The 23rd Parallel Q&A: Adam Bilbey, Sotheby’s

Adam Bilbey is a Sotheby’s Director, and their Head of Wine in Hong Kong. In my latest Q&A for Grape Collective magazine, he talks to me about the current state of the auction market in Asia and beyond, consumption trends at the top end of the market, as well as the issues surrounding wine forgery.

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Adam, the extent to which Asia – and Asians – impact your global purchasing demographic at Sotheby’s is a real stand-out. It’s huge. To start could you talk to us about the auction market here, and where you think wine trends are in Asia in the context of both these numbers and the city’s historical attachment to blue-chip French red wine?

Well it’s a far more global market than it has ever been. Firstly, on pricing: historically it was always seen that a premium could be achieved here in Hong Kong; with a few exceptions now that is not really the case anymore. As you can see by the slide [below] we have Asian people buying actively in both our US and UK sales hubs in addition to their “home” market, and we only rarely see, for example, Americans having a strong presence here. This is due to the continued and growing nature of Asia’s appetite for fine wine, and the competitive market in the region. China, Japan and South East Asia are all now extremely busy markets for us. You’re seeing a continued thirst for wines at this end of the market, and auction houses like us offer the opportunity to buy from specific collections around the world.

I think there’s very much a consistency of purchasers across the auction market now. In the UK, it is skewed slightly more towards trade customers, but in Hong Kong we tend to see a similar demographic of private collectors year after year. Of course you will always see themes, for example in the US where the market for Italian wine is much stronger than anywhere else at present. But in the same breath you say that the demand for high-end Burgundy is extremely strong in Hong Kong.

Over the last 6-12 months, top collectors here are growing their awareness of the provenance of the stock they are looking to buy, such as with our recent Mouton collection the most popular lots were the ones that came directly from the Chateau itself. Likewise, when we are selling a single owner cellar, the original source is without question.

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Are you saying then that previously, the “buyer beware” mentality wasn’t really here in Asia, that there was just this rush into an asset class that happened to be wine?

I think the Asian markets probably have more experience with trademark infringement than any other area of the world, so we see more scepticism and scrutiny here. But it’s clear that people here are very quick learners. They are now far more aware now of provenance of stock, of storage, than they were 5-10 years ago. For example, Asian collectors were heavily involved in the recent Don Stott collection in New York, and if you look at the outcome, the success of it was shown in most of the sales being at medium to high estimates.

He was a very well-known and respected collector, and the buyers were aware of the efforts he and Sotheby’s had put in. But it’s not alright just to say an auction comes from a great collector, unless you have every single factor absolutely spot on – what you put in that catalogue, the label condition, the level, the wine’s appearance – people will not buy in to it. We are staking our reputation on it.

You’ve briefly mentioned a couple of consumption trends there. When I look at the presentation, the Top Lots of 2015 [below] really says a lot; the Hong Kong hub dominates, Asian buyers, the Burgundy and the Bordeaux. So do you think you guys have to maintain the focus there, and you’re not seeing the diversification you may be witnessing elsewhere? Are Asians looking at other areas outside blue-chip French wine?

In the general retail market, yes people are definitely moving away from purchasing traditional bottles. But in the auction market, the fine wine market, where the top 10% of collectors operate, as much as we’d love to see things even out, we are still driven by people’s desire to find wine that simply doesn’t exist on the secondary market anywhere else.

But we’ve seen some hugely encouraging signs of diversification of late. It tends to be the blue-chip, better-known labels though. In Spain for example, Vega Sicilia, Pingus, does very very well. People understand and appreciate these wines. The crucial point here is that knowledgeable collectors buy from the top, and work their way down – it is the complete opposite of the retail segment, where typically you buy a wine from a specific country, then aspire to drink something of better quality from the same region.

What is always fascinating to see here is that say the top Burgundy collectors that might have originally started by buying ready-to-drink Romanee-Conti, are now buying Rousseau, Mugnier and Roumier, and subsequently working their way down. In Asia, knowledge is power so it’s important to them that they understand Burgundy in a general sense.

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So on that point, the retail side is an area Sotheby’s is growing into, and your background [Adam used to work at Berry Bros & Rudd] brings experience to the firm. It has been clear from the other people that I’ve interviewed that Hong Kong is a hugely competitive market place, but still one whose sales are still largely taken up by French red. Talk us through the firm’s motivation to enter the market, where you think any niches might exist and how you can impactful.

It is a tough market for sure. Our motivation came from a desire to replicate the success of our US-based retail business, based on the Upper East Side in New York. We took the view that we’d like to see what we can do in Hong Kong: we are extremely lucky that we already have a broad customer base, across a variety of tastes. They trust our brand and our reputation, but most of all we want people to associate with the high level of service and advice we can provide.

We’re still finding our feet; the market is very price-sensitive here, and the question is what is our point of difference versus a plethora of local retailers. For us it is about the quality of service, the advice we offer, and – as silly as this will sound – we inspect every single bottle of wine we purchase. It’s a lot of effort. Our price point starts at about HK$200 [US$26]; we’re not going to be offering a massively broad range of wines, instead we’re aiming to have a series of “reference point” wines from each region that you won’t see anywhere else, including auction. We want them to be entry point for people, to help them understand wine better.

And going back to that diversity theme, how are you going to work on that?

As a business we still need to respond to what the market is telling us, but we are advocates of growing the health of the market. For example we’ll have that red Burgundy, but right beside it we’ll have a terrific New Zealand Pinot that we love.

We have a lot of people who’ll come in and say, “I need a bottle of Cote de Beaune for tonight, what do you think?”, and we’ll walk them through what we have, but in the same sentence say, “well if you like that, how about trying this?” It’s hugely satisfying when people not only take our advice, but when they come back for more of the same, new wine. We’re adding to the market, and it’s great to see people expanding their horizons.

In our auctions it’s been encouraging to see the leading labels of Napa Valley do well, from Barolo the likes of Conterno sell well. It is all has a drip-feed effect. Personally I’d love to see German Riesling do better in Hong Kong: it matches the weather here, it matches the cuisine, particularly seafood.

We’re about to launch a pop-up store which we’re really excited about. There’s a middle market of clients where we are going to be able to deliver that diversity and education message effectively, we hope. Again it comes back to that idea of providing of good advice based on building relationships and listening to what they need; that’s where we feel the battleground is here.

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An important area I wanted to talk about was the issue of fakery. You’ve talked about provenance already, and you guys obviously have to be so fastidious about where your wines are coming from. In a more broader sense, and not necessarily specific to Sotheby’s, can you educate us about the degree to which wine forgery is still prevalent in Asia?

There’s been a huge amount of press around this issue in recent years, and certain merchants and auction houses have garnered some serious attention. For us it is simply a case of working hard every time we talk to a new source, conducting our due diligence. If there is even a slight degree of doubt, then the conversation ends.

I don’t think we are paranoid, but the reality is that you do still see collections nowadays that unearth inconsistencies that can’t be explained. They may be innocent, but it is not possible to accept them for auction. For example if we’re being shown a dusty cellar full of 19th Century Lafite, if it sounds too good to be true, there is a chance it probably is.

It’s tough for me to go into it in more detail, but what I can say is that Asian collectors, particularly here in Hong Kong, are far more sensitive now than they have ever been, and this is our primary focus. If you look at the cover of our April 2 brochure [below], we have a 1947 Cheval in 5-litre format: we went back to the Chateau to be in absolutely no doubt that it is what it is.

I’d also suggest it hasn’t just been an auction house problem, the whole of the secondary market has experienced issues. It is not just in Asia too; a lot of the highest-profile forgery cases have stemmed from Europe, from the US. We just need to make sure that we have done absolutely everything in our power to ensure the consumer gets exactly what they have paid for.

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So finally, how do you think the next 5 years will shape up for Hong Kong?

Well, in addition to the general broadening and growth of the market, an acceptance of other regions and grapes, I actually think Bordeaux is going to make a bit of comeback, as strange as that sounds for the city. A lot of it is undervalued now. I don’t think we’ll see any of the post-2005 pricing silliness return, but the Second to Fifth Growths are well placed to do well in both the retail and auction market. Hongkongers like a bargain, and I think the coming years will see people go back to the producers they perhaps lost a little bit of faith with after the 09 and 10 vintages.

And any chance of German Riesling becoming popular?

We can but hope!

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This interview was originally published on Grape Collective, the current front cover of which can be seen below.

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Margaret River: a week in 105 wines

If you haven’t been to Margaret River, I recommend you go. Great weather, beautiful countryside, an amazing food and wine scene, so much to do with the kids (caves, lighthouses, animals, farms, beaches…and plenty of ice cream and chocolate), and zero jet lag if you’re in the Asian timezone. All wrapped up, of course, in that unique Aussie hospitality.

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[our home for the week at the tranquil, and wi-fi-less, Burnside Organic Farm]

Seeing as this is a wine blog and not a tourist board service though, I’ll move on to the vino. Along with some pics, here are my speed dating-style tasting notes from our visit to 9 wineries, 3 restaurants, 3 accommo-drunk bottles and 1 horse-riding centre. We got through over 100 different wines in the 6 days we spent in the region.

I’ve added some general thoughts about the wines – and the industry – at the very end. I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Morrie’s restaurant, Margaret River township

NV Adelaide Hills Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay)

  • Like a Prosecco but without the residual sugar
  • Dry, toasty, short finish

2012 Juniper Crossing Tempranillo

  • Cherry, plum, damson. Red-wrapper Lindt chocolate ball from the wood
  • Sweet spice; not great balance but enjoyable

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Jester’s Flat horse riding centre (who also produce their own wine)

2015 Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon (“SBS”, as it came to be called by the locals)

  • Gooseberry, grass on capsicum on the nose
  • Flabby acidity, watery, palate not great

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Vasse Felix

2014 Blanc de Blancs

  • Sulphurous note, biscuity and yeasty
  • Apple, citrus – pleasant

2015 Classic Dry White

  • 60% Semillon, 40% Sauv Blanc (or “SSB”)
  • Citrus, dry white, nothing complex

2015 Filius Chardonnay

  • 20% of blend in oak
  • Apple/pear, bracing acidity

2014 Chardonnay

  • Mineral and flinty
  • Toasty oak, well rounded

2014 Heytesbury Chardonnay

  • 65% new oak, rich and rounded
  • More powerful than above

2014 Classic Dry Red

  • Soft Shiraz, pleasant quaffer
  • Some earthiness, cherry, black fruit

2013 Shiraz

  • Wild yeast ferment
  • Brambly, plum, some pepperiness

2014 Filius Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Bags of varietal character; blackcurrant, cassis, leafiness
  • An early drinker, took one back to base

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Tighter, more concentrated than above
  • Should last 5-7 years

2012 Heytesbury Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 18mo in oak, 77% Cab, 16% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot
  • Soft tannins, powerful, dark fruits – needs time

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Cullen

2013 Chenin Blanc

  • Funky, refreshing, high acid

2014 Vineyard White

  • Sauv Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc
  • Very light, citrus dominated

2014 SSB

  • Neutral, forgettable

2013 SSB

  • 90% oak for 5mo, added body
  • 71% Sauv Blanc so very grassy – good

2015 Rose

  • Grenache-based
  • Neutral again but pleasant

2015 Malbec

  • Dark fruit, savoury notes
  • Pleasant fruity/toffee finish – big wine so took one back to base

2012 Vanya

  • Uber-Priced (A$350/bottle) premium Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 3% Petit Verdot for structure
  • Savoury out of the glass, somewhat restrained
  • Soft blackcurrant leaf, liquorice
  • Concentrated and powerful – serious wine
  • Palate: rubbery/leather, farmyard (bacon?), long finish
  • Excellent, but not the same quality as Cloudburst (see forthcoming separate article)

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Drunk at accommo

2014 Xanadu Chardonnay

  • Straw-gold appearance
  • Not overly complex, nice citrus

2014 Hay Shed Hill Vineyard Series Chardonnay

  • Pale yellow with hint of lime-green
  • Understated but very pleasant nose of nougat and vanilla
  • Lovely wine, perfectly balanced on the palate

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2015 Deep Woods Chardonnay

  • Very citrusy, lemon, simple
  • Toasty finish with nice acidity, slightly bitter
  • Not as good as Hay Shed Hill above

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2 Riesling samples / blend

22 Cabernet / Malbec / Shiraz samples

Julian Langworthy, head winemaker (below right), kindly gave me a bottle of their 2010 Cabernet-Merlot, which we flew back to Hong Kong and will lay down for a year so it can properly get over the bottle shock of being bounced around in a suitcase for 10 hours!

Look out for my separate article on their wines…based around how you actually make the stuff. A lot of fun.

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Cloudburst

2012 Chardonnay (1-week-old + just-opened)

2013 Chardonnay

2014 Chardonnay

2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon

2013 Malbec

Again, another separate article coming on this – it was a truly unique experience with Will Berliner (below) and his ultra-low volume, stunning wines.

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Cape Mentelle

2012 Walclife SBS

  • Tropical notes, interesting
  • Barrel fermentation, weightier

2014 Chardonnay

  • Mild smoky oak
  • Good weight

2015 Rose

  • Thin, flabby, not balanced
  • Pleasant red fruit nose but not expressive

2013 Shiraz

  • Restrained but good
  • Fruit forward, but a nice savoury character

2014 Trinders Cabernet-Merlot

  • 29% Merlot so plenty of soft tannin
  • Simple fruit, pleasant

2012 Wilyabrup Cabernet-Merlot

  • Very enjoyable, aromatic and layered
  • Soft on the palate, medium finish

2013 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Really good tannic structure, balanced
  • Complex flavour profile. 91% Cab

2014 Botrytis SBS

  • Sweet wine, candied orange, marmalade
  • Long finish; probably won’t improve much

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Swings restaurant, Margaret River township

2013 Swings & Roundabouts Shiraz

  • Dark fruit, very soft
  • Restrained, not particularly tannic 

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Leeuwin Estate

2015 Art Series Riesling

  • Disappointing lack of expression on nose
  • Palate better; bracing acidity with apple and citrus

2014 Siblings Sauvignon Blanc

  • Aromatic and floral
  • Saffy’s notes got in on the act…definitely apple and peach in there, sweetheart

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2014 Prelude Chardonnay

  • 9mo in new oak
  • Mineral, balanced, nicely expressive
  • Had with Birthday lunch on winery – great with oysters (see below)

2013 Art Series Chardonnay

  • Heard host say to another taster, “this is one of the best wines in the world”. Not cool
  • 11mo in new oak, nose slightly closed
  • Undoubted quality, long finish but did not blow me away

2013 Siblings Shiraz

  • Medium-bodied, herbaceous nose
  • Pepper fully integrated

2013 Art Series Shiraz (new release)

  • Fruit forward (b/currant), layered with sweet spice
  • 20mo in new oak, super-soft tannins

2012 Prelude Cabernet-Merlot

  • 80% Cab / 20% Merlot
  • Lovely red fruit nose, tannic structure for ageing

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Voyager Estate

Before the notes, the owner of this place is a touch patriotic you could say. Their flag is one of only three this size (a tennis court) in Australia, one other of which sits above Parliament in Canberra:

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2013 Tom Price SSB

  • 91% Semillon, oak 10mo
  • Weighty, pineapple notes but not particularly interesting

Following 6 done as a fancy tasting flight, with accompanying iPad app to boot

2012 Girt by Sea Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Slight (odd?) waxy/oily quality – maybe Semillon hangover from above
  • Good quaffer

2012 Shiraz

  • Fairly neutral, earthy, red fruit
  • Medium bodied, dark cherry

2012 VOC Collection Petit Verdot

  • Violets and dark cherry on the nose
  • Full bodied, bramble, dark fruit

2011 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Sweet fruit, esp. blackcurrant
  • Beautiful soft and grainy tannins

2011 Cabernet-Merlot

  • Nose still quite closed, savoury
  • Excellent balance between all 4 elements {link to how to taste page}

2007 Cabernet-Merlot

  • Still seems so young
  • Complex and layered nose, fine tannins
  • Lovely soft palate of cedar and dark fruit

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2012 Chardonnay

  • 11mo in oak: not showing on nose but does on palate
  • Light, not overly weighty but good

2009 Chardonnay

  • Golden colour, weighty on palate
  • Excellent balance, long finish – better than Leeuwin AS equivalent – superb
  • Another one that made it into one of the suitcases home

2015 Shiraz Rose (project wine)

  • Acidity surprisingly not flabby
  • Dried strawberries and raspberries

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2014 Fire Gully SBS

  • 70% Sauv Blanc, no oak
  • Dry, fruity style, a Summer quaffer

2015 LTC SBS (l’il touch of Chardy)

  • Adding 5% Chardonnay to SBS blend
  • Bracing acidity, slight tropical character

2014 Chardonnay

  • Their premium wine, A$80/bottle
  • Weighty and balanced, 12mo in new wood
  • Had interesting banana and herbal quality – excellent

2015 Blanc de Blanc (non-sparkling, different meaning)

  • 85% Chenin Blanc in fresh and fruity style
  • 18g of residual sugar; refreshing, needs to be drunk v.cold

2013 Pino’S

  • 90% Pinot / 10% Shiraz
  • Didn’t really work; bitter aftertaste, out of whack

2012 Fire Gully Shiraz

  • With 7% Viognier (N.Rhone style) – well done, really interesting
  • Floral note with dark fruit, medium/full bodied
  • Another one for the suitcase!

2012 LTCf (l’il touch of Cab Franc)

  • Cab-Marlot majority, not particularly interesting

2011 Reserve Cabernet-Merlot

  • 63% Cab Sauv / 32% Merlot / 5% Cab Franc
  • 18mo oak, a serious wine
  • Less fruit but a real eucalyptus note there, slightly medicinal

2005 Shiraz Blend No.1 Reserve

  • Mature nose, a touch meaty
  • Plum/dark fruit palate with a herbal finish

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Hay Shed Hill

A monster tasting to finish…a total of 16 wines. This estate produces 30 in total.

2015 Kerrigan+Berry Riesling

  • Citrus, bracing acidity, very refreshing
  • Good as a drink-now aperitif or could last 10+ years

2015 Block SBS

  • Nose more interesting than palate
  • Herbal, passion fruit

2015 Vineyard Series Chardonnay (tried the excellent ’14 at base)

  • Fresh, rounded, no malolactic fermentation
  • Didn’t quite have the depth of the ’14 – still good though
  • Snuck one back to HK

2015 Block 6 Chardonnay

  • 12mo in oak, again no malo
  • Closed vs. above – more serious wine – but long pleasant finish

2015 Pinot Noir Rose

  • Don’t like rose and this didn’t change my mind
  • Summery nose as expected but acidity and body all wrong

2014 Tempranillo

  • Surprisingly, goes through carbonic maceration {link}, but not obvious on the nose
  • Nice grainy tannins with red fruit

2014 Shiraz-Tempranillo

  • 86% Shiraz; quite powerful
  • Rustic dark fruit, medium finish, high acid

2014 Block 8 Cabernet Franc

  • Blackcurrant + herbal nose
  • Super dry, gasping for air, tannic and concentrated. Very good
  • Fifth and final bottle that made the cut for journey home

2014 Grenache

  • Closed on the nose, short finish
  • Forgettable

2015 Nebbiolo

  • Closed nose again, slightly vegetal
  • Proves why this grape only works in Piedmonte

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • 100% Cab; lovely varietal nose
  • Straightforward dark fruit and sweet spice palate, great little quaffer

2012 Block 2 Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Layered nose, very good (18mo oak
  • Good balance, long finish, slight sweetness there

2011 K+B Cabernet Sauvignon

  • More of a Claret style; bramble/plum
  • Slightly closed; definitely a keeper

2014 Malbec

  • Dark fruit, soft palate
  • Not sure they needed to produce this one

2014 Cordon Cut Viognier

  • Sweet wine; floral, honey, honeycomb finish
  • Not cloying, nice acidity, all late harvest (not enough damp for botrytis)

Muscat

  • Made in their own 9-year-old Solera system…usually found in Jerez, Spain
  • Fortified wine; 21% alcohol
  • Caramel, coffee, brown sugar, nutty
  • Rich espresso finish, some sort of honeyed macadamia

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Phew. All done. 

Do shout if you need more detail on any of the wines – I’d be happy to share!

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this article, I’d say this last producer, purely from a wine discovery perspective, was a great example of the good and bad side of a trip like this. While many New World wineries are still in a stage of experimentation (a lot of these estates only planted their first vines in the 90s and 00s, while in the Old World many have been around since the 1800s), I still feel they’re adopting too much of a, “let’s do everything and see what sticks” approach.

It can create confusion for the consumer, and moreover, means you have to trawl through a LOT of wine in order to narrow down what you really like. Firstly stylistically, that is, do you like early-drinking fruit-forward wines, or complex stuff that’s closed now but will reward you in 5+ years? Secondly, what actual grapes and/or blends float your boat?

I’d much rather see a winery spend a decade developing their specialities, then terrain, aspect and soil permitting, hone in on producing just 3 or 4 exceptional wines that people will love and pay for.

It was great to see a lot of people from overseas (especially Asia) at some of the wineries. With their trendy degustation lunches, places like Vasse Felix, one of the very first growers in Margaret River, have now got a highly polished operation that appeal directly to this audience. I fear though their wines may follow a similar path, in that they are targeting a burgeoning audience with offerings that follow a set formula, and lose a lot of the character and expression of place that got them to where they are in the first place.

But all that aside, it was a really enjoyable trip, hugely relaxing, and our first proper experience of the broad spectrum of Margaret River wines. We’ll definitely be loyal to a number of producers and specific bottles from here, as some were world class and we wouldn’t have had access to them in Hong Kong.

As you’ll also see in upcoming articles, it was augmented by the pleasure of getting to know some interesting characters, to go with some truly unique wines.

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[standing on top of Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, where the Southern and Indian Oceans meet, at Australia’s most south-westerly point]

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