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An intense and dark 1979 Calafia Cellars, Merlot

October 16, 2019 Leave a comment

I pulled the cork on the 1979 Calafia Cellars, Merlot, Napa Valley not knowing one bit of its history.  Founded by Randle and MaryLee Johnson, this bottle is from their inaugural vintage which happens to be the same year the winery was founded.  Just five years earlier, in 1974, Johnson graduated from UC Davis then a year later begin work with Phil Baxter at Chateau Souverain in 1975. In 1977, Johnson started work under Bob Travers at Mayacamas Vineyard which is located on Mount Veeder.  Fascinated with this mountain fruit, Johnson opened Calafia Cellars in 1979.

Johnson explored the terroir of Mount Veeder.  In the early years at Calafia Cellars, he produced Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel from both the southeast-facing and west-facing slopes.  I do not know any background details of this wine but as it is marked Napa Valley, it could be Merlot sourced from the southeastern slopes of Mount Veeder.  Calafia Cellars was a winery in name only so I wonder if this inaugural vintage was made at Mayacamas.  This bottle was showing a bit of its age but the dark and intense flavors bear all the hallmarks of Mount Veeder.  What a treat!

1979 Calafia Cellars, Merlot, Napa Valley
Alcohol 14.1%.  Dark in color with a lovely nose.  Ripe and dark in the mouth with firm, dense and polished flavors carried by watering acidity.  In good condition, this wine is integrated all around.  It fleshes out a bit taking on some spice.  It eventually shows its age being a touch hollow in the end.  **(*) Now.

A Preserved mid-1970s Liberty School, Cabernet Sauvignon

September 4, 2019 Leave a comment

Charles Wagner’s famous Caymus Vineyards was bonded in 1971 with the first successful vintage a year later in 1972.  Wagner would develop a reputation during the 1970s for producing some of California’s best wines.  These early vintages still command a premium to this day.  The shifting nature of the California wine boom left some winemakers with more wine than they could sell.  Liberty School, Wagner’s second label, made its debut, born of surplus wine, in 1976.

Nathan Chroman, of the Los Angeles Times, was skeptical of the first release of the bicentennial named Liberty School.[1]  Though the origins of subsequent releases are not known, Chroman sheds some light on the first.  It is a 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon that a grower could not market.  The wine was produced by a large winery in Dry Creek Valley then finished by Wagner at Caymus Vineyards.  First released at $3.50, Chroman found it “laden with tannin but with enough flavor” to suggest it would age.  A year later, Frank Prial of the New York Times reported that often “very good wine” shows up in second labels including Liberty School.[2]  He found these wines quite good and a bargain.

The origins of our NV Caymus Vineyard, Liberty School, Lot 3, Cabernet Sauvignon remain a mystery.  Advertisements are not consistent but we know that Lot 1 was sold in 1976, Lot 2 in 1977,  with Lots 4 and 5 in 1979.  That would place Lot 3 as being offered around 1978.  The vintage is certainly mid 1970s, perhaps 1976.  In 1979, it was priced between $5-$6 placing it in the range of Beringer, Clos du Bois, Souverain Vintage Select, and Sterling.

Today the wine is decidedly in a fine, preserved state.  It is clean and focused with an herbaceous Cabernet edge.  It does not have the depth that I would prefer but it is balanced and easy to drink.  I find this quite cool given that it a second wine.

NV Caymus Vineyards, Liberty School, Lot 3, Cabernet Sauvignon
Alcohol 13%. A dark, robust color.  In the mouth it offers clean cherry flavor with a touch of wood.  It remains focused with an herbaceous edge carried by fresh acidity.  **(*) Now but will last.


[1] California’s Cup Overflowing With Excellent Wine Bargains. CHROMAN, NATHAN. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Apr 1, 1976; ProQuest. pg. H14

[2] Wine Talk. Prial, Frank J. New York Times (1923-Current file); Apr 27, 1977; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. pg. 64

[3] Wine Talk. Robards, Terry. New York Times (1923-Current file); Oct 10, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. pg. C17

Surprisingly Good 1980 Girard, Cabernet Sauvignon

September 3, 2019 Leave a comment

The Girard family first bought land for their vineyard in 1972.  For several years they grew grapes until they built a winery in 1980.  It is from this inaugural year that Lou’s bottle of 1980 Girard Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley stems from.  The wine continued to slowly unfurl for hours, taking me by surprise for its persistent quality.  Looking back, this wine pleased others as well.

One early mention came from the 1981 Los Angeles County Fair where judges such as Dmitri Tchelistcheff, son of Andre Tchelistcheff, and Frank Prial of the New York Times awarded the wine a silver medal.[1]  Nathan Chroman found the Girards’ a “youthful and ebullient wine-making family”. [2] As for the wine itself he presents it as “high in extract and alcohol. A monster at 14% alcohol, but loaded with fruit…is already developing suppleness…put this one away for a few years to enjoy its ambitious power and hopeful complexity.”  Nearly four decades later that description is still quite valid.

1980 Girard Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
This wine was aged for 16 months in 50% new French oak.  Alcohol 14%.  Dark with a cherry garnet core yet fresh on the nose.  In fine condition, this bottle sports a developing core of flavor that gains weight and texture over the course of several hours.  It has a fresh mineral start and supple nature to the fruity core.  It wraps up with a spiced, scented finish.  Persistent in nature, it continues to deliver waves of flavor for hours. ***(*) Now – 2024.


[1] 132 Entries: A Fine Collection in Fair’s Cabernet Sauvignon Competition. CHROMAN, NATHAN. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Sep 9, 1982; ProQuest. pg. L26

[2] Quality of Most Products Ranges From Good to Excellent: New Wineries … CHROMAN, NATHAN. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Dec 9, 1982; ProQuest. pg. M48

1941 Casa de Sonoma, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Private Cellar of August Sebastiani

September 2, 2019 Leave a comment

As a California Cabernet from the 1941 vintage, the wine is very good for its age: deep aromas and a burst of flavor delivered with graceful decline. I agree with Mannie Berk that any better and suspicions would be raised.  Incredibly, the wine is not from the great classic names like Beaulieu or Inglenook but rather the El Gavilan Winery.  The wine was originally acquired by August Sebastiani and the fact that the bottle survived to this day is rooted across the history of California wine.

The bottle of 1941 Casa de Sonoma, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County bears a strip label indicating it came from August Sebastiani’s personal wine cellar.  The Sebastiani winery was founded in 1904 by Samuele Sebastiani.  Located in Sonoma County, it survived the Prohibition years by producing sacramental and medicinal wine.  In 1944, Samuele passed away and shortly thereafter, his son August and August’s wife Sylvia took over. In 1946, they built their family home overlooking the vineyards.  That same year they designed the Casa de Sonoma label for what would be their first bottled wine.  The label even shows the new family house and vineyard.

The Casa de Sonoma back label indicates that this new line of wines were “selected for their distinguished flavors and are made from superior grapes grown in the fine wine district of Northern California.”  In 1947, after a period of long aging, the 1941 Casa de Sonoma, Cabernet Sauvignon became the first wine August bottled.  It was first offered in 1950 at $1 per bottle.  It did not, however, sell well.  The Sebastiani clients were accustomed to screw-top wines and did not own the corkscrews required to open the Casa de Sonoma.  The remaining bottles were to lay in a corner of the warehouse.  Over the decades they would only be pulled out to celebrate special occasions.

Records from the post-war years are thin at Sebastiani.  Despite the label not indicating a vintage, it is known to be 1941 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced primarily from San Benito County.  Sebastiani operated as a bulk wine producer from 1946-1959 which necessitated buying wine from other producers.  On the label we see that the wine itself was produced and bottled by El Gavilan Winery of Santa Rosa.

El Gavilan Vineyard and Winery

“I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness, and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother.” John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”, 1952.

U.S. Geological Survey, 1940, USGS 1:62500-scale Quadrangle for Hollister, CA 1940

It was in 1907, that Dr. Harold Ohrwall, a San Francisco physician, and Professor Frederick Bioletti, Viticulture Department of the University of California, became partners in an experimental vineyard they called El Gavilan Vineyard.  The vineyard was located in San Benito County, some 95 miles south of San Francisco.  Their experiment took place in Grass Valley, 12 miles south-west of Hollister, on the Cienega Road. It was named after the Gabilan (or in Spanish Gavilan) Mountain Range which separates the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys.

U.S. Geological Survey, 1941, USGS 1:62500-scale Quadrangle for Gonzales, CA 1941

Professor Bioletti had convinced Dr. H Ohrwall that they could produce exceptional table wines.  This area was home to vineyards since the early 1850s when the Frenchman Theophile Vache settled in Cienega, some 9 miles south-west of Hollister.  Vache cleared the hillsides, creating vineyards with vines he brought over from Europe.  The area became known as the Vineyard District.

In 1898, Professor Bioletti joined the faculty at the University of California.  Over the years he became convinced that Grass Valley was a good area to grow fine wine grapes because of the good climate, fertile soils, and lack of phylloxera.  It also had good roads.

Professor Bioletti took a few years off from the university to start his venture with Ohrwall.  In 1908, Bioletti and Ohrwall added to their existing 15 acres of vines another 75 acres with vines sourced from the best vineyards in California.  Professor Bioletti soon left, not liking the practical side of vineyard management.  He returned to the University of California in 1910 becoming the first Professor of Viticulture as well as the first chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology before retiring in 1935.

Dr. H. Ohrwall continued operations as he enjoyed the life.  He built a small winery and crushed his first harvest in 1912.  The following harvest of 1913, yielded 29,000 gallons of wine which was valued at $6,000.  It was estimated that the yield would double the following year.  All of the wines were sold in bulk to the California Wine Association until Prohibition.  This would explain why no advertisements are to be found in period newspapers.  The Association ceased operating upon Repeal in 1935.

During Prohibition, households were allowed to make up to 300 gallons of wine for their own use.  New markets for grapes opened up on the east coast.  The grapes from El Gavilan were shipped off but at a reduced price compared to thicker skinned shipping varieties.  With the end of Prohibition in 1935, new wineries began opening up in the area.  For the next decade there was a period of renewal and turbulence.

El Gavilan Winery aged all of their wines in redwood casks for at least 4 years.  That August Sebastiani could purchase this wine and the fact that it spent 6 years in cask may be attributed to the difficulties of World War II.  The federal government requisitioned all raisin grapes for the production of raisins for military rations and not for use in making sweet wines.  The production of wine plummeted in 1942 as a result.  Price control was in effect which made the traditional selling of wine in bulk a nearly profitless venture.  However, the controls did allow for bottled wine to be sold at nearly five times the bulk pricing.  In 1943, the government requisitioned railway tankers, effectively ceasing the feasibility of bulk shipping.  El Gavilan would need to keep their production local.

East coast bottlers flocked to California to purchase wineries and vineyards.  This drove a boom for grape and wine prices in 1944.  El Gavilan Winery continued to operate under Dr. H. Ohrwall who produced wine until 1944.  The following year he sold the vineyard and winery to Taylor & Co during the market crash of 1945.  El Gavilan Winery ceased all operations in 1952.  A decade later, in 1963, the Taylor & Co properties were acquired by Almaden.

There are no records indicating if Auguste Sebastiani bought the wine either from Dr. H. Ohrwall or Taylor & Co.  It seems likely that Taylor & Co. sold the wine.  The labels, with El Gavilan Winery listed, were created in 1946 after Dr. H Ohrwall had sold the company.  That year California wine sales started off strong and increasing in value which might have influenced the creation of the Casa de Sonoma line.  The upward trend did not last long as the ending of the war and removal of price controls all contributed to a major crash of the wine market in 1947.  This is the year the wine was bottled and by all accounts, it was not immediately offered for sale.  Perhaps August Sebastiani chose to wait until 1950 for a better market.

The 1982 Re-release of Casa de Sonoma

The sachet which was tied to the bottle contains the original cork and paper capsule.

Shortly before August Sebastiani passed away in 1982, his son Sam Sebastiani, began running the winery.  He immediately set about moving operations towards the premium end by re-evaluating the quality of all purchased grapes.  He expanded the winery, invested heavily in new equipment, and ceased produced of old-fashion products such as sweet wines.  The release of the 1941 Casa de Sonoma was meant to symbolize these changes until the newly produced wines could stand on their own.

The wine is in the original 4/5 quart bottle with original labels.  When the bottles were recorked in May 1982, new foil was added and a small strip label indicating the provenance.  The original cork and paper cap were placed in a sachet which was tied to the neck of the bottle.    The replacement cork is stamped “Recorked [illegible] At Sebastiani Vineyards, Sonoma, California” along with an eagle.

The Wine

Sylvia Sebastiani had tasted the wine over a period of 30 years when it was released in 1982.  She recollected it started out “young and fruity” and then in the 1950s it “began to throw something of a sediment.  It has now developed a bottle bouquet.  It’s slightly brown around the edges but still has a substantial fruit character.” During the re-corking process, Sam Sebastiani said they noticed some variation between bottles but there was “an overall strong consistency.”  He felt the wine demonstrated the importance of redwood which allows the wine to mellow while still preserving its fruitiness.

Our bottle of wine was as well preserved as the labels.  The color is mature but still pigmented and bright.  There is a burst of flavor but the wine is old enough that any sweetness from concentration is gone.  The flavors are drying but there are suggestions of red fruit which is still supported by structure.  I will even venture to say the extended redwood aging is evident, for the profile of the wine is just different.

August Sebastiani’s careful cellaring leaves us with a very unique experience.   We get to taste the product of Professor Bioletti’s and Dr. H Ohrwall’s belief that site-specific, single-variety, traditionally made California wines could result in top quality wine.  There were others who were to soon champion this view most notably Martin Ray.

1941 Casa de Sonoma, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
From the personal cellar of August Sebastiani.  Recorked in May 1982 at Sebastiani Vineyards.  Alcohol 13%.  A clear mature cherry wood color lightened from age.  A good nose full of mature aromas, suggestive of redwood.  In the mouth the wine is fading and drying, the sweetness of concentration is all gone.  There is a suggestion of red fruit with a meaty cut and perhaps some fat.  Fine wood and watering acidity still support the wine.  It certainly tastes of another era.  *** Drink up.


  • California Fruit News, Volume 49, Issue 1351. 1914. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=tXhRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA4#v=onepage&q&f=false
  • Sebastiani Sets Record: WINE: $100 Bottle. Cannon, Carl. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Jul 13, 1982; ProQuest pg. E1
  • Lapsley, James T. “Bottled Poetry”. University of California Press. 1996.
  • My Most Memorable Bottle of Wine.  Meredith, Nikki.  Oct, 03, 1982. San Francisco Chronicle. pg 18.
  • Ohrwall, John P. “A History of Vineyard and Wineries in San Benito County” found in Almaden Vineyards, Petition for Establishment of San Benito as a Viticultural Area.  Dec 2, 1982.
  • Peninou, Ernest P.  “A History of The San Francisco Viticultural District.  Presented by Nomis Press for The Wine Librarians Association.  2004.
  • A CHANGING OF THE GUARD. By Terry Robards. New York Times (1923-Current file); Dec 12, 1982; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. pg. SM122
  • Rare vintage release by Sebastiani.  Thwaite, Jean. The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984); Jul 22, 1982; Proquest Historical Newspapers. pg. 19F.
  • U.S. Geological Survey, 1940, USGS 1:62500-scale Quadrangle for Hollister, CA 1940: U.S. Geological Survey. URL: https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5d295848e4b038fabe1d13d3
  • U.S. Geological Survey, 1941, USGS 1:62500-scale Quadrangle for Gonzales, CA 1941: U.S. Geological Survey URL: https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5d295838e4b038fabe1d13a3

 

The First Release: 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander’s Crown

July 25, 2019 2 comments

When Rodney Strong created Sonoma Vineyards in the 1960s, he already had years worth of experience at multiple wineries.  In fact, Sonoma Vineyards represents the rebirth of his successful Windsor Vineyards.  Based on his winemaking experiences Strong built a new, practically designed winery in which he installed the latest winemaking equipment including temperature controlled stainless steel tanks made by his own company.

The Sonoma Vineyards name was inspired by Strong’s increasing acquisition of vineyards throughout Sonoma County.  Strong believed, based on European ideas, that each vineyard should be planted with the grape variety best suited for it.  Two of his vineyards were of particular high quality, Chalk Hill for Chardonnay and Alexander’s Crown for Cabernet Sauvignon.  As a result of his terroir driven interests, Strong began his vineyard designated series with Chalk Hill in the 1960s.  This was followed by the Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon series in the 1970s.  In fact, the 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County represents the first release of this series.

By releasing the 1974 Alexander’s Crown, Strong created the first single-vineyard wine from Alexander Valley.  The AVA was to follow some 10 years later.  For this vineyard, Strong had purchased 180 acres of which 61 acres was planted in 1971.  He felt the red, iron oxide soil produced big, forward Cabernet wines.

This bottle of 1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County had fill in the neck with a beautiful, well-seated cork for its age.  One quick sniff and taste confirmed it was in fine condition.  It is a deep flavored wine with a fine mineral note.  It is generously fruity, berrylicious in fact, with all structure resolved as it is in the last stage of its fully mature plateau.  It is a lovely surprise to discover this wine.

The background information in this post comes from Carole Hicke’s 1993 interview of Rodney Strong which you may find here.

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1974 Sonoma Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown, Sonoma County
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged in 60 and 120 gallon French oak barrels.  Alcohol 13.7%.  Immediately deep in flavor with minerals and earth evident, followed by full flavored, cherry core.  There is good complexity from the first pour.  With air the flavors become bluer and more minerals come out.  If I find fault it is with the finish that is a touch soft but this is likely due to it being near the end of its fully mature plateau.  It remains berrylicious and satisfying to the last drop.  **** Now but will last.

SonomaVineyards2

A Solid Drink: 1985 Clos Du Bois, Marlstone

When a new friend was recently in town and expressed delight in trying older vintages of wine, I quickly returned with a mature bottle.  Unfortunately, this did not happen until a few minutes before we were set to leave the house so I grabbed the less precious 1985 Clos du Bois, Marlstone Vineyard, Alexander Valley. My experience with Californian wine from the 1980s is rather limited compared to the wines of the 1970s.  The first release from Clos du Bois came in 1974 with that of Marlstone in 1978.  Marlstone is intended as a classic Bordeaux blend hence the thoughtful inclusion of Cabernet Franc and Malbec.  This particular vintage is less heralded in Sonoma than Napa which might speak to the herbaceous edge to this wine both on the nose and in the mouth.  However, it is deep in aroma with ethereal ripeness in the mouth and juicy acidity.  Given the time constraint, I ended up drinking most of it on the second night.  While fully mature, it shows good staying power and freshness.

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1985 Clos du Bois, Marlstone Vineyard, Alexander Valley
This wine is a blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Malbec that was aged for nearly 3 years in 60 gallon French oak barrels.  Alcohol 13.7%.  A deep nose with an herbaceous aroma rising out.  Maturing in the mouth, it fluffs out after a few hours.  With age have come some wood box notes.  The ethereal, ripe, mouth coating nature is balanced by firm, juicy acidity.  It is a good wine in an herbaceous way.  ** Now but will last.

ClosDuBois2

“One of the best we’ve ever made”: 1978 and 1977 Cabernet from Sunrise Winery

June 14, 2019 1 comment

Since my last post of one month ago, I have spent all of the time I usually dedicate to the wine blog transcribing 18th century letters related to the Madeira trade in America.  To lend you a sense of the effort, just two of the sources I am using, one letterbook and one partial collection of letters, encompass nearly 900 pages.  While I am not transcribing every single line, I am attempting to read each one.  Sometimes an interesting statement regarding Madeira may be hidden amongst a paragraph about fish and flour prices.  It is compelling work but my tasting notes of both young and old wine are piling up.

While the name of Sunrise Arata has been stuck in my head for some time, I cannot recall having drunk a single vintage.  I resolved this issue the other week when Sudip came over.  Sunrise Winery was founded in 1976, at the old Locatelli Winery, by Eugene Lokey and Keith Holfeldt.  In 1977 the Stortz family was brought in as participants due to the unexpected startup costs of the winery.

The Locatelli Winery ceased producing wine by the 1960s.  When Sunrise Winery started up, there were only a handful of vines left but the fermentation building still stood with both redwood and concrete vats.  The concrete vats were of larger capacity than needed and too deteriorated for use.  The redwood vats were taken apart, cleaned up then installed inside the concrete vats.  Small oak barrels were also brought in.  The first vintage was produced that first year in 1976.

During the summer of 1978, the house above the wine cellar caught on fire.  It only burned one wall of the fermentation building but the debris fell down into the cellar where barrels and bottled wine was stored.  Much of the bottled wine was destroyed by the firemen entering the building.  The tops of many barrels were burned to destruction but there was salvageable wine in barrel.  With the help of Martin Ray, Ridge, Woodside, and others, pumps, hoses, and portable tanks were set up to rescue the remaining half of the wine.

They repaired what they could in time for a very small crush that fall of 1978.  A little white wine, some Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon from Arata, and the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon from Frey Vineyard were all that was made.  Ronald Stortz called the 1978 Frey Cabernet “probably one of the best we’ve ever made” during his 1993 interview now found at the D. R Bennon Trust Fund website.

True to history, the 1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino is good!  At first I was underwhelmed but one hour after I double-decanted the bottle it was fully open.  No doubt there is good, clean flavor and attractive grip.  The 1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley did not fare as well.  Whether it was weak fruit to begin with or torture from the fire and salvage effort, I do not know.  It did, however, evoke old-school cooperage like the old redwood vats it was fermented in.  I find that rather cool.

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1978 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frey Vineyard, Mendocino
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 20 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled November 1980.  Alcohol 12.6%.  Dark black fruit in the mouth while initially firm, fleshes out with air.  After one hour, this initially firm wine shows good Cab flavor and still has structure that lends texture in the end.  What was a short finish lengthens and offers grip.  I would not have expected such good, clean flavor.  *** Now but will last.

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1977 Sunrise Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Arata Vineyard, Saratoga, Santa Clara Valley
This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 16 months in 50 gallon American oak barrels.  Bottled August 1979.  Alcohol 12.8%.  Funkier with vintage perfume and very ripe aromas on the nose.  Tart, fresh fruit greets in the mouth with both a greenhouse and old wood cooperage note.  Clearly learner than the 1978, it becomes more herbaceous and ultimately falls apart as the 1978 improves.  * Now drink up.

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