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Best New Sommeliers

Best New Sommeliers of 2015

by W&S Editors
August 21, 2015

“I love food,” Jack Mason, MS, says. “I was at the Culinary Institute to cook. But the opportunity to push into something that was super deep…and also to get to interact with people, to help them put together an experience and to watch it play out—I thought that was really cool. And I still think it’s really cool.” When the lists are written, the inventory done, the boxes schlepped and the budgets approved, there’s one thing that draws people to make a profession out of wine in restaurants. It’s a genuine enthusiasm for matching people to bottles and vice versa. We asked thousands of sommeliers across the country to take a break from their multitasking and consider the best new talent in their field. Five sommeliers—all with fewer than four years at the helm of a restaurant list—garnered the most votes in our poll. They are the guides other sommeliers would most like to have by their side, advising on what to drink tonight. Please welcome the Best New Sommeliers of 2015.

Kimberly Livingston Prokoshyn, Rebelle, NYC

As head sommelier at Pearl & Ash, Kimberly always delivered exceptional service (read: friendly, exuberant, fun, perceptive) and her selections and knowledge—both international and domestic—are incredibly well rounded. She is a great new ambassador for the wine industry.
—Renée Bourassa, Le Bernardin
Kimberly Livingston Prokoshyn came to New York to study art at Hunter College. Wine was never a career goal, even as she worked her way through her early twenties at various downtown restaurants, before ending up at the short-lived Bowery Kitchen. Its closing turned out to have a silver lining: She stayed on as the space transformed into Pearl & Ash, which sommelier Patrick Cappiello quickly turned into a magnet for wine geeks and sommeliers attracted by its far-ranging wine list and low-key vibe. Although she insists she knew next to nothing about wine, Prokoshyn’s interest grew as she listened to Cappiello at tables with bottles, telling stories about the people who made them and the places they came from. Branden McRill, the general manager at the time, noted this, and suggested she take some courses with the American Sommelier Association. She’s never looked back.

Prokoshyn recently took on the wine program at Rebelle, which Cappiello and his team opened next door to Pearl & Ash last spring. It was a huge challenge, she says. “In going from nothing to creating a list, I think the most challenging thing is to balance all of the tasks,” she says. “Receiving wine, maintaining a cellar, considering budget, providing lyrical, poetic, ethereal wine experiences to people. There are two really important and opposing aspects to maintaining a wine program.”

And yet Prokoshyn’s enthusiasm for the list she curates is palpable; when asked about values or favorite producers or under-the-radar regions, she doesn’t stop. “We have so many vintages of Olga Raffault—those wines are beautiful and intriguing and so terroir expressive,” she says. “And Alain Graillot—whenever the allocation comes out, we take as much as we can. Or the Dolomies Chardonnay from the Côtes du Jura. It has this saline thing that is also wild and woolly and ginger spiced that goes really well with chef ’s food.” —Caitlin Griffith

The Draw
“It is all about the sensual experience, all the senses you go through when drinking a bottle with friends, and our job as sommeliers is to cater to that experience, assist it along, create it. This is a completely human experience, not this intangible thing. This is fun every single day.”

Close to Home
Before we opened Rebelle, the whole somm team went up to the Finger Lakes and we tasted with ten producers. It was really cool. Bellwether was a big highlight; Kris Matthewson does single-vineyard bottles with riesling and pinot. His riesling was so lively and really energetic; there was a precision and minerality to all of his rieslings. I especially enjoyed the Tuller Vineyard Riesling Pét-Nat: it was dry, bright, salty, peachy. And then there is Wiemer, which has been around since the seventies; they are making great wine, especially the rieslings.

We [the sommelier team at Rebelle] all chip in $20 each week to buy a mixed case of wine. Every day the team tastes a bottle and we have the wine store wrap the bottles up for us, so we don’t know what they are. I love blind tasting; you always learn something new from it. You think you know what a wine is, and then you realize you don’t.

Missing Out
Since we only list American and French wines at Rebelle, I do miss some grapes and grape-growing regions. I had a craving for German riesling the other day—the Weiser-Künstler, you know the label with the owl? Love those wines. And I miss wines from Etna. Benanti Pietramarina: That wine is crazy good and ages super well, almost like the Dauvissat of Mount Etna. Both are like crushed oyster shells. I also miss wines from Piedmont, especially the really cool, less exposed areas and grape varieties of the region, like pelaverga, timorasso—I just can’t play with those grapes anymore.

French Favorites
I really do love French wines, especially the Loire and the Jura and Savoie—these have long histories but have been veiled from the American public so there is really great value there. And I’m completely in love with Burgundy. We have a really large Burgundy list at the restaurant. Our page of Roumier, I don’t know how that happened! Jacques Carillon from Puligny-Montrachet is really good, so much precision. Or Morey-Blanc for value.

Hooked On
Benoît Roseau: I am hooked on this Northern Rhône syrah from Collines Rhodaniennes. It is super fresh and light and peppery, all at 11.5 percent, and a really great value.

Simultaneous Translation
So much of this job is about translating. You have to understand what people are asking for and translate.

Martin Sheehan-Stross, Wayfare Tavern, SF

Martin works harder and puts in more hours than any sommelier I know. At the same time, he gives his time back to the community by hosting tastings and practice exams. He is the epitome of what a sommelier should be: a friend who empathizes with your needs and uses his experience to elevate yours at his restaurant.
—Amy Racine, Sons & Daughters
While some sommeliers enter the restaurant world later in life, after catching the wine bug, Martin Sheehan-Stross has been working in restaurants nonstop since he was 15, growing up on the Peninsula, south of San Francisco. He’s an anomaly in his family: No one else worked in restaurants, but he was attracted to the kinetic energy of working the floor. He liked it so much, in fact, that he majored in hospitality and tourism management at UC–San Diego.

Sheehan-Stross began to explore the nuances of wine service when he landed an internship at Amaya in San Diego’s Grand Del Mar resort, “which has an amazing wine collection,” he points out. Jesse Rodriguez was the hotel’s wine director at the time—fresh off a stint as the head sommelier at The French Laundry.

After college, Sheehan-Stross moved back to San Francisco, working his way up to a sommelier position at Spruce in Laurel Heights—a destination for San Franciscans looking to delve into a cellar filled with rarities like grand cru Burgundy, old German riesling and seriously old Madeira. He later worked at Gary Danko, another powerhouse restaurant known for its deep wine list and impeccable service. In 2013, he earned the Rudd Scholarship for the top score on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Advanced exam, and earlier this year won the national TopNewSomm championship.

He’s now the beverage director at Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern, where he has responded to the current insatiable demand for California pinot noir by offering plenty of vibrant coastal versions from producers like Chanin and Ghostwriter, while also testing the waters with more esoteric wines from California artisans. As a lifelong restaurant pro, service is front and center for Sheehan-Stross. Ask him about his vision of being a sommelier, and he won’t list all of the cool wines and old vintages he’s been drinking this month—though no doubt he’s had a few. Instead, he’ll talk about bussing tables. —Luke Sykora

Somm of All Trades
You realize early on, as you’re working your way into a somm position, that it’s very important to get people to trust you, whether it’s the guests or other service team members. To me, that’s always about being willing to jump in at any time to help anyone out on the floor. Being a barista, being a busboy, being a host in addition to being a somm. You see a great response from the guest, and ultimately that helps you in the sales role as well, and increases the level of service as a whole.

How to Win the Rudd
During service, Fred Dame [MS, and one of the examiners] wanted two lagers from the Old World, and Stella and Heineken didn’t count. Which doesn’t seem so hard, but when you’re in the middle of service and it’s Fred who wants them—that one took some thinking. I said Kronenburg and…uh…what did I say? Kronenburg and Pilsner Urquell.

It’s all about going back to your comfort zone. You can study until you’re blue in the face, but in the end, it’s ‘What have you worked with? What worked for you?’

From Sommelier to Beverage Director
You realize the importance of education in getting everyone on board with pushing the beverage program forward. You realize the importance of relationships in the wine industry. You definitely realize how important beer and spirits are!

Advice for Buyers
It’s important to reach out to people you can trust, and not to be shy about reaching out to people who you maybe haven’t spoken to recently. Many times these people may be your reps, but a lot of times the people who are working for distributors have run really successful programs in the past, and can lend you some honest, candid advice. They’re most likely excited to share and happy to share, to look at your sheets and offer you some suggestions about what could be going on.

First Love
1999 Henri Gouges Les Saint Georges. One of several that started it all.

New Discovery
Ghostwriter from the Santa Cruz area. Kenny Likitprakong is doing things unlike anyone else in the state—I love the attention to fair wages and social responsibility. There is a ton of attention on the environment, but what about the people? The wines all have nuance and funk, but are still approachable. They are almost hard to describe to a guest, but in a good way. Once the guest is drinking it, they can’t help but enjoy.

Night-Off Drink
Champagne or a Moscow Mule, depending on where that night is taking me.

Bubble Craving
Marc Hebrart Blanc de Blancs. It’s amazing to see a producer from the Vallée de la Marne show such talent with chardonnay. Incredibly well-farmed, too.

Favorite New Spot
Right now, it’s Liholiho Yacht Club. It’s so San Francisco. You can go in and have those fried oysters at the bar with a cool cocktail, or you can sit down and have great grower Champagne and a five-course meal. The service is really attentive, and the food is origin l and it all works. It’s phenomenal.

I’m learning how to get back into those after this spring’s MS exam. I’ve gotten back on the golf course a few times, and have started running a little more seriously again.

Arthur Hon, Sepia, Chicago

What’s so amazing about Arthur’s wine list is how seamlessly it melds esoteric with classic, yet unknown. There’s always an emphasis on small production, up-and-coming regions and just plain interesting wines. Simply put, awesome list—not only do consumers enjoy sampling from it, but it’s one of the most highly referenced wine lists that sommeliers recommend in the city.
—Rachel Lowe, Spiaggia
Arthur Hon’s life took a sharp turn one night at Blackbird restaurant in Chicago. It was the early 2000s and he was a student at the Art Institute in Chicago, immersed in the world of environmental graphic design. He knew nothing of wine. Handed the wine list at dinner that night, he thought, “What do I do with this?” A sommelier came to the rescue, recommending a bottle of 1998 Petite Sirah from Chiarello Family Vineyards. Between the wine and the service, Hon decided then and there that he wanted to learn more about the restaurant world.

Hon dove into The Wine Bible, and tried to learn as much as possible on his own. “I’d go out to eat by myself, sit at the bar, order a bottle of Burgundy,” he says. “I didn’t even realize the position of sommelier existed: the whole concept behind it was foreign to me.” Eventually he started working at a local Japanese spot to make his start in restaurants.

When Sepia opened in 2007, Hon was ready for a bigger challenge, and applied for a job. Hired as a server, he began writing tasting notes on each wine on the list, and distributed them to his coworkers. He got his first chance to influence the list when his mentor, wine director Scott Tyree, left in 2010. When the list became his own in 2012, he strove to return to the original philosophy of the restaurant: to seek out well-priced wines from lesser known regions and winemakers to match the seasonal, casual and comfortable ethos of the restaurant. Encouraged by his colleagues, Hon started taking classes through the Court of Master Sommeliers. This past January, he was awarded the Jean Banchet Award for Best Sommelier, honoring Chicagoans who work in the culinary and beverage world. He is now working toward the Court’s Advanced sommelier certification. Hon finds similarities between working with wine and his previous work in painting and composition as a graphic designer. For him, as an artist, the focus was on how to change a perception of a space, and how people interact with it.

“I love abstract art and creating sensations, generating emotion, placing a visual object to stimulate,” he says, “and now I work with food and wine, also generating sensations and feelings. It is emotional at times. This is the perfect translation from what I learned in school but in a different medium. I create ambiance and experience, and can still use creativity.” —Caitlin Griffith

After my first couple of years buying for the wine list, I’m pulling back. I want to learn more about the classics. How do I approach the classics within the Sepia philosophy? I’m looking for off-the-beaten-path but classic wines. For example, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is known for red wine, but I’m looking at the whites instead—the ugly stepchild of classics.

Franc Focus
I wish people would drink more from the Loire. Cabernet franc is misunderstood, always in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon. Last fall I ended up pouring Couly-Dutheil Clos de l’Echo, and it was the most popular glass pour for six months. Who knew that could happen with a 2002 from Chinon?

Dress for Success
I don’t know if I’m the sharpest dresser, but if you look like you know something and dress like it, people will believe you more. Just believe in yourself and project that, then guests will listen to you and you can sell the bottle you want them to drink.

Stocked for Dinner Parties
Schloss Gobelsburg Brut Reserve. People expect Champagne, but this is Austrian sparkling wine done really well. I always have it in my fridge.

It is not the discovery of new regions for me, but seeing what regions have done and how regions have progressed. Chile is a place I’m excited about. There is more and more diversity coming from the north and the south of Chile. It is a little bit undiscovered and gets a bad rap coming from South America, but there is some really exciting pinot noir and carignan, especially.

Valuing Underdogs
Austria and Germany will always be my favorites. Both have extensive selections of red and white grapes and the environments are so beautiful. I love dry riesling and have a soft spot for off-dry versions. A few years of aging transforms them—they’re no longer a sweet style of wine anymore.

And Portugal—Portugal bridges the Old World and the New World. So many younger producers, and Vinho Verdes, Ports and fantastic dry reds from Alentejo. Some of my focus is on sparkling wines and the Bieras region. Baga is one of my favorites and everyone loves Luis Pato. Alicante bouschet, aragones…

Final Thought
Pay attention. Everything you do is in the little things.

Lulu McAlliste, Nopa & Liholiho Yacht Club, SF

Nopa has always been one of SF’s most interesting wine lists, originally crafted by Chris Deegan. When he stepped away Lulu had some very big shoes to fill. No doubt she has done the job and more! Nopa is easily one of the most exciting places to drink in San Francisco, due largely to the hard work of Lulu.

—Bobby Conroy, Benu
Lulu McAllister jump-started her relationship with serious wine earlier than most. When she was 18, the Massachusetts native moved north from her adopted home of San Diego to attend a yearlong California Culinary Academy program. She stayed with an uncle in Tiburon. With their opposite schedules, they’d rarely connect, but she would leave him the leftover pastries and treats she made at school, and in turn, he’d leave her the leftover wine from the bottles he was drinking, complete with a log of his impressions. Lucky for McAllister, his tastes tended toward white Burgundy and Champagne.

Still, McAllister decided to pursue a career outside of the food world. She majored in media studies at the University of San Francisco, and later moved to Austin, where she wrote about music for Performer Magazine and XLR8R. In 2010, though, she landed a part-time tasting room job at Bending Branch Winery in the Texas Hill Country, and pretty soon she was focusing more on wine than music. She decided to move back to California to study wine at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Aside from a stint at Tiburon’s Waypoint Pizza, she’d never worked in restaurants. Yet she set her sights on Nopa, the San Francisco farm-to-table bastion and late-night industry hangout where she’d enjoyed many a meal during college. While at the CIA, for an assignment, she actually dissected the Nopa list. “I found it flawless,” she recalls. “It was everything that speaks to me, my favorite Champagne by the glass, a great half-bottle program…” She convinced them to hire her as a hostess when she graduated.

A year later, longtime wine director Chris Deegan left—and she suddenly found herself directing the wine program. She quickly made it her own, instituting, for example, festive Magnum Mondays, often featuring local winemakers pouring their own juice out of large formats, while keeping the wine list stocked with the kinds of bottles that tend to make Nopa a darling of fellow sommeliers: grower Champagne, Jura, great Sherry, plenty of cru Beaujolais and up-and-coming California producers like Onward, Jolie-Laide and Arbe Garbe. This year, she helped the Nopa team open Lihiliho Yacht Club, chef Ravi Kapur’s Hawaiian-inflected standout, one of our 2015 New & Notable Restaurants. You’ll now often find her over there as well, taming the heat of Kapur’s spicy beef rib with chenin or Spätlese riesling. —Luke Sykora

Past Lives
I had an ice-cream-sandwich cart one summer with a friend of mine, in 2009 in San Diego. San Diego wasn’t quite ready for the whole mobile food thing on any scale. We wanted to do things like a basil ice cream, or more seasonal fruit-driven and even savory flavors. We got as far as doing a cherry-and-snickerdoodle flavor, and that ended up being the most exotic we could get away with. We were called the Cream Queenz.

The Breakfast Chef
When I first started with Nopa I had this little miniseries called Breakfasts with Lulu [on Nopalize, Nopa’s blog]. The idea was interviewing different staff members about their morning routine. In this industry, you have the morning to yourself and that’s when you have your most elaborate meal. There’s a killer pancake recipe from one of our former employees, Kitty.

SF Haunts
One that’s very dear to me is Heirloom Café. I’ve gone there for my birthday for the last three years now, and I think Matt Strauss, the owner, has an amazing wine list, with a great sense of balance and a lot of vintages of some of my favorite producers.

I do like Hayes Street Grill. When I first moved to the city in 2004, I grabbed [food writer] Patricia Unterman’s recommendations for where to eat—Eater and all of those things didn’t exist yet. Her restaurant is still one of my favorite places for great seafood. I’ll have an Arnold Palmer if it’s during the day, with sanddabs if they’re in season. Having grown up in the fishing town of Ipswich, Massachusetts—which is known for its clams—it reminds me of the seafood dishes I might have had as a child. Honest, simple food.

Sake at Liho
Having sake to play with has really extended my creativity. Adjusting to sake is a long process, because there are so many styles out there. I’m still gravitating toward higher-acid styles. There’s one called Kinka—Gold Blossom—a nama sake from Tedorigawa. It has a beautiful florality to it that makes it a good stand-in for riesling. We have a halibut crudo with cucumbers and melons, and just a bit of heat—that’s a beautiful pairing with that dish.

The Next Frontier
I’m going to Greece in autumn. [Greek wine] remains such an amazing steal: The quality’s going up, but the prices remain consistently lower than most European wines. The ones I have liked are both ageworthy and good upon release. I love Gentilini’s robola [from Cephalonia]. I’m going to visit them. Ktima Foundi’s xinomavro—they’re still on the 2006 vintage. The day they go to 2007, I won’t be ready for it. Aged xinomavro drinks like nebbiolo, but for half the price. I’ve been trying some aged assyrtiko from Santorini, which has been fun; it’s amazing how that wine holds up.

A California Jam
I love the Ryme vermentinos, “His” and “Hers.” His has more skin contact, Hers is a cleaner, leaner style, and both of them are delicious. I love how experimental some of the newer producers are right now in California—they’re really redefining the possibilities here.

Jack Mason, MS, Marta, NYC

Jack cares and cares and puts in the time. I have never witnessed someone who combined so much focus with so much easy likeability.
—Levi Dalton, I’ll Drink to That!
“My parents drank magnums of Yellowtail,” Jack Mason, MS, recalls. “They let me have a little sip every once in a while.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what drove Mason to leave College Station, Texas, for the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. He wanted to cook. The son of an Air Force major, Mason hadn’t even considered a career in wine until he took a wine class, required for his associate degree, with Stephen Kolpan. “I asked if I could come back and taste with the other classes,” Mason says. “There was so much I wanted to know—so many factors in a wine that can create a great dining experience.” He went on to complete his bachelor’s degree at the Cornell Hotel School, where he met Greg Harrington, MS, a graduate who’d come back to talk to the class. Harrington suggested Mason get on the Court of Master Sommeliers’ exam track.

“When I turned 21, I took the Introductory and Certified back to back,” Mason says. “So I decided to do the Advanced and passed a year later, in Houston.” He had moved back to Texas to live with his future fiancé, and took a job at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse; he was there when he took his MS exam for the first time. Then he moved to New York City to work with the Alta Marea group at Costata, moving through Ai Fiori and Marea, before heading to Aspen to take the exam again, and pass. On his way, the soon-to-be MS stopped in at the home office of Union Square Hospitality Group, where John Ragan was hosting a study-group tasting.

“He said, ‘Hey, by the way, we’re opening up this new, fun concept and we’re really excited about it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s cool.’ When I came back from the exam, they had posted an opening for a wine director at a new USHG site. I’m friends with Jeff Kellogg, at Maialino, so I asked him if he thought I should interview for this. He said, ‘Yeah. Duh.’” When Ragan got Mason’s application, he immediately called him in for a meeting with Terry Coughlin and chef Nick Anderer, the managing partners of the new wood-oven pizza restaurant, Marta, in the Martha Washington Hotel.

Mason started in his first wine director role in July 2014, building a list from scratch. He was 26 at the time. —Joshua Greene

Jump-Shift Wine
We tasted a Vouvray in Stephen Kolpan’s class. I don’t remember the producer, but I remember that wine. It was structurally different from things I’d tasted before. It had the sensation of there being sugar, but it was also refreshing at the same time. I thought, this is a cool wine.

Italian Virgin
The summer before I graduated from Cornell, I won a Banfi scholarship. It was the first time I’d been to Europe, the first time to Italy. They took us not just to Tuscany and to Piedmont, but also to Rome. They made it a food and wine trip, a cultural trip. We’re going to a Parmigiano factory; we’re going to see balsamic [vinegar] being made. We got to see the whole picture.

From One Young Somm to Another
I worked with Drew Hendricks at Pappas and he told me, “Don’t ever get too geeky. We’re there to help people out and create an experience. Having lots of wine knowledge is helpful, but don’t get too tied up with the clones of torrontés.” I had just graduated and I was super-interested in the clones of torrontés. Drew kept me in check.

In Martha Washington’s Cellar
We have 9,000 bottles in a space that’s twelve by twenty six feet. Four sommeliers; I don’t know how many SKUs. From July 28 to September 10, when we opened last year, I was meeting people, tasting at the home office on Union Square, putting together a list and putting systems in place, working closely with John Ragan. I would have loved for this to be Lockwood shelving—the most space efficient—but we didn’t have that sort of money. We went with metro shelving, the next best thing.

55 Champagnes
I love Champagne and I think it goes really well with pizza. It’s a really refreshing pairing, even if it’s not something that comes to mind first. I wanted to have a fun Champagne list and make it affordable—to offer it at a lower price-point and get people into it. When we were opening, Danny [Meyer, CEO of USHG] likes to look at things and I heard through John Ragan that Danny said, “What’s up with all the Champagne at a pizza place?” It turned out to be a fun thing.

Recent Surprise
I’ve been opening a lot of 1996 Champagne that’s oxidized, more than I want it to be. So when I opened a 1998 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, I went in with the expectation that it would be oxidized. I always thought the wines were good, but this bottle was exceptionally fresh and well balanced. It was really, really good.

Barolo of a Certain Age
People are going to walk into an Italian restaurant and expect Barolo. What you might notice is that all of our Barolo are around ten years old. If we’re going to have aggressive nebbiolo tannins, let’s have some wine with some age on it so the tannins soften up. Most of the old stuff started with Rocche del Manzoni out of USHG. The rest I’ve found at auction. As we’ve grown, I’ve had more time to balance and slowly build the list.

Jack comes across with this innocent schoolboy thing, but he’s brilliant—an insanely talented guy. —Greg Harrington, MS, Gramercy Cellars

The Grind
Studying theory, how you rote memorize things, is unique to everyone. I’m not a flashcard guy. I focused first on what to study—looking at all the knowledge and whittling it down to the most important pieces of each region, the most important producers, the things that matter. I was living in the Bronx at the time and working in SoHo—an hour subway ride. I would write everything in a notebook, then rewrote that notebook, then studied that notebook for hours a day.

Cooking with my friends and family. I love to cook everything: what’s fresh, what’s in the store. This weekend we brought it back to Texas and made fajitas, guacamole, queso—it’s the Velveeta with RoTel, but I don’t open a can, I make all the vegetables fresh, and then I use Velveeta, the stuff out of a nuclear reactor.

Favorite Corkscrew
Someone gave me a Code38, so I have that. But mostly I have a bunch of Pulltaps all over the place that I just grab.

I love the question, “What are you excited about? What’s new? What should I have with this?” I love it when people say, “Here’s what I drink, but I want to try something different from that.” Most of the time, people are looking for red wine. Right now, I really love the wines from Etna. Passopisciaro did a library release and we got some 2007s that are in a really good place. We have some I Custodi—also 2007—that are more structured.

Post-Shift Drink
Champagne. Literally, every night at Marta, the chefs and front-of-house managers come down and we share a glass of Champagne as we’re decompressing and buttoning up for the night.

photo of Kimberly Livingston-Prokoshyn by Evan Sung; Arthur Hon by David Turner.

This feature appears in the print edition of October 2015.
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