In the absence of a more profound understanding about why vine no. 1 planted just here will make wine subtly different from vine no. 2 of a like variety planted just there, we have decided that the answer is terroir, defined as the sum of those physical factors in play within a delimited geographic area that together make it unique as a production environment. 

Terroir is now firmly established as the wine buzzword of our time.  You simply cannot read anything written on wine subjects in the last 10 years that doesn’t dwell on it, nor are you likely to engage in a conversation with a wine retailer or sommelier who will fail in the very early going to resort to use of the term.  It’s on the tip of every tongue in the business.

This is not to say that terroir was an unknown concept before 2004. It has long existed in the French language and been borrowed by English to refer, quite simply, to the ground - more specifically, the terrain that hosts and nourishes a given vineyard.  But terroir has always meant more than a heap of dirt and stones arranged in a certain way and with such and such a composition. Or perhaps I should say it has always suggested something more.

In looking for the source of the idea of terroir I think you have to go all the way back to the Greek physician Hippocrates (at least this is far back as I’ve been able to trace the idea), who, seeking an explanation for differences in the bodies and dispositions of various tribes and races, found it in the character of the places they inhabited.  Here’s a typical passage from his 4th century B.C.E. treatise “Airs, Waters, Places:”

Such as inhabit a country which is mountainous, rugged, elevated, and well-watered, and where the changes of the seasons are very great, are likely to have a great variety of shapes among them, and to be naturally of an enterprising and warlike disposition; and such persons are apt to have no little of the savage and ferocious in their nature; but such as dwell in places which are low-lying, abounding in meadows and ill-ventilated, and who have a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds, and who make use of warm waters — these are not likely to be of large staure or well-proportioned, but are of a broad make, fleshy, and have black hair; and they are rather of a dark than of a light complexion  … courage and laborious enterprise are not in them.  

The idea that human personality is a product of a specific physical environment isn’t very popular psychology or sociology today, but if you’re a cheese or an olive or a wine it’s a different story — this is exactly what makes you what you are.  It’s the facts on (and in) the ground that give a “personality” distinct from others.  

Terroir acts upon and bends to its will things produced within its zone of influence, so it seems as though its fair to ask what this zone of influence is and how far it extends. For example, in Burgundy a terroir is typically associated with a single vineyard sites, climats as they are called.

But it’s also common to hear someone speak of the distinction that has long been noticed in pinot noir wines produced in the northern section of the main slope — the Côtes de Nuits - as opposed to the southern part, the Côtes de Beaune.  And these two largish prestige areas (the slope is about 30 miles in length running roughly north-south) are always distinguished from the section below this, the Côte Chalonnaise, which makes wine of distinctly different stripe and thus, we can assume, deserves to be thought of as a terroir in its own right.

You can just keep going up the scale.  Surely Burgundy and Alsace deserve to be thought of two different terroirs, as do Champagne and Touraine in the Loire Valley. But at some point we have to ask how large an area can be before its parts fail to have enough in common to share a single terroir identity, or, to put it another way, to share a personality.  If, as we noted at a recent tasting table experiment, the wines of Madiran, Gaillac, and Cahors are all representative of distinct terroirs, is it also true that they all emblematic of the terroir we call the French Southwest?

It seems problematic to me that when you’re talking about an area that stretches from the sea-level vineyards of Bordeaux in the west to the edge of Languedoc-Roussilon with its Mediterranean-influenced climate in the east that terroir is the most useful way to talk about the similarities we notice in the wines produced there. But the personality is there nonetheless, I think, especially in the region’s red wines. In the robustness of the fruit, the sturdy texture, the generally solid acidity, and the earthy bass notes there is a consonance that’s impossible not to notice.

Whether terroir is a powerful enough on regional scale to accomplish this kind of consonance, isn’t clear.  For a while at least the sources of personality in wine may well remain about as puzzling as in people. 

-Stephen Meuse 


There are a handful of really hot topics in the world of wine right now and one of them concerns an approach to growing grapes that’s known as biodynamics. One way to describe it is as a set of farming practices that takes organic agriculture to another level and adds a metaphysical twist. Let’s consider what makes biodynamic methods distinctive, what it takes to make a biodynamic wine, and whether the practice of biodynamics in the vineyard results in measurably better wine.

A bit of history
Biodynamics are the brainchild of the Austrian-born philosopher, social theorist, and mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner’s most enduring legacy until now has been the Waldorf School approach to education, but he also dabbled in alternative medicine before developing the principles of biodynamic agriculture (he coined the term). And while much of what Steiner had to say about planetary cycles, life forces, and reincarnation seems bizarre or at the very least unverifiable, these notions don’t seem to have limited his appeal to those who have found in biodynamics a practical alternative to conventional agriculture.

Isn’t biodynamics just old-fashioned farming?
Not really. While there are some aspects of biodynamics that have similarities with traditional, pre-industrial agriculture or are at least appear to be in sympathy with it, biodynamics are a 20th century invention by an urban intellectual who never spent any time on a farm and didn’t drink wine.

How does it actually work?
Biodynamic practice begins with the assumption that you are already farming organically and are committed to working without the aid of industrial fertilizers or chemical herbicides and pesticides. On top of this, biodynamics asks you to make use of a series of nine preparations, some of which are sprayed directly on plants or soil, but most of which are applied to compost. They include stinging nettle tea, flower heads of the yarrow plant fermented in a stag’s bladder, and oak bark fermented in the skull of a domestic animal. These preparations needn’t be made on the farm but can be purchased. The timing of the applications is considered very important. Many farm activities are timed to coincide with phases of the moon.

If it sounds a little like voodoo to you, that’s exactly what many of its critics say. For me, the mystery is less what the sprays consist of than that they are applied in such dilute concentrations that they seem too weak to be effective.

Is there a scientific basis for biodynamics?
The short answer is no, but this may just because we haven’t yet done the research required to say one way or the other. There have been studies done that appear to show that vines are in better condition when maintained biodynamically, although yields may be a bit lower.

What any wine grower can see is that biodynamically farmed soils are generally in better condition than conventionally farmed soils, but whether this is attributable to biodynamics or just to the basic improvement brought about by organic farming and the very conscientious nature of persons who take biodynamics seriously is hard to say.

Clearly, no one trained in scientific method is going to be very happy with the more metaphysical aspects of biodynamics, which posit occult forces and cosmic influences that science just doesn’t recognize.

What does biodynamic wine taste like?
Since the preparations I’ve described aren’t put into wine,but only applied to vines or composts, there’s no reason for biodynamic wine to taste startlingly different from conventionally-farmed wine.  Although some winemakers who have conducted trials on their own properties claim that wine from their biodynamically farmed plots tastes somewhat different than wine from other plots, it’s not likely to be a dramatic difference unless the conventional plots were being very badly farmed to begin with. Our in-store tastings bear out this impression.

Why, then, do some biodynamic wines taste unusual?
Biodynamicsregulate practices in the vineyard, but don’t have much to say about how wine is processed in the cellar. However, since this approach is very popular with people who carry their interest in “natural” winemaking into the wine cellar, it’s often the case that biodynamic wine is also made with little to no sulfur. Low-sulfur wines tend to present rather differently from their conventionally sulfured counterparts—often as less brightly fruity. This is especially the case with white wines.

Is it only off-the-grid types who practice biodynamics?
Absolutely not. The number of biodynamic growers seems to be increasing annually and it has a number of devotees among very notable and successful wine properties in France, Germany, Austria, and the United States—including some corporate-owned properties.

How can I identify a biodynamic wine?
You can look for a wine that carries a certification indicator on the label. Demeter is the largest certifying organization by far, founded in 1928. It is international, with member organizations in many countries. A rival certifying group, called Biodyvin, was created in 1995.  As is the case with organic practice, many growers aren’t willing to pay for certification or choose not to conform fully to the requirements.

Of course the best way to get the low-down on any wine you’re wondering about is come into Central Bottle and ask us about it.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a question about wine?  Email me at 

Stephen Meuse can be reached at


Early in his career Robert Mondavi recognized that he could differentiate his California-made wine from those made in Europe by emphasizing the inherently fruity character of the former. In comparative tastings he habitually badgered guests into conceding that while European wine was often good California wines were “just a bit fruitier” and therefore just a bit better.  The reasoning followed this line: because it is made from fruit, wine’s most perfect expression one that most resembles fruit. In his winemaking Mondavi favored an approach that pushed fruit to the fore.

His reasoning and winemaking practice seemed sound enough at the time, so long as one didn’t examine the logic behind either too closely. Why exactly did something that started as fruit have to retain its fruity character in the finished product?  Aged Gouda starts out as fresh milk, but a slice of this hard, waxy, dark orange cheese bears so little resemblance to what was squeezed from the udder of a cow you’d never connect the two without being told they’re related.  Would we take seriously a person who claimed that cheese should only be made in ways that preserve the taste of fresh milk?  Should vodka taste like a potato?

Mondavism, if that’s what we should call it, hasn’t entirely passed from the scene, but it’s being gradually displaced by a new dogmatism that’s really an old dogmatism. It’s the notion that the most important thing in winemaking isn’t preserving a connection to the taste of fruit, but to the taste of the land where the wine originated. I call it an old idea because we know that from the days when the Pharoahs cultivated vines in the Nile delta individual wines were known to express character based on the vineyards they were sourced from, and that this individuated quality was prized.

In Burgundy, where religious orders began their survey of vineyard sites early in the Christian era, the tendency of certain plots to express distinctive character in wine was noted from the very outset and informed the whole approach to winemaking there. And though this way of looking at wine was mostly confined to the best vineyards and top properties in this prestige growing region, the last 20 years or so has seen a dramatic emigration of the idea to almost everywhere wine is made. Now that every vineyard site however humble has a character to express it’s become every vintners first responsibility to work in a way that throws this character into high relief.  

Wine drinkers, too, labor under a new mandate: to find their highest pleasure in detecting and appreciating the marginal differences that ensue from this kind of winemaking.

Of course, there’s still plenty of disagreement about what’s mainly responsible for the expression of individual character in wine, but right now, if you had to bet, you’d be wise to put your money on soils because that’s where the rhetoric is.

In the soil-as-primary-determinant-of-wine-character theory it’s the mineral content and the organization dirt and rock in vineyards that sets the tone for the wine that issues from it, and while science hasn’t yet blessed this hypothesis the notion that geology is destiny seems to have a powerful hold on us. Which begs the question: what is so enthralling about soils anyway, and why are we so ready to find in them a simple answer to what is by all accounts a very complicated problem?

Now that every vineyard site however humble has a character to express it’s become every vintners first responsibility to work in a way that throws this character into high relief.  

I can only speculate, but I would say first that a big part of the attractiveness of ground as the primary source of differentiation in wine can be attributed to its brute tangibility. Land has a physical solidity that makes other terroir factors (latitude, degree days, rainfall, day-night temperature differentials) seem ephemeral by contrast. From a purely practical point of view, when the time comes to identify the source of the character of the wine in your glass it helps for there to be some physical thing to point to. Rocks give you that.

But it’s not just crude mass that gives ground its evocative power. Terrain conveys an impression of both duration and durability.  Geological changes don’t occur on a time scale commensurate with a human life or even human evolution and as long as humans have been gazing at the landscape it has looked essentially the same.  As far as we can determine from our own experience, the fields, valleys, low hills, and lofty peaks that surround us have always been here and always will be.  

Our sense of the primordial permanence of terrain is memorialized in conversational riffs such as old as the hills and older than dirt. Eternity itself seems to be rooted in the soil, at least from a human perspective. Adam was made of the dust of the earth and to it we all return.

We like, too, to think of the character of a historic wine as a durable thing, as a taste that reaches back over centuries. It pleases us to imagine that if a Burgundian monk-vintner from the fifteenth century were to rise from the dead with his memory intact he could, given the chance, readily distinguish a modern-day Chambolle-Musigny from a contemporary Gevrey-Chambertin. And if he did, what more plausible justification for this persistence of expression could we find than the underlying geology of the Côte de Nuits, essentially unchanged in 600 years?  What besides the land has stood still over centuries?

Soils monopolize our attention for another less obvious reason: the rough consonance that exists between the number of distinguishable types of wine and the number of discrete kinds of geologies that are purported to nurture them.  If we’re going to assert that for every wine that exhibits a certain set of traits there is a soil type that corresponds to and accounts for it, we’re going to have to show that there is a rough correlation between the number of soils and the number of wine types.  

There’s no way to count them of course, but it seems to me that the number of existing soil profiles and the multiplicity of identities wine is able to assume are consonant, if only on an order of magnitude level.  If this weren’t the case, the idea of a one-to-one correspondence between them wouldn’t be the sort of idea a reasonable person could entertain.

Finally, soils are compelling because we find the flavors and aromas of the ground in our wine. Minerality, you might say, has become the new fruit; the way fine wine ought to express itself.  And while it has been demonstrated that those aspects of wine that are conventionally described as minerally or earthy are actually either sulfur compounds generated during fermentation or plant compounds attributable to vine biology, it doesn’t change the fact that for us these tastes and smells are more reminiscent of soils and stones than anything else we can compare them to.

One day we may know just how much of a contribution soils make in determining wine character and understand how they interact in their seemingly infinite variety with those other durable environmental factors — climate, exposition, latitude, etc — that we have reason to think have a role to play too.

Meanwhile, and until some more compelling theory comes along to displace it, dirt, rocks, soils, and stones seem destined for a good long run as Explainers-in-Chief, even if the confidence we place them is largely derived from appeals to own imaginations.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question?  Email me at


The twentieth may have been the American century, but it was during the eighteenth that we made the transition from an ethnically uniform but marginally viable colony of the British Empire clinging tenaciously to the east coast of North America to a fully independent administration taking its place and its chances among  the nations of the world.

The Declaration of Independence is still a thrill to read 238 years after its composition by a youthful Thomas Jefferson under the watchful eyes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

It’s not clear how or on what timetable the declaration was actually read or heard by citizens of the spanking new United States of America, but if you were a partisan of independence it must have rejoiced your heart to read such a stirring defense of your cause and driven you to raise a glass to its prospects.  But what would that glass have held?

Let’s survey the possibilities …

Cider.   Hard cider was a staple drink wherever the apple tree could be induced to fruit - and that was much of North America.  According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, fermented apple juice was colonial America’s “foremost beverage and remained so well into the nineteenth century.”  Without further elaboration apple cider could attain alcohols of no more than about 6%, but freezing or boiling the juice would concentrate the sugars and result in the more potent drink known as applejack. An infusion of rum could be added to achieve the same purpose. Cider was rural America’s daily drink.

Beer and Ale.  One reason the Mayflower landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and not at “Hudson’s River” (the original destination) was because they were running low on stores of beer and there was fear that if they went further there wouldn’t be enough left for the ship’s crew to make the return voyage. With no barley at hand the pilgrim community struggled to make beer with whatever grain that could be had, including Indian corn (maize).   The first licensed brewery in Boston was established in Charleston in 1637.

By the 1660’s there was a sufficient number of breweries to require legislation establishing minimum quality standards. In the years leading up and during to the revolution taverns where beer and ale were served abounded and assumed importance as places where groups met to discuss grievances and strategy, in some cases serving as nurseries for what would become state government. In 1787, on the last day of deliberations by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, General Washington made this note in his diary: The business being closed, the members adjourned to the City Tavern.  Beer was, as it is today, the sociable drink of masses of Anglo-American males.

Whiskey.  Emigrants with Scottish or Irish roots arrived in the American colonies with a taste for this distilled spirit and a talent for making it (or maybe it’s the other way around). Scots-Irish immigration rose mightily in the 1730’s and so did the number of stills, but New England wasn’t the best place for growing wheat or rye.  Better soils for these grains (and corn) were found further west, in Pennsylvania and Virginia.  Washington maintained a distillery on his estate at Mt. Vernon where, in 1799, he produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

One powerful motivation for making whiskey in early America was provided by the bad condition of roads and consequent high costs of transport: distilling condensed many barrels of grain into a single barrel of fiery spirit.  

When the young republic attempted to raise cash to pay off its revolutionary war debt by taxing whiskey and bourbon in 1791,  it found itself with a full-scale rebellion of its own on its hands. From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the republic’s more well-established communities.

Rum.  Distilled directly from sugar or from molasses, a by-product of sugar refining, rum was for a while the most popular and widely available distilled spirit in the northeast colonies, though there would have been both a measure of poetic justice and no little irony involved in toasting independence with a cup of  it. Justice, since British taxing of rum’s raw materials in the Molasses Act of 1733 and the Sugar Act of 1764 was a continuing cause of colonial vexation.

From the beginning whiskey seems to have been a drink of the frontier rather than of the republic’s more well-established communities.

Irony, because rum production anchored one corner of the infamous triangle trade by which molasses shipped to New England from the Caribbean was processed into rum which was then exchanged on the West Coast of Africa for slaves.  The human cargo was in turn shipped to the Caribbean for sale to planters who needed workers for the notoriously labor-intensive work of sugar manufacture - completing the vicious commercial polygon.

One wonders how a citizen of Boston could so so obtuse as to celebrate the declaration’s daring assertionthat all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with a tot of rum. Not much yo ho ho in that.

Punches.  Early versions of what we would later refer to as cocktails were generally rum-based with fruit juice added. Punch was popular at mixed-sex gatherings where the drink was considered more genteel than beer or hard liquor.

Punches were inevitably social in nature. Men eager to establish a bond of solidarity passed the punch bowl around for all to drink from.  Grog, the traditional beverage mixed and served out twice-daily to ordinary seaman in the British and American navies consisted of rum, water, and lime juice (to fend off scurvy), was a kind of punch.  More menacing than a flogging, a threat to “stop your grog” was usually enough to return the surliest foretopman to his duty.

Wine.  The vision of Jefferson sipping claret in the dining room of  Monticello colors our view of wine in this period, but Jefferson was a wealthy man and had spent a significant time in France first as a diplomat and later as a tourist.  His deep knowledge of and experience with French wine was  atypical, however. For most of the eighteenth century, beginning with the war of the Spanish Secession in 1702 and carrying on until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 Britain and its colonies were at war with France and so its subjects were periodically either cut off from the sources of French wine or forced to pay very high duties on its importation.  As for local wines made from native U.S. grapes, that project had been a failure pretty much wherever it was tried.

The Methuen Treaty of 1704 brought the Portuguese into alliance with Britain against France with a promise that Portuguese wines would always be taxed at a rate lower than French wine. Reflecting on the event in 1824, Alexander Henderson wrote “By taxing any commodity excessively, the use of it will, no doubt, become confined to the wealthiest classes … and this may be said to have the case with the wines of France.”

The treaty gave a boost to the production of the powerful, fortified wines of the Douro known as Oporto or Port, which subsequently became a favorite of British drinkers. But British and British colonial consumers had long been keen on the sugary, high-alcohol wines produced in Spain in Portugal in part since they were more durable on long ocean voyages. The English delight in the wines of Jerez - sherry or sherris-sack) is documented as far back as  Shakespeare’s time.

The powerful, durable, partially oxydized wines that had their origins on the island of Madeira (Portugal), the Canary Islands (Spain), and in Malaga on the Andalusian coast were robust, affordable alternatives to the products of French vineyards and in every year from 1696 to1785 imports of these wines dwarfed those of France.*   In the colonies, European wine would have been a drink confined to the wealthy professional, merchant, or land-owning classes.

*    *    *    *

In 1776 the neonatal nation as a whole had a wide variety of beverages to choose from in standing to offer a toast on what has become known as Independence Day, but any individual’s experience was likely to be severly circumscribed by any number of social, geographic, and economic factors.

So what should it be in 2014?  Considering the crucial help the French gave our fledgling republic in the years from 1778 to 1783, and the fact that they bankrupted themselves doing it, I’ll be raising a glass of the best claret in my cellar - and damn the duty.

-Stephen Meuse

Got a question about wine? Email me at


All New England knows that with June comes the one brief shining moment that’s known as Camelot - uh, strawberry season.  The flavors of our cool-climate berries have an intensity and complexity that the California version can’t equal. The heart-breaking shortness of the season only intensifies the maniacal delight we take in them.

I’ve long been persuaded that ripe, fresh strawberries and the lightly-sweet, lightly sparkling white wine from Italy’s Piedmont region known as Moscato d’Asti constitute one of the world’s most perfect food-wine pairings - on a par with grilled sardines and vinho verde or Kabinett-style riesling and lobster.  Every June presents another opportunity to demonstrate the sheer sex appeal of this luscious liaison, and we owe it all - or most of it anyway - to terpenes.

Yes, terpenes — a 400 strong group of organic compounds produced by a large number of plants and even some insects. Tree resin is rich in terpenes, for example, and when you inhale the scented air of a pine forest, most of what you’re smelling can be booked to these compounds.  Strawberries, it turns out, have an abundance of terpenes and so does the fruit of the moscato bianco vine - the sole grape from which Moscato d’Asti can be made. Is this the reason they seem so perfect for each other?

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that something as simple as a grape can produce the kaleidoscope of flavors we taste in wine, terpenes should interest you. They play key roles in some of the most flamboyantly aromatic white wines  known - including the ancient and many-branched muscat family, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, semillon, sauvignon blanc, and riesling.

Precisely how terpenes choose to make their presence known is still rather puzzling in the sense that while muscat grapes have many times the terpene content of riesling, the compound can be as pronounced in one as in the other. This suggests that many factors are at work in how these complex scents and flavors actually develop in finished wine.  Some terpenes keep mum (lie below the threshold of perception) while others shout from the rooftops.

If you’ve ever wondered how it is that something as simple as a grape can produce the kaleidoscope of flavors we taste in wine, terpenes should interest you.

These pungent chemicals have protean shape-shifting powers, presenting differently depending on which of about six different varieties is dominant.  The terpene Linalol (also found in lavender, bergamot, and clove) contributes floral, rose-like scents to wine. Nerol (orange blossom, mint, ginger) offer notes of citronella.  Geroniol (nutmeg, basil, rosemary) presents grapefruit and citrus rind elements.  It’s these three working in tandem that give muscat grapes their characteristically high-flying floral-spicy-citrussy aromatics.

Like most flavor and aroma builders, terpenes are found primarily in the skins of grapes and riper grapes contain higher levels. I’ve read (but haven’t been able to confirm) that Geraniol is so important for making Moscato d’Asti that’s true to type that grapes that test for high levels of it sell for more per ton.  

Isabella Oddero, whose exceptionally aromatic wine was the runaway favorite at our tasting explained in an email that “while the Consorzio di Tutela dell’Asti regularly controls the grapes in the vineyards and sometimes realizes some specific chemical analysis in order to test the aromatic level of the fruits (including of course terpene compound geroniol)” she has not heard that it actually affects the price of grapes. 

I’m not sure I’d be willing to go on record as that wine and foods that share an important and dominant flavor compound can always be counted on to find a soul mate in each other.  And it certainly is true that the extravagantly  perfumed moscato of Asti pairs beautifully with all manner of fresh summer fruit, fruit tarts, cobblers, grunts, and bettys - and not just strawberries. But if you’d like to know what happens when a food and a wine twirl around in tandem with a perfection that bears comparison to a dance routine by Rogers and Astaire, you’ve got about two more weeks to find out.

- Stephen Meuse

Got a wine question? Email me at


Andrew Bishop, 45, grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, toured in a rock band, had a stint in the 1990’s as bar manager at “Boston’s first real wine bar,” Les Zygomates, and in 2000 bought a container of wine in Western Australia, brought it into the U.S. and sold it all. Today he’s founder and owner of Oz Wine Company.  Bishop lives with his wife Chom and two sons in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Oz imports and distributes wine from 175 properties in 10 countries.  Among those that will be familiar to Central Bottle regulars are Domaine Richou, Mas de Libian, Vadiaperti, and Bodegas de Ameztoi.  I sat down with Andrew earlier this month in Cambridge. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat. 

The transition from wine bar manager to wine importer seems logical enough, but how did it happen?
I was getting tired of the restaurant life in 1999, five years at it seemed to be enough. I was single and had saved some money. I started traveling and visited my ex-stepfather and his friends in Hong Kong. They had some money to invest, were interested in the wine business and asked me to help. I traveled to California and Australia for them, looked at some vineyards, and put together a little bit of a business plan. I told them that they were looking at millions of dollars and that somebody would have to know how to grow grapes and make wine.

The sensible thing would be just to lend me some money. I told them, “Look, you guys give me $60K and I will put together a container of wine and go back to the States and sell it. You each get a few cases  of the wine and I’ll pay back your investment.”  This was in 2001.

I incorporated as Oz Pacific and initially focused on wine from Western Australia — cooler climate stuff from obscure appellations like Mount Barker and Swan Valley.  I brought in the container of wine and when it got here I had to figure out what to do with it.  I decided to go national and sold the wine to people in Chicago, Michigan, New Jersey, Vermont, and Texas.   I also placed some with Ideal Wine & Spirits in Massachusetts.

I got really lucky. I had nothing really set up. I visited each market and helped sell the wine. It took me about 9 months to get rid of all 1200 cases. I was having a really good time. Things started rolling pretty well.

How long before you made it a full-time job?
I was never doing it 100% until 2004.  Meanwhile, I was making furniture with my buddy.  I also worked briefly as a wine buyer at Leary’s in Natick.  Nothing really became serious until our first son was born. I decided to commit to wine, but I was bored with Australia.  My heart was really in Europe. The only way to start fresh was to get rid of the whole Australia thing.  

I started building a little portfolio of wines from national  importers and just operated as a Massachusetts distributor.   But after doing this for a while, I decided I wanted to get back to what I started out doing, which was finding my own wines and bringing them in.  I thought I could do just as good a job as anyone else. In 2006 I made a big push to do that.


What do you think your portfoilio represents, and how did you arrive at the taste in wine you have?  How do you decide whether to take a grower on board?

My portfolio has changed quite a bit over the years and it’s always evolving. I’m adamant about finding terroir wines.  I know it sounds like a cliché but for me unless a wine has a sense of place it’s nothing special.  

I’ve always tried to put together a portfolio of winemakers who agree with that, whose wines taste like they come from that particular place.  We have a mix of wines made in a natural way and some that aren’t — lots of organic growers, some biodynamic, some sustainable.

If I taste a wine and have a positive reaction to it and really like the people I’m going to buy it from, then I’m in. I don’t follow trends because they always seem to come back around to where they started.

Sense of place seems like a vague concept.  If you’re in the French southwest, what is the place?  Is it the whole French southwest? Someplace as specific as Gaillac?  Some sub-section of Gaillac?
If I go to a place like Gaillac and I find something I like that is different and interesting, that’s the intial spark. After that I explore the neighborhood.  I want to know who are the people doing the best thing here and who are aren’t doing the best thing.  I’m loooking for the growers who do the best job of getting the typical flavors of that place into their wine.

So, if you find someone who’s doing a good job, but his wines are not typical, then you’re not interested?
Right. Wines that aren’t typical don’t interest me at all.

Well, let’s say you’re at a big wine fair and moving from table to table.  You don’t really know the people, so what do you have to taste to get interested?
I guess the best way to answer this is to say that it’s the initial taste, the initial vibe you get. The people can be nice or not, but if the wine speaks to me first, then i’m intrigued.

How does wine speak?
Its a personal thing.  When I taste I ask do I want to drink more of this or not?  Is there something different here that I haven’t gotten before?  Maybe I just think its plain deliciousness. That’s a very important thing.

Is there a set of features that you think indicates quality?
I really like earthy flavors and I think these flavors come more from winemakers who don’t manipulate the wine as much. I like wines that spend more time on the lees; I like wines that are unfiltered and unfined. These are all factors I think about.

How do you see the current state of wine?   What changes have you seen since you were behind the bar at Les Zyg?
I think that there have been a lot of changes. For one thing, there’s much better wine out there now than in the past. People seem to be paying more attention to fine wine, too. In our market, the old dinosaurs have their loyalties and haven’t changed their wine list for years, but a younger group are making inroads, trying to taste new stuff.  It’s an exciting time to be in the wine biz and i think its only going to get better. I’m really optimistic.

One of the things you have to notice is the growing number of companies that focus solely on naturally-made wines. It’s something that’s happened over the last 10 years or so that’s been interesting to watch.  Some of these wines I like, some I don’t really get. It makes people think about wine in a different way.  But I’m concerned that natural wine isn’t always about where the wine is from.

Really?  Some would say that the only way to have a true expression of place is to take a step back from winemaking and let it happen as naturally as possible.
I’m saying that a lot of these natural wines taste the same to me.  And in this sense they have something in common with industrial wine. You have something that’s made in a certain place, but it all tastes like it might have come from anywhere. You can make syrah in La Mancha so that it tastes exactly like shiraz from Australia or maybe Argentina. That’s a problem I have with natural wines. There are always exceptions, but I don’t really see the difference. 

What do you wish wine drinkers knew about wine that they don’t seem to?
I would start out with California pinot noir and tell everybody who is paying $20 for it to cut it out and stop telling me, when they taste my Burgundies, that my wine is too light.  Let me just say that in California you can blend 25% of whatever you want into that wine.  It drives me crazy because people are being duped. That’s number one.

Number two, be willing to taste more things. I love U.S. wine but i don’t love it nearly as much as European wine.  Part of it is that we don’t have that many appellations here and we’re only using about seven varietals.  Europe is where it’s at.  

Go to Italy and you’re going to be able to try 70 or 80 different kinds of wine, all with different flavor profiles, and you won’t spend an arm and leg on them. Basically, I would say get out of your comfort zone.  People who want to take wine seriously should try a lot of different things.

There seems to be progression in taste as you get more experienced - first something sweet, then something fruity, then something a little bit lighter, not as heavy.

Your desert island wine?
Beaujolais! I’m always happy with it, I can drink it any time of the year and it’s always fresh and fun.

-Stephen Meuse

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Glou-glou. Jaunty French slang for simple, fruity wine that’s so delightful to drink you scarcely give a thought to anything but the pleasure it gives.  I think of glou-glou (pronounce it gloo-gloo) as red wine, although the distinction is hardly an important one.  

The term is pretty well current in English-speaking wine circles now, in part thanks to the influence of the late Joe Dressner, whose delight in lighter-bodied, high-acid, naturally-made wine gave a distinct twist to the importer’s portfolio.

At a recent Central Bottle tasting devoted to the genre we sipped the a fizzy little rosé of pinot noir from Austria, a sprightly gamay from the Côte Roannaise, and a juicy Bardolino - all very glou-glou.  If you missed it, drop by and we’ll point you in the right direction.

Preparation 500.  Biodynamics seems to have made more headway in wine grape farming than in almost any other branch of agriculture, but very few wine enthusiasts can tell you what it involves in terms of actual process. At the heart of the program are nine prescribed “preparations,”  but the one that seems to be the starting point and most often spoken-of  is Preparation 500.

The recipe involves packing the horns of cows (not bulls, bro!) with manure and burying them in the ground at the time of the autumnal equinox.  In the spring, the horns are exhumed and the now thoroughly composted manure is mixed with water, stirred (first in one direction, then the other), strained and sprayed on the surface of the vineyard at the rate of one horn;s worth for each hectare (two and a half acres).

The idea is to give the microbial life of the soil a boost, foster the development of humus, and encourage roots to go deep.  It’s desirable for all the biodynamic preparations to be made on site, but Demeter, the largest organization certifying biodynamic practice permits it to be put up and purchased commercially.

For some, the proposition that such tiny amounts of organic matter could have a measurable effect on the health or fertility of soils casts doubt on the whole biodynamic premise.  Others find it intuitively valid.  The orthodox scientific community has yet to confirm any biodynamic claim.


Volatile acidity. Volatility refers to the tendency of a given substance to vaporize at room temperature.  The main volatile acid in wine is acetic acid, which can occur in modest and inobtrusive amounts as a by-product of fermentation, but can be distracting and off-putting when generated in copious amounts by the bacteria known as acetobacters, the microbial agents intent on turning our wine into vinegar.

Wines with excessive volatile acidity (it’s often just called V.A.) can smell like something that belongs on the salad and not in your glass. In more extreme cases, like nail polish remover or even model airplane glue.

Long considered a wine fault, volatile acidity is encountered with enough frequency in wines made in a self-consciously natural style that it’s beginning to be thought of less as a mistake than as an added point of interest or ‘complexing agent.’

The degree to which it can be tolerated varies from person to person.  My toleration level ends when there’s enough V.A. present to become distracting - my new standard for deciding whether should be considered a fault.

Chaptalization. A method of raising the potential alcohol of wine grapes by adding cane, beet sugar, or concentrated, unfermented grape juice to the fermenting tank.

The process takes its name from chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal who invented the technique in the early 19th century and is widely practiced in Europe, especially in northern vineyards where adequate ripeness (and potential alcohol) has historically been more difficult to achieve.

EU rules permits “enrichment,” as it is generically called, in some designated geographic regions and forbids it in others. Italian wine law (which trumps the EU regulations on this point) bans the practice entirely.  The gradual warming of vineyards seems to be making it somewhat less necessary than in the past (potential alcohol levels are rising naturally).   Many winemakers in the naturalist camp avoid it on principle as an unwarranted manipulation.

Punching down/pumping over.  In a vat of fermenting red wine the carbon dioxide tends to lift solids (grapeskins, stems, pips) to the surface forming a floating cap of solids. To promote aeration and the extraction of tannins and pigments winemakers want to keep the solids submerged.

They achieve this either by pushing the cap back down into the tank with a tool designed for the purpose (punching down), or by drawing wine from the bottom of the tank and spraying it over the cap (pumping over).

These operations are typically performed several times a day.  You’ll frequently hear winemakers use the French terms for these practices: remontage forpumping over,  pigeage forpunching down.  

Like Tom and Jerry or flotsam and jetsam the two are often confused - but the Wine Vocabulist rests easier in the knowledge that you, reader, now apprehend the difference.


-Stephen Meuse 

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At large-scale tasting events one very good indicator that I’ve sampled something quite fine is a reluctance to spit the wine out, as is customary.  I used to consider this a kind of professional failing until I realized that when a wine is still interesting after being aggressively swished and sloshed for long seconds it’s because it has something to give on its way down that I don’t want to miss.

It has always seemed to me that when it comes to wine that’s really worth drinking you just don’t get the whole experience until you swallow, although I couldn’t have explained why.  

Not until this week, looking back into my copy of Michael Schuster’s Essential Winetasting - was I reminded that a scattering of taste buds lurk in the farthest reaches of the back of mouth in something called the otolarynx.  They’re positioned at the top of the esophagus, the tube that leads to the stomach, too — the better to receive whatever parting gifts wine has to give.

Length is something experienced wine tasters can frequently be heard extolling.  But what does it consist of?  A wine that provides a continuous, sustained, sequence of pleasing sensations from the time the glass touches your lips until it slides down your throat is said to have length, so does one whose flavors, aromas, and texture seems to ring on the palate even after it has gone its way, via a swallow or a spit.

We prize wines that exhibit length for the most basic of reasons: our tasting apparatus is geared to enjoy them.  But it’s important to realize that in order to provide a satisfying sense of duration right to the end, wine has to have a beginning and a middle, too.  It’s the aggregation of parts that ultimately conveys a satisfying sense of length.

It all begins as wine enters that brilliantly engineered sensorium, the mouth. Every fresh sip produces a strikingly immediate initial effect. It’s a sudden, intense experience and one that generally requires little effort on our part to appreciate.  Perhaps because this hectic onrush of sensation (tasters often call this the attack) provides such a volume of data, its easy to be almost carried away by it.  In my experience, though this part tells you less than you imagine about how the wine will perform over the course of an hour’s drinking, with or without food.

When a wine is still interesting after being aggressively swished and sloshed for long seconds it’s because it has something to give on its way down that I don’t want to miss.

In just a second or so, we’ve moved on to a new stage, what some tasters refer to as the mid-palate. It’s at this point that wine is making itself known to every part of your mouth and its various components make their truest and most durable impression.  The experience is less intense than the attack, but is more extended in time and offers room for reflection:  What flavors are discernible?  Do they comprise a harmonious whole?  Is the balance of acid, fruit, and texture really pleasing?  Hmm …

While it’s relatively easy for a wine to make an initial impact, holding its ground through the mid-palate is more of a challenge. It’s a bit difficult to describe the experience when it fails at this, but I perceive it as a kind of falling off,  a sense that something taut has gone slack.  A wine that behaves this way is usually described as being short, while one that maintains its poise through this stage gives a satisfying sense of continuity and is deserving of admiration on that count alone.

The third stage is the finish, the point where length can be fully and finally assessed.  Is continuity of sensation maintained right to the end?  Do the flavors of wine ring on the palate after you’ve either spit or swallowed?  A wine with length has palate presence that doesn’t end when the wine has left the scene. Like a phantom limb, the sensations that it once aroused live on as if still present.

On the other hand, it seems a mistake to judge a wine’s length solely by the way it finishes, since it’s obvious that the length of a thing depends as much on the beginning as the end. Lop a mile out of a journey and you’ve shortened it no matter where you made the cut.  A long wine makes its presence felt from start to finish and beyond.

Precisely what it is in wine that gives it length is a question I’m not sure anyone has attempted to answer.  Surely it has something to do with concentration, but I would be wary of attributing it to sheer force since it can be experienced in delicate kabinett-style riesling as well as airy, high-latitude pinot noir and nebbiolo — neither of which depend on musculature to be delicious. Length, in other words, is not size.  You could call it character, I suppose, although that doesn’t go far in explaining the phenomenon.

For now, what makes some wine long and some short may have to remain a bit mysterious. Meanwhile, when a wine is just begging to stretch out to its full length you can be sure I’m not going to get in its way.

Stephen Meuse

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Every trend has its own secret history, beginning when it’s still too small to be noticed and ending when its momentum is spent and energetic new trends overtake and supplant it. Between these points trends live a useful life – but what exactly is a trend good for and why are we so intent on spotting them?

For many, a trend is a market indicator – a clue about where consumers will alight next and thus provide an opportunity for profit.  For many others, spotting and adopting a trend early on is a way to mark themselves ascognoscenti – people uniquely in-the-know.  For some others – and I guess I would put myself in this group – the primary benefit to grabbing  the coattails of a speeding trend is the sheer exhilaration of being connected to something in the process of acceleration — direction and destination unknown.

Last week’s post (read it here) consisted of five of ten trends in wine that, if not already, really ought to be on your radar screen.  The final five follow.

Blip No. 6.   Consistency no longer seen as an unqualified positive.  A key aspect of the value that Bordeaux, Champagne, Sherry, and Madeira brought to 18th and 19th century tables was that each was a blended wine engineered to smooth out variations due to vintage and the variety of sources from which wine was purchased.  A blender/shipper/bodega kept large stocks of wine in hopes of having on hand whatever it needed to deal with a given situation.  Consumers who appreciated the house style could count on being able to enjoy it with minor variation year after year.

Today, each of these wines is in less favor than previously in part because the new model for quality wine seems to be what I”ll call the ‘one grape / one terroir /one vintage’ approach, with Burgundy as the model and with the expression of individual terroirs it’s primary aim. It’s a system intended to highlight rather than suppress year to year variation, even if that means having a weaker wine to sell in some vintages than might otherwise be the case.


Another factor undergirding this trend is the growing interest in wines made in a naturalist style, with low or even no additions of sulfur at bottling.  The result is that wines are likely to be less stable and some rather dramatic mood swings may be evident.  

When I interviewed importer Oscar Hernandez in 2013, he said this about his portfolio of mainly low-sulfur wines:   I always find that wines develop differently when there is no inhibiting sulfur at work. Sulfur keeps fresh, fruity flavors intact – that’s why they say they use it.  But, to me, sulfur preserves a wine by killing off a lot of bacteria and I don’t think it works the way it’s said to.  I think what it does is make the wine consistent from bottle to bottle.

Blip No. 7.    A decline in interest in vintage.  Vintage used to be one of the most powerful differentiators known to the wine world and true connoisseurs were famously adept at telling one from another. Vintages still matter, but as a more rationalized approach to getting grapes ripe has  taken hold more or less everywhere many fewer awful vintages have been seen per decade and wild swings in vintage quality have diminished.

If, as I posit in blip 6, consistency as a quality factor is truly on the wane then it stands to reason that while we may still be interested in vintage as a differentiating element, we are less likely to be judgmental of less-than-ideal years.  Of course, for those into the fine-wine-as-investment game, vintage will remain very important.

Blip No. 8.  Drinking raw, drinking fresh.  This bring us squarely into the realm of wines made in one or more shades of the naturalist style – a tricky category to define but one that (to put it as directly as possible) would like nothing better than for wine to gush unbidden and unaided from the ground as if from a spring.  

The idea is to interfere minimally with grapes making their way from vine to bottle; to wash hands of technology and let nature take its course.  In this view, the less craft applied to wine the closer and truer it remains to its sources – and since aging is an element of craft, younger wine is by definition more natural than older wine.

The upshot of this has been that while an older generation continues to value crafted wines with years of bottle age, younger drinkers prefer to drink closer to the source whenever and however possible: and that means wine that’s both raw and fresh. No doubt our current enthusiasm for Txakolina owes something to this trend.

Blip No. 9.  Coloration that’s varietally and regionally true.  Students of wine are still taught that it’s important to learn how to read a wine’s appearance: to give attention to its color, intensity, and clarity.  And there was a time when effort expended would be rewarded with useful information.  

Much less that can be reliably gleaned from observing these things today, simply because once winemakers learned that consumers associated darker red wine with quality the rush was on to intensify hues across the board.  With few exceptions, all red wines are more deeply died than they were 30 years ago, and frankly more difficult to “read” on this basis alone.

The sole exception to this seems to be – you guessed it – the naturalists, whose disinclination to engineer their wine to some marketing profile seems to have immunized them from this rather cynical behavior. Will their continued success influence more mainstream producers to put the brakes on ever more opaque red wine? I’m hoping so, though I don’t see many signs of it yet.

Blip No. 10.  A shift from classical to romantic, even Gothic, forms.  One of the more remarkable recent turnabouts has been a marked rise in interest in wine that departs from established norms and approved sources.  Wines made from ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines; whites vinified as reds and vice versa; grapes grown on exotic terroirs (the slopes of volcanos; on islands so windy vines are braided into wreaths that never rise more than a few inches from the ground) wines aged undersea – are so sought after in some niche markets that they seem to have entirely displaced more conventionally-made wine, no matter how finely-crafted or long-established.

And it’s not just the way wines are made or where they’re from. Exotic tastes are trending, too, with niche-dwelling consumers showing a startling interest in flavors and aromas that were once classified as faults: including those resulting from oxidation, brettanomyces (a bacterium), and volatile acidity.

We tend to think of these as “complexing elements” now, and see them more as interesting features - albeit rather outré ones – than the damning shortcomings they were once considered to be. In true romantic style, younger drinkers are seeking out the remote, the antiquated, the once-contemptible, the outliers of the wine world - and lavishing attention on them. 

When considering wine of this sort I like to remind myself that a romantic reaction is sure to follow as the night the day a too-rigid adherence to established rules and values. Also that while Classicism gave us Versailles, Voltaire, and Mozart, the Romantic reaction gave us Walt Whitman, Berlioz, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Not bad. 

What means will the wine rebels of the future find to tweak the established order of things?  I haved no idea, but I can’t wait to see.

 -  Stephen Meuse

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Trendspotting is a game we all like to play, and if you’ve been in the news business you’d better be good at it. I’m not anymore (in the news business, I mean) but I like to think that I can still tell when the blip on the radar screen of wine culture is an ocean liner, a rowboat, or just an oversize jellyfish.


In truth, the skill in spotting trends doesn’t really lie in knowing the difference between the QE2 and a member of the family of the Medusazoa.   It’s more a question of how early in the game you can distinguish between the two. In their keenness to be the first to sound an alert the moment fashion seems poised to make a pivot, trendspotters can end up starting a trend instead of flagging one.

Then there’s what I’ll call the wishful thinking trap. You so want to see certain behaviors trend and are so convinced they should trend, that the slightest suggestion that they might be trending engages your attention in an unduly affecting way. I can’t say that in compiling my list of ten trends in wine that should be on your radar screen I’ve not slipped into one of the traps I’ve just described. But as of early 2014, from my vantage point at Central Bottle in Cambridge, here’s how it looks to me.  In no particular order …

1.     A move toward more classically-proportioned red wines.  Is it just coincidence that the mania for ever bigger, richer, riper, red wines roughly coincided with baseball’s steroid era? Both distorted classic, historically-consistent proportions into something slightly monstrous. The Bluto-esque physique of home run champ Barry Bonds had its analogue in the artificially pumped-up bodies of red wines too big and too alcoholic to be of use for much of anything but winning big blind tastings.

Baseball seems to have solved its performance enhancement problems now with diligent testing, and wine too (more slowly perhaps because there’s no two-vintage suspension hanging over repeat-offenders) seems to be returning to more appropriate levels of ripeness and extraction. I’m looking forward to the day when all red wines have the dimensions of a utility infielder. Play ball!

2.     Less recourse to sulfur - where possible.  It’s hard to know whether its reduced-sulfur wines that are the trend here or just talk about reduced-sulfur wines, but its pretty clear that minimizing dependence on sulfur has become a major goal among winemakers determined to operate in a way that involves less processing to get from grapes to wine  This is going to be tricky because low-sulfur and unsulfured wines generally don’t present themselves in a style consumers are accustomed to. In white wines, particularly, they’ll have to expect fruit to retreat in favor of fermentation flavors and aromas, colors to deepen and vary, and texture to be more pronounced.  My sense is that younger drinkers are having less trouble with this than their more experienced elders.

Also, it’s not just a question of leaving an ingredient out.  Winemakers who have made the transition, or tried to, say that making wine without recourse to sulfur is a different process and it takes time to figure out how it can be accomplished at a given winery.

3.     A shift to a higher-acid palate.  Blame this one on a new generation of sommeliers who seem almost as obsessed with acidity as with the elusive quality known as minerality. That they are sometimes confused with each other is hardly surprising since they are so often found in the same wines. What somms know is that when it comes to matching food and wine (their Bailiwick, after all) is that acid in your wine is like a squirt of lemon juice on your swordfish, or ketchup on your fries — perking up your taste buds, offering counterpoint, and keeping the appetite on high alert.

Higher acid wines are associated with cooler (and higher) growing regions, hence the recent burst of interest in riesling from Germany and Austria and lighter-bodied mountain reds from Italy’s sub-alpine vineyards. A taste for livelier, more nimble (and lower alcohol) wines seems already to be putting pressure on California to seek a fresher profile for their wines by planting in cooler regions or, where that isn’t possible, harvesting earlier.


4.     A bigger target for food and wine matching.  I read recently that the PGA is considering new rules that make the notoriously frustrating game of golf a bit less so for those who play the game recreationally.  One idea is to increase the size of the cup from 4.25 inches in diameter to 15 inches, as above.  I’ve never played the game, so have no opinion to offer on the advisability of the rule change, but I’m adopting it as a metaphor for what I see as a welcome and reasonable relaxation of standards on the subject of food and wine matching, where the target has long been far too small for those who play the game solely for fun.

Maybe its because we’ve practiced the house pour technique for so many years, but it’s just never seemed  that it’s so difficult to pour a wine that goes just fine with what’s on the plate, and it’s my sense that we’re far less alone in this view than we used to be.  

I put this down to a growing maturity on the part of American wine drinkers who seem to be catching on to what they have seen in their European travels: that in most places and in most situations people drink the local wine, whatever it may be, with most things they eat and think it’s just great.

For fancy meals in fancy restos, it’s a different matter. In almost all other situations, choosing a wine that doesn’t actually conflict with a given dish (a reasonable, achievable goal) is a short putt into an oversize cup.

5.      A rise in prestige for small production, mom and pop winemaking operations.  There’s something astonishing about the degree to which rustic chic has overwhelmed brand-consciousness at least among a certain segment of wine enthusiasts.  This HAS to be another somm-driven phenomenon, since the mom and pop producers have no way to bring their wine to our attention except via a micro importer hand-selling it to a resto or boutique retailer who in turn introduces it to consumers.

In such cases the prestige is inversely proportional to the size of the operation. This has two corollaries: (a) the fewer bottles produced the greater the interest, and (b) the more colorful and appealing the story, the less demanding we are likely to be about the quality of the wine.

Sure, there are still plenty of people for whom a recognizable brand from an important region will always be preferable to a wine from an obscure property in humbler precincts, but for an increasing number of wine buyers, that little-known wine from the small family property for which LVMH will never launch a take-over bid is just what they want to drink.  And hurrah for that.

Blips six through ten next week …

- Stephen Meuse

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