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06.29.2007

Stop The State Fair Madness

We interrupt your normal levelheaded Vinography programming with the following outraged rant.

Listen up wine industry folks, this whole state fair thing has gone on long enough and it just needs to stop. If I hear one more winery boasting that their Zinfandel won a gold medal at the Butte County fair, and silver at the Cal State Expo, I think I'm going to be sick.

And listen up wine consumers, while I explain to you how utterly ridiculous and meaningless these awards are, and how you should never use them as part of your decision for purchasing a wine.

What I am about to tell you is why, by the way, you shouldn't join the hordes of people who rushed to Trader Joes yesterday after it was announced that Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay won a double gold at the California State Fair wine competition (most every Trader Joe's is sold out of Chardonnay as a result anyway, so you're late to the game no matter what).

State and county fair medals and awards for wine are not entirely bogus, but are close enough that everyone should completely ignore them. I trust a medal from a county fair about wine, about as much as I trust my vegan friends' recommendations on what restaurants I'd enjoy in San Francisco. Which is to say, not even as far as I could throw them.

First of all, I need a show of hands from the folks that actually regularly go to state fairs. Now I need a show of hands for people who have actually watched any of the judging of competitions that goes on at these state fairs. Now I need a show of hands of people who have actually entered things into these competitions.

I'm betting there aren't a lot of hands raised out there, but I'll tell you what. Mine is. I've spent an awful lot of time at state and county fairs in my day, so listen up: the so called "competitions" that take place at these fairs and the awards they give out are exercises in mediocrity and the constraints of a limited playing field.

The primary reasons why no one should ever pay attention to an award given to a wine by some sort of fair:

1. While some of the biggest fairs actually get professional wine critics and winemakers to be judges, many of the judges for these wine competitions are simply folks who just work in the industry, or even worse, sometimes are just people who "enjoy" wine.

2. Every fair I've been to has got about 1000 different categories of competition for each general area of judging. Entrants don't compete for the best wine, or the best red wine, they compete for the best Zinfandel, or maybe even worse, the best old vine Zinfandel. This matters because...

3. Often times there are only a few entries in each category. These competitions are not demonstrations of the best products or talent out there, they are demonstrations of choosing among the best of the (sometimes awful) products entered. While on occasion I have seen fairs decline to give out awards when there are an egregiously small number of entrants (say, less than three) but generally they give out an award no matter what. So winning a gold medal can be simply a matter of being the least crappy entrant in a field of three.

4. Did I mention that the only wines that get evaluated are wines that are deliberately entered by potential competitors? This is a problem at ALL such wine competitions, no matter where they are. The title of "best wine" at such and such competition should NEVER be given much credence by consumers since we have no idea who that wine was competing with. At state and county fairs, this is a huge problem, as it is very unlikely that any category of wine has a "representative" sample of wines to judge against.

5. Oh, did I mention that the wines sent to these competitions are sent by the wineries themselves. You only need to see what happened at the New Zealand Cuisine wine awards to understand the issues with this approach. And can you believe that the folks at the New Zealand competition actually test the wines that are sent to them against samples purchased from retail store shelves to make sure they are the same? Guess how often the California State Fair has ever done that? Right. Never, ever, ever. If you think that every winery simply just pulls a random bottle out of one of their cases that is destined for Joe's Liquor Mart to send to these wine competitions, I've got a bridge in Napa to sell you.

So far be it for me to deny Fred Franzia his upset victory, and the last thing I would want to do is imply that he sent extra special wine to the competition.

But I do want to say that I tend to agree with my friend Jack, who expressed his amazement at the news to me this way: "They should just fire all those judges and start over."

Wineries, stop bragging about your medals and start telling people interesting things about you and your wine, and how and why you make it. Consumers, do yourself a favor and ignore any piece of wine marketing that talks about fair medals. Though you might start noticing the very limited overlap between wines that get scores or good reviews by any wine critic (take your pick) and those that get medals. Coincidence? Well, let's just say that you don't see really good restaurants setting up booths at county fairs for a reason. They don't have to.

Comments (41)

Jack wrote:
06.30.07 at 10:30 AM

On further reflection, I agree with you, Alder: enough is enough. Forget firing judges; elminate judging instead. State Fairs, County Fairs, SF Wine Comp, Decanter (who does a whole issue awarding medals to mostly 2nd and 3rd tier wines), etc., etc... promote tasting wines rather than gold medals.

Finally, don't these wineries understand that these medals (or wine scores) don't make their wines taste better? No, because if they did they would stop telling me about the medals and scores WHILE I'M tasting their wine in front of them.

Dr. Debs wrote:
06.30.07 at 11:00 AM

Does any wine magazine buy their own wine or do they get sent the wine by the winemaker? Just asking.

Arthur wrote:
06.30.07 at 11:05 AM

I can see and agree how wines can get overblown rankings or awards at these events (I'm going to piss off a lot of people when I say I feel the same way about the SF Chronicle Wine Competition - gasp!).

Having said that, I don't think a Zinfandel should be judged against a Pinot noir (never mind wines from different regions). Your commentary here is helpful in getting people to think critically about these competitions and to look at the fine print which tells a lot about what the wines were being judged against.

There is a flipside implication of how and who submits wines to these competitions: I have come across some wines which received lower standings at fairs and wine competitions but in my tasting, the wines were better and deserved better rankings.

Submitted for everyone's consideration: could there be as much under-ranking at these wine competitions as there is over-ranking?

Alder wrote:
06.30.07 at 12:03 PM

Debs,

Yes, several top magazines, newspapers, and individual critics purchase the wines that they review.

Jack,

I hear you. I TOTALLY hate it when winery staff are telling me how many points and medals its got while I've got the glass raised to my lips.

Arthur,

As you probably know, I think ranking is just a stupid idea to begin with. Scores can be interpreted as points in time relative to others. A forced ranking of say, the top 50 wines of the year, or even the top three wines at a tasting is silly and almost entirely pointless.

Nancy wrote:
06.30.07 at 12:38 PM

Great rant Alder! I always think those dusty ribbons and medals look a little tacky anyway. Also, there are categories for the wines in many of these competitions, so maybe the 2-buck Chuck won as best Chardonnay under $2.00! ;-)

puncturelumbar wrote:
07.01.07 at 7:45 PM

For the sake of argument:

1. Double golds at CA State Fair wine judging are only given out when ALL judges agree that the wine in question deserves a gold medal.

2. This wine went up against 350 other Chardonnays.

Now, you can pick apart several things here:

1. The bottle of wine in question might very well have been a "ringer" - I wouldn't put it past Franzia to do that.

2. The judges may have ALL had a plebian palate (though I doubt it, as there are some wine professionals tasting).

However, Alder, your points #1 and #3 above are not valid in this instance. Some wine professionals out there decided this wine deserved a gold medal. In fact, everyone who tasted it did. Also, the wine went up against a lot of Chardonnay, so saying that it didn't compete against much isn't valid.

I think the outrage here is largely due to the idea that a wine that costs $2 (less than a good six pack of beer) bested wines costing 20 times that. If Franzia did not in fact send a ringer (and I think there are good odds that he did), then it's possible that THAT PARTICULAR LOT from which the competition bottle was sent was pretty damn good. Now, I doubt very much I can go to the Roseville TJ's and pick up the same lot - if they made 100,000 cases, then that's 1.2 million bottles - hard to believe that every bottle had the same fruit and the same treatment.

I'm sure it makes people feel a little foolish for spending $30 on a bottle of Chardonnay - and I don't doubt that's where some of the irritation (but not all of it) is coming from.

There was a Charles Shaw Shiraz that won a wine competition in years past - against a $50 Syrah. My problem with Two Buck Chuck is that given the large production, you truly don't know what you're getting. But hey, it's cheap. But if you value your wine simply based on the medals or the points it garnered, then I think you're missing the point.

FWIW, I wish I liked Two Buck Chuck exclusively - it sure would make my passion/hobby/interest a lot less expensive!

Jack wrote:
07.01.07 at 8:48 PM

Sorry Puncture, but it wasn't "All Judges" but instead just the small number of them that got to do the Chards in the cheap category. Say, six judges. Or maybe four. We don't know.

But I do think we have to feel sorry for them. How many did they have to taste? (You THINK a "Wine Professional" wants to taste cheap chard? Ohmygod!) And, wow, they found some they didn't want to label DNPIM (Did not put in mouth). Two Buck Chuck stood out because it was professionally made and I would also guess the grapes came from one of the best lots (out of thousands - why send just a random one?). Okay. But still, wouldn't a Silver medal have sufficed? No. These fairs want, WANT to have golds and double-gold medals. It keeps the whole thing going. Who wins? Fred. And the fair, as they're getting all of this publicity. Who loses? That's for you to decide.

puncturelumbar wrote:
07.02.07 at 6:59 AM

Well, Jack, it so happens that I do know a little bit about State Fair wine judging. The CA State Fair doesn't divvy up wines according to price point, although the SF Chronicle competition does. So it is fair to say that ALL of the judges tasting that section of Chardonnay agreed upon first taste that that particular wine deserved a gold medal. That "section" wasn't divided up as to price, and probably not even region at first (though eventually the wines are judged as to varietal and region, whether due to statistical manipulation or actual flights I don't know). Since it was unanimous, it got a double gold. Also, the wines are tasted blind, so each wine got what it "deserved".

I agree with you that the purpose of these competitions is to award gold medals and double golds - they are litle more than a sop to the wine industry. If you find that your palate agrees with the collective palate of the judges, great. If not (more likely for anyone reading this blog), then it doesn't help.

Stacy wrote:
07.02.07 at 8:12 AM

This whole conversation goes back to the uniform rating scale for wines does it not? To trust a random award on a wine as opposed to a random score from a reviewer you are not familiar with is the same principal. A wine could be rated 95 by some random bloke or have won a double gold medal at a county fair. To a casual wine drinker reviewing the super market shelves they will be more likely to pick up the bottle. It's marketing at its best and I'm not going to shun the winery that is smart enough to get the general population to choose my wine over any other.

That said, a more experienced wine drinker should not be fooled into committing our wine budget (which is already stretched to its fullest) on the opinions of unproven palettes. Does it deserve standing on a soap box to protest? Probably not. Did I rush out to buy two-buck Chard? Please, not even if they paid me. But you have to admire, if only for a second, that Franzia is a marketing genius that got even the finest of wine blogs (yes, yours) talking about their wine. And all publicity buzz, good and bad, helps those bottles fly off the shelves.

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 10:00 AM

Stacy,

Actally, I see a fairly big difference between scores and such awards. Scores are point values relative to a known scale. They are ideally designed to help a consumer calibrate their own enjoyment of a wine relative to a critic's by giving them a reference for just how much that critic liked a particular wine relative to other wines he or she has tasted. With a little effort spent on trying a few wines that I recommend a consumer can easily tell whether they agree with my 8.5 to 9 rating.

There is no such grounding for medals or awards that simply proclaim "out of 350 wines, this one was the best!" As one of my other readers points out, what if 349 of those wines were utter crap? And most of the time the consumer has no idea how many wines were in competition. As I pointed out in my article, there can be as few as four or five, but the consumer would have no way of knowing that.

The other problem with medals is that generally they are given to only 1 wine, or at least one wine in a category. In the case where there are actually a number of good wines that are being evaluated, this sort of forced ranking that requires someone to choose what is the "best" wine is about as silly as someone insisting that 10 random people come to consensus on what is the best movie ever made. It's hard to do, and even if you got all 10 people to agree, what do you think the chances are that YOU'd agree with them?

Your point about a consumer in a store seeing a randomg point score vs a gold medal is well taken, but don't you think there's inherently more information in a 95 point score than there is in a gold medal? At least with the score there's a sense of how good the wine was. With a gold medal you have no idea.

Stacy wrote:
07.02.07 at 10:24 AM

Hi Alder,

Let me explain a bit. I see very little difference between a number rating and an award because they are both nothing more than a person's or a panel's opinion of a wine. It is a symbol and a quick reference and nothing more. It gives the buyer a sense of security that what they are purchasing is quality, whether it really is or isn't.

I also believe that like any review, some are good and some are tripe. I have purchased wines with high ratings only to be disappointed because the scale in my mouth would have rated it far lower. I have also had the reverse happen where a nothing wine has produced great results for me.

That said, a number or an award is different than reading a full review with pertinent descriptors of a wine. I want to know if a Chardonnay is full oak or steely, not whether a sommelier personally liked it or not – do you see the difference? Medals and ratings have a place, regardless of where they come from. But for the true wino, we want more details than that. I love the instant gratification of the ratings and awards because they intrigue me to learn more about a particular wine. Doesn’t mean I agree with the conclusion, but it gets me to pick up the bottle.

My favorite thing about wine tasting, as with art, is that I am always right regardless of the review or the awards. I still won’t buy two buck chuck but I have to appreciate that they just sold more wine because of the “useless” medal than possibly any other Chardonnay produced this year. That is a pretty useful medal if you ask me.

thesheriff wrote:
07.02.07 at 11:01 AM

"Mieux vaut l'aveugle qui pisse par le fenetre que le farceur qui lui a fait croire que c'est l'urinoir." And who is the "farceur"? It's the person who made this wine, and the person who would like you to believe that state fair wine results are valuable!

Josh wrote:
07.02.07 at 11:16 AM

Hey Alder,

Great rant, but I wouldn't let Dan Berger catch you painting with the broad brush like that!

I gave a talk right before him in Mendocino where he went to great lengths to explain how he takes his fair judging and management pretty seriously and avoids most of the problems you outline above by design.

Still your gripes are spot on for 90 percent of the fairs. Stacy's right though, anything that seems to set a wine apart from the rest, even in your own tasting room will increase sales. A silver medal from the Modoc county fair will even do the trick.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
07.02.07 at 11:59 AM

I believe that fair judgings and thier respective awards are a valuable marketing tool for some wineries. We are talking about wineries that produce wines that target consumers that likely don't have the most developed pallets and hit price points that appeal to these consumers. It gives wineries like this ( Franzia is the greatest and biggest example ) a chance to lure a consumer in and make the sale as consumers like this often need a REASON to buy a wine.
On the other hand I, and many of my peers, never submit to such judgings because these are not the type of consumers we are looking for. We submit our wines to the major publications ( most solicit submissions not buy thier own ) and use that forum because we are competative in that arena, why bother with fairs?
For people who taste alot of wine, relatively speaking, and are not afraid to spend a bit of cash these medals mean very little. Winning a gold medal at some festival or fair is much like proclaiming oneself to be the tallest midget; does it really matter?
Good blog Alder, I rarely see you get this fired up...I like it!

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:06 PM

Stacy,

I hear ya, but I'm still not quite there with you. Yes a medal and a score are both just a person's or a panel's opinion on a wine, but what I'm arguing is that a score gives you a MUCH better sense of what that opinion is. All your caveats about the subjectivity of such things are right on the money. But there's a huge difference for me between saying "I give this wine 90 points" and "I give this wine a gold medal." In the first case I know that the wine, compared to everything that person has ever tasted, is pretty darn good but not great. In the second case I don't know if the wine was the best wine the person had ever tasted in their life, or barely drinkable, but better than the rest of the swill it was competing against.

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:30 PM

Josh,

I hereby nominate Dan Berger to oversee and manage all U.S. state and county fair wine competitions.

I'm very aware of the power of these medals. If they didn't work, no one would be bragging about them. Mostly, though, what I'm trying to do here is convince wineries that they should be selling wines based on stories, knowledge, and what's in the glass, rather than the equivalent of the "My Child is an Honor Student at ACME Elementary School" bumper stickers.

Eric wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:30 PM

Great debate. The "best" I've read on here so far!

Two points: I think you (Alder) and Stacy both make excellent arguments though I tend to agree with her in that all criticism (literary, movies, wine, consumer products) can only truly be gauged against personal experience. Some people will blindly follow scores as the only motivation for buying a wine and that's too bad, because neither scores, medals or little gold stars tell me what *I* need to know about anything. But, if a particluar review(er) seems to match that of one's own judgements then that is worth something as you rightfully argue.

The other point as it relates to the judging of one product against another can be valuable within something like "Consumer Reports." I don't read the magazine (but have) and there you see a review of like products and do not need to know if the reviewer has ever seen a flat screen TV or vacuum to feel the validity of pitting those products against one another to gauge which is "best."

Again, great debate. Hope it continues.

Eric

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:35 PM

For those whose French is as bad as mine, I offer you a Google translation of the previously posted phrase:

"Better the blind man is worth who pisses by the window than the joker who made him believe that it was the urinal."

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:42 PM

Eric,

Thanks for the comments. But with consumer reports you get so much more information about HOW the folks are evaluationg the products (against what criteria), and you see the scores of each product against each of the criteria. So while Consumer Reports may say "THIS is the best washer/dryer combo" you can see that the one they selected rated higher than all the other ones on durability, second in style, first in energy use, and fourth in user interface design." With a gold medal you get none of that. Not that a score on the 100 point scale is the equivalent of such detailed criteria (I'm obviosuly not a "scores are everything guy"), but it's way better than nothing.

Arthur wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:53 PM

Alder, what if the wine reviewer discloses the methodoloy and criteria for arriving at their scores?

Eric wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:55 PM

Alder,

Excellent rebuttal.

E

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 1:59 PM

Arthur,

What score?!? With a medal there is no score. That's precisely my point.

Now if they actually gave a score to the wine, along with the medal, AND they told you what the criteria was for that score, AND they told you what the other wines competing against that wine were scored, THEN I'd say that the consumer would at least have the information they needed to decide whether the Gold medal was an indication of quality or not.

Arthur wrote:
07.02.07 at 2:05 PM

Hi Alder, I was addressing your statement: "Not that a score on the 100 point scale is the equivalent of such detailed criteria" in your most recent post. I apologize for not being more specific. A minor tangent I hope you'd indulge as you have my agreement on the issue of medals and ribbons at fairs.

Alder wrote:
07.02.07 at 2:09 PM

Ah,

Sorry Arthur, I misunderstood you. Yes, knowing the criteria that go into a score certainly helps. Anything to bring more clarity than just a number.

Anonymous wrote:
07.02.07 at 2:25 PM

It's all good, Alder. We Eastern Europeans appreciate a heated, passionat debate.

el jefe wrote:
07.02.07 at 5:42 PM

hi Alder - You seem to have an impression that Gold, Silver, Bronze refer to the equivalent of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. This is not the case for any of the major wine competitions (or at least the ones we participate in.)

They are shorthand for points ranges - and are more equivalent to systems like the "five stars" that have been discussed of late.

At the CA State Fair, it goes like this:

98-100 points - Double Gold
94-97 points - Gold
88-93 points - Silver
86-87 points - Bronze
85 and below - No award

If every wine in a category is judged to be a 98, then all will get Double Gold.

TBC won a Double Gold, meaning they were scored 98 points or better.

There is no relative ranking here, like a top 50. It's a points judgement, just like your own 10 point scale, and just as subjective.

el jefe wrote:
07.02.07 at 5:57 PM

Oh, and the full results should be published in a few days at bigfun.org - probably before the Grape & Gourmet tasting at the Fairgrounds on July 12 (I would hope). Then you will know which wines were also in the competition.

The method and criteria for judging is part of this handbook:

http://www.bigfun.org/fair/pdfs/competitions/wine/comwinebook.pdf

thesheriff wrote:
07.03.07 at 12:31 PM

Alder,

"Better to be the blind man who pisses out the window, than the joker who led him to believe that it (the window) was a urinal."

Alder wrote:
07.03.07 at 1:14 PM

Jeff,

Thanks for the comments, and for correcting my impression of the state fair's competition. It is indeed my impression that many county fairs award medals in a ranking for first through third place finishes in a given category, but perhaps that is not always the case!

Wow. Two Buck Chuck Chardonny, 98 points. Crazy.

Alfonso wrote:
07.03.07 at 5:26 PM

My favorite was from a friend (now an M.S.) who in jest would "pitch" a wine by saying that it "won an Orange medal at the Gold County Fair."

puncturelumbar wrote:
07.04.07 at 6:48 AM

See an excellent writeup of this issue by Mike Dunne in the Sacramento Bee today: http://www.sacbee.com/taste/story/254262.html

Arthur wrote:
07.04.07 at 10:44 PM

So after el jefe's post and the link to the Mike Dunne article posted by puncturelumbar, I decided to try the 2005 TBC Chardonnay. Picked some up, chilled and drank it. I don't think this is the appropriate forum form my tasting notes or recommendations, but everyone knows where to get it and how much it costs. I was not at all disappointed.

Alan wrote:
07.05.07 at 3:43 PM

I find a posting like this from a blog sponsored by the Wine Spectator a bit suspect.
Perhaps people agreeing with Vinography should read the book: Wisdom of the Crowds--Why the Many are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes
Business, Economies, Societies and Nations.

Alder wrote:
07.05.07 at 10:29 PM

Alan, apparently the last time you read my blog was April Fools Day.

That is a pretty good book you recommend, but it has no bearing on matters of aesthetics, which is what this discussion of wine is about. Wisdom of the crowd drives markets (which is why McDonalds is the most popular restaurant in the country, and why Turning Leaf White Zinfandel is the most popular wine in the country), but hopefully you will admit that neither of those are among the best that this country has to offer in the way of food and wine.

el jefe wrote:
07.06.07 at 12:25 AM

hi Alder - your last comment is very well put! Glad I could clear some things up. Confession: I got way too far into the wine biz believing as you did about Gold, Silver etc. I posted some more about competitions on elbloggotorcido.com in attempt to help... the Mike Dunne article raises some interesting points, like what does "21,000 cases" out of a million really mean?

Alan wrote:
07.07.07 at 6:31 PM

Sorry for any misunderstandings about your veracity. However, I stand by what I wrote,in the example of a knowledgeable panel versus a single expert. Giving a number score (or any short-hand evaluation)certainly is trying to base a subjective concept into objective.
Quality can be a concensus; and has nothing to do with McDonald's success or failure.

ryan wrote:
07.12.07 at 10:16 AM

Not sure if I missed it, but Alder have you tried the wine? Not that I'm saying it does or does not deserve it, but I'd feel funny writing what you did if I hadn't tasted it. Especially if I hadn't tasted it blind.

Alder wrote:
07.12.07 at 11:26 AM

Ryan,

I tried very deliberately to make it clear that my post was not about the wine. I have had Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay many times, occasionally blind, though not the 2005. My point was not that this wine could not have won the prize that it did.

My point is that these prizes, and the industry emphasis on them, are ridiculous and don't provide much value to consumers, certainly not anywhere commensurate with the hoopla surrounding them.

Pamela wrote:
08.10.07 at 7:03 PM

Sorry to interrupt the conversation, but I simply want to state that it's really a shame that state fairs are damaging the reputation of some of the reputable wine competitions. I myself, judge for a number of competitions, and this aforementioned award is simply erroneous and inappropriate and one can only presume fraud at some level. I am not going to point fingers or make any assumptions but something is not right here.

On another note, its interesting how the Cornell study about how wine labels ruin a restaurant meal (and Adler's "The Power of the Label" article) coincide with the award news; is this is coincidence or was the award used to balance out the bad publicity...

Goose wrote:
03.04.12 at 9:06 AM

One thing that is even more deplorable than a poorly made wine is the wine snob that rates it. I compete in several wine competitions each year as a home wine maker. State & County Fairs. These judges also judge the commercial wineries as well. These competitions have AWS (American Wine Society) certified judges and the reason I enter several competitions each year so as to acquire a boarder sense of how my wines really rate. From over 10 years of competition experience, each one of these contests have rated my wines very consistently, not varying, on an average more than one category up or down each time. BTW, not a single judge is on either of the other competitions panel. As for the CA State Fair judging comment...of the competitions I participate in, for a wine to be awarded "DG" each of the judges must have awarded it "GOLD" in the tasting. The judges do not see each others judging comments and "DG" is awarded after the competition tasting is completed. Furthermore, the comments concerning medal awarding is entirely inaccurate. If you had done your research, medals are awarded based on a scoring system, as pointed out by another blogger. And for the arrogant wine snobs on this blog that read this, I've not had a Gold medal wine that didn't truly deserve the award. I closing, They are really good wines out there, and they don't all come from California, that have not been entered in ANY contest.

08.18.14 at 2:00 AM

At this time it looks like Drupal is the top blogging
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you're using on your blog?

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