling down process, follow the link below.)


San Francisco, CA 94118  415-409-9645  info@abaluche.com

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