Washington State wine, day 1

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So, the first full day of my adventures on the Washington Wine route has ended. I’m travelling with a jolly band – Richard Hemming, Treve Ring and Kate Sweet, and we have a full itinerary that should allow us to get a real feel for this region. We began in the city, and nearby Woodinville, which is where a lot of wineries are located. But all (or 99%) the vineyards are three hours’ drive east over the Cascade Mountains, in the Columbia Valley. The climate there is much more conducive to wine growing, but the people are over on this side, hence the location of many of the wineries.

We had dinner on Wednesday night at RN74 with Steve Griessel, owner of Betz. These are dense, impressive, modern wines. I was particularly taken by the Pere de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, which is from a cooler vintage. There’s no shortage of richness and warmth in Washington wines, because the growing season – while a little compressed – is typically quite warm.

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Thursday was Woodinville time. We began at the large Gallo-owned Columbia Winery (above), which is one of the oldest and largest of the Washington State wineries. As you’d expect, clean, modern wines at very reasonable prices, and a really nice visitor center.

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Next up: lunch with the larger-than-life Chris Upchurch at DeLille. Chris rocks up wearing a Seattle Sounders football (soccer) shirt, and is full of chat. ‘I have a brevity problem,’ he reveals, showing admirable self-awareness. His wines are critically lauded in the US, and I was really impressed with the dense but focused Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from the Red Mountain AVA.

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Then we visited two brilliant boutique producers in the Woodenville Warehouse district: neighbours with small facilities making very interesting wines. First, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners. ‘We work with extraordinary growers and extraordinary sites,’ says Jeff, ‘and I want to champion these places, usually through the lens of Syrah.

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Jeff makes a very good Gruner Veltliner, but it’s his Syrahs that are just so expressive, elegant and beautiful. By day he’s wine director at RN74, but the way he’s going with the small winery he’s built up, I reckon he’ll be one of the Washington State stars of the future.

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Then it was off to see neighbour Michael Savage. An ex-music industry guy with a love for analog recording and play back, he’s humble and a bit geeky, and clearly a very talented winemaker. His Savage Grace wines are lovely, and include a Gruner Veltliner, a nuanced Chardonnay, expressive Loire-style Sauvignon and a beautifully vivid, drinkable Cabernet Franc.

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Then it was off to the state’s big player, Chateau Ste Michelle. We had a tasting of select group of wines from their portfolio with winemaker Bob Bertheau. I found the wines very well made and polished, but perhaps a little too sweet and ripe for my tastes. But I accept I am not their target market. I did like the Eroica Riesling 2013, though, which is really detailed and fine, and much better than it used to be a decade ago.

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Finally, dinner at Wild Ginger – an excellent Asian small plates joint in the city – with the quirky Chris Camarda of Andrew Will. These wines are just so good: Bordeaux-style blends with sensible alcohol levels and lovely focused fruit. Chris told us how he thought lots of the state’s reds had lost their way with high alcohol and ripeness. He’s a big fan of Cabernet Franc in Washington State. I was particularly impressed by the wines he’s making from his own Two Blondes vineyard in Yakima. Interestingly Chris is another huge music fan, and a big collector of vinyl. It was a good end to the first day.

Artificial intelligence, perception and wine

Part of the wine list, RN74, Seattle

Part of the wine list, RN74, Seattle

I’m on the road again. This time visiting Washington State wineries. Did you know that Washington State is the USA’s second largest wine state, with 20 000 hectares of vines, about double the size of Oregon, and one-fifth the vineyard area of South Africa? I shall be looking for stories, interesting people, worthy patches of terroir and great wines.

But first, some slightly jet-lagged considerations on the nature of consciousness and perception. On the flight over to Seattle I watched Ex Machina, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Smart and disturbing in equal measure, it explores the concept of artificial intelligence. It raises a lot of questions.

Is this related to wine? Well, wine tasting is a perceptual process that involves a lot of senses, and consciousness plays a role.

In ExMachina, Caleb, a smart young employee of a Google-like organization is selected to spend a week in a remote hide-away location that’s home to the scary genius who is the founder of the said organization, Nathan. Nathan has brought Caleb here to be the human component in a Turing test to assess whether his latest AI, the stunningly beautiful Ava, possesses intelligence to the level that it can’t be distinguished from that of a human.

So, the questions this film has got me asking are several.

First of all, I’m curious about the central role of language in perception. It is through naming objects and learning about the usual and expected behaviours of these objects that we are able to begin to understand the world around us. We manipulate the world through recognizing and picking out the features of the visual world around us in the form of objects. It is a quick way to compute our environment, because for us to function and survive, we need to be able to process what is around us in milliseconds.

Language seems to be hard wired. We are born with a capacity to acquire it: the structures are all there, it seems, and the actual language we use is the bit the environment provides. Language is fundamental to being human, because we are social beings, and the reason we have these big brains is likely because we need them to compute the really difficult stuff: keeping track of our social relationships, which are fundamental to our success and survival. But to what extent does the specific language we use to think and converse with shape our perception? Does the vocabulary we have shape our experience of the world, to a degree? Does a French speaker see the world slightly different to someone who thinks and speaks English, even though the languages are closely related?

Another thing language does is to permit the oral and written traditions that form the narrative for people-groups. The stories we take on board tell us who we are, where we fit into the world, how we are required to respond and behave, and many other factors that shape our interaction with, and perception of, the world around us.

Language, and this related concept of narrative, are crucial in terms of how we understand wine. Wine on its own is a liquid. It contains chemicals, some of which have tastes and smells. But wine is so much more than a liquid with flavour. And flavour itself is not a result of us merely perceiving these chemicals, but is itself influenced by stuff we bring to the tasting experience, even without us being aware of it.

So, what about consciousness? Is it possible to create an AI with consciousness, as in Ava in Ex Machina? Can a machine have theory of mind? I guess the first step in creating an AI that might be able to do this would be to understand how we do it: what is the neural basis of consciousness? Can it be understood with reductionist approaches? As far as I know, these questions haven’t been answered properly by scientists, so this remains a block for AI.

What am I doing as I am conscious? What is going on? I think that an important perspective here is that sensation is a unity. We tend to break down perception into separate senses, but in truth my conscious experience isn’t modular like this. I experience a seamless, unified perception that involves all senses, plus my memory, plus my internal state, plus the thoughts that come to mind, some verbalized, some not. There’s also the issue of attention: what do I choose to focus my perception on? Some of this is more-or-less automatic; some is under my conscious control. So in one sense, I could say that consciousness is the unity of my sensation.

So, a thought. Would a true AI have a consciousness that comes from experiencing the world through these unified sensations? Could you have true AI just from the processing of words and ideas, or would the experience of the world across a number of sensory modalities, coupled with memory, be needed? Would you have to create an AI with certain hardwired mental modules (just as we are born with) that are then informed by experience of the world? In this sense, perhaps it would be necessary for the AI to start off like a baby, and then grow up, for it to have something that would resemble human consciousness.

Humans are remarkable. In some ways it is reassuring that being human is something that we have, as yet, found too hard to mimic convincingly with a machine.

Penfolds Bin 707 1993

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This is a wine I bought back in the 1990s from a UK supermarket for around £16 (it was on offer). How times have changed! Current releases are super-expensive. This isn’t supposed to be a great year for Bin 707, but it has aged very nicely, shedding the new American oak it was raised in, and revealing a core of dark fruits. The 1993 Bin 707 is Coonawarra Cabernet blended with bits from Padthaway and Adelaide Hills. According to the Penfolds website, peak drinking period finished in 2010, but they may wish to revisit this!

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 South Australia
13.5% alcohol. Lovely sweet, smooth blackcurrant fruit with a bit of gravelly grip. It’s perfumed and open with sweetly expressive fruit, leading to a slightly grippy palate with subtle notes of warm herbs and mint. There’s a supple texture here as well as some tannic grip, and it’s a really attractive expression of Cabernet Sauvignon that may well develop further. Dense and full. 94/100

 

The 2013 Craggy Range Prestige wines: Le Sol, Sophia and Aroha

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These are three remarkable wines. Craggy Range are very excited about the 2013 vintage in these two regions, and on tasting these wines it’s easy to show why. ‘In 2013 we felt it was the first time we had really seen the true potential of our great estates in Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough,’ says winemaker Matt Stafford.

I followed all three wines over the course of a few days, and so I felt I got to know them a bit. They are remarkable, and will improve with age, especially the Sophia, which is a 20 year wine. Interestingly, all three are cork-sealed. Is this because they will taste better in time under cork than under screwcap? Or is it because of market acceptance outside New Zealand? I suspect it is a bit of both, weighted more to the latter option.

Craggy Range Sophia 2013 Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
This is a Bordeaux-style blend with 62% merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. Yield 48 hl/ha, inoculated, aged 19 months in French oak, 42% new. 13.8% alcohol. Beautifully perfumed nose of floral red cherries, plums and blackcurrant, with a subtle fine spiciness. The palate has superbly balanced sweet cherries and black fruits. It has presence and concentration but it’s also quite understated, with fine-grained tannins and a fresh, dynamic personality. So fine, this has massive potential. 95/100

Craggy Range Le Sol 2013 Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand
Varietal Syrah, 55 hl/ha, destemmed, mix of inoculated and wild ferment, aged in French oak for 18 months, 32% new. 13.1% alcohol. Brooding sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit nose with some fine peppery notes in the background. Sweetly aromatic and quite fresh. The palate shows sweet fruit, a taut presence and stylish spicy notes, together with a bit of pepper and well handled oak. A superb effort that on day 2 picks up some intensity and fleshiness. An exciting wine. 94/100

Craggy Range Aroha Pinot Noir 2013 Martinborough, New Zealand
Yield 29 hl/ha, 40% whole bunch, wild yeast, aged 11 months in French oak, 32% new, 13.4% alcohol. Fine and fresh with sweet, spicy blackberry, fine herb and cinnamon on the nose. Detailed with just a hint of undergrowth. Silky but structured palate with fine plums, red cherries, blackberries and spice. Nice structural detail here with some non-fruit complexity. This will develop into a warm, spicy maturity, I reckon. 95/100

Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

Quinta do Noval 2013 Vintage Port

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Don’t you just love eccentric declarations? We’re talking Vintage Port here. It used to be so solemn and predictable: three declarations a decade, from the very best years, agreed in a gentlemanly fashion over a long lunch at the Factory House (or, at least, that’s how it seems from the outside). Now Quinta do Noval have gone and done the unthinkable. Three declarations in a row for the first time ever.

This time, it’s the 2013 (read about the 2012 here). It was looking very good, but there was some harvest rain. Some of the plots at Noval were picked before the rain, and they were very much in the Noval style, so Christian Seely was happy to release 1200 cases, which is a small proportion of what could have been released, because it met with his quality and style threshold. And it’s a very fine Vintage Port indeed, and will age gracefully into an elegant maturity.

Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2013 Douro, Portugal
Sweet, intense blackberry and cherry nose is quite floral with some raspberry jam notes. The palate is really pretty and elegant with firm tannins under the bright cherry and berry fruit. It is more red fruits than black, and it has a fine spiciness. Fresh, showing great potential. An elegant, Burgundian expression of Port. 94/100

Find this wine with wine-searcher.com

 

Three from South Africa

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Had three interesting South African wines last night. Here are my notes. Two were served blind (Cartology and Blank Bottle).

Cartology 2013 Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of Chenin Blanc plus a bit of Semillon, from old bush vines. This is richly textured with a bit of spice and lovely bold pear fruit. It’s a generous yet fresh white with pear and ripe apple, showing good definition of flavour. Will develop nicely. 93/100

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Pieter Walser is making some very interesting wines under the Blank Bottle label. Currently he harvests 50 tons from 35 different vineyards, producing a bewildering array of wines with unique and distinct labels. This wine is a blend of Carignan, Grenache noir and Mourvedre from the west side of the Swartland. It’s just 97 Rand in South Africa, which is about 6 of our English pounds!

Blank Bottle The Original Spaniard 2013 Swartland, South Africa
Bright, sweet and juicy with cherries, plums and berry fruits. Quite smooth and has some silky elegance, as well as a bit of fine leafy sappiness. Lovely focus here. 93/100

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Kershaw Elgin Syrah 2012 South Africa
Sweet, bright and juicy with cherry and berry fruit, as well as some spiciness. It’s quite warm and spicy with a reductive edge to the cherry fruit. Supple and vivid with nice freshness and a bit of grip. Give it more time to harmonize? 91/100

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Video: Cockburn's Port Bicentenary Tasting

Here’s a film from the recent Cockburn’s Port Bicentenary tasting, held in London. It involved a range of Ports from Cockburn’s glory days to the present day, including a couple of rare pre-phylloxera bottles. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s in 2006 and their aim is to restore this Port house – which for a long time produced the most expensive and sought after Vintage Ports of all – to its former glories. A full write up, including notes on all the wines, can be found here. Because of the rarity of these wines, a tasting of this scale and depth will never happen again. It was an honour to be part of it.

A taste of the Barossa, back to 1967

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A lovely tasting this afternoon at Philglas & Swiggot in Battersea. It was an interesting set of Barossa wines, presented by James March of the Barossa Wine and Grape Association, spanning the 1960s to the current day.

This tasting reminded me why I fell in love with the Barossa when I first discovered wine in the early 1990s (here’s my first ever wine region visit report, back in 1996, the early days of the internet). These are proper wines, with real interest and complexity.

Shobbrook Didier Grenache 2014 Barossa, Australia
Pale-ish colour. This has a truly beautiful nose that’s warm, floral and peppery with notes of red cherries and rose hip, with a hint of herbs. The palate is sweet, silky and enticing with lovely red cherries. So supple and sweet with finesse and elegance. 94/100

Ruggabellus Archaeus 2009 Barossa, Australia
Debut vintage from Abel Gibson, and it’s showing so well. Fresh and elegant with hints of tar and spice. Nice dense blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with a bit of grip. So fresh and stylish with lovely balance. 94/100

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Cirillo Estate 1850 Grenache 2010 Barossa, Australia
Produced from the oldest Grenache vines in the world, which records indicate may have been planted in 1848. The label claims 1850. This is in Vine Vale, on soils as sandy as a beach. Warm, spicy and slightly peppery red fruits nose. Sweet, supple, detailed palate with nice spiciness and some pepper notes. There’s also a subtle hint of mint. This has structure and focus and it’s lovely. 93/100

Cirillo Estate Mataro 2012 Barossa, Australia
Old vine Mourvèdre (aka Mataro). Fresh, supple and bright with nice red cherry and plum fruit with subtle spices. Very fresh, elegant and well balanced with pure, juicy, direct fruit and real finesse. 94/100

Spinifex Bête Noir Shiraz 2013 Barossa, Australia
Superbly confident with silky, pure blackberry and black cherry fruit. Supple and fleshy with generosity and also focus. Great definition to this ripe wine. 93/100

Rockford

Rockford Rifle Range Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Barossa, Australia
Super-impressed with this. Refined blackcurrant nose with some spicy, gravelly freshness. Very pure and textured with fresh blackcurrant fruit on the palate and great definition. 94/100

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 2006 Barossa, Australia
Sweet, warm, spicy and subtly tarry, with some floral notes on the nose. The palate has a leathery edge to the sweet, generous, nicely framed blackberry and black cherry fruit with some red berry notes. Open and stylish. 94/100

Rockford Basket Press Shiraz 1996 Barossa, Australia
Warm, sweet, open and slightly herby. Open and interesting with hints of tar and mint. Concentrated and sweetly fruited on the palate with lovely spicy detail. Lovely stuff. 95/100

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Charles Melton Nine Popes 1998 Barossa, Australia
Leather, herbs, black cherries and spice on the nose with some warm fudgey notes. Linear, pure and direct blackberry and black cherry fruit with some spiciness. This wine has developed really nicely and shows beautiful complexity. 95/100

Charles Melton Nine Popes 1999 Barossa, Australia
Warm, open spicy nose is sweet and earthy. The palate is warm, herby and spicy with lovely detailed peppery, herby, spicy notes. Has evolved well. 93/100

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St Hallett Old Block Shiraz 1992 Barossa, Australia
13.5% alcohol. Supple, warm and elegant with fine red cherry fruit and a bit of dusty spiciness. Nice peppery notes here to this elegant wine. This is very fine and has evolved beautifully. 95/100

Saltram Marme Brook Cabernet Shiraz 1967 Barossa, Australia
Hints of mint, spice and dried herbs on the nose, with some red cherries, too. The palate is fresh and detailed, showing lovely purity for an old wine and a bit of spiciness, as well as pepper notes. There’s a sort of weightlessness to this wine – it’s so elegant. 95/100

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Saltram Bin 51 ‘Claret’ 1968 Barossa, Australia
This is a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Tokay. Minty, spicy hints to the nose. Sweet and vivid with some spicy presence on the palate. Juicy and quite delicious, with a bit of structure to the berry fruits that remain, this is really stylish. Has angles. 94/100

Saltram Bin 54 ‘Burgundy’ 1969 Barossa, Australia
Pale-ish colour with a hint of brown. Sweet, slightly malty nose with a bit of herb and earth. But it is on the palate that this wine shines. It has lovely texture with a pure, warm, smooth mouthfeel, and it still has some red fruit character. Amazing spicy finesse: this is quite ethereal and really beautiful. 96/100

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Cricket, a five-for and a Vinteloper

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Played wine trade cricket today. First game of the season, versus Fullers, at Chiswick Park. It’s such a pretty ground, quintessentially English and fringed with trees. The only problem: retrieving balls that have been dispatched past the boundary. Most significantly, this was veteran Wine Trade and Fullers cricketer Mark Dally’s final game before retirement. A Fullers man, he turns captains their team in this fixture, even though he’s more regularly turning out for us, so it’s a nice chance to play against him for a change. I hope we gave him a good send-off!

Our team were batting first, and for someone who bowls and bats down the order (no 11 today), that means quite a bit of sitting around engaging in banter with teammates.

We did OK, putting on 219 runs from 38 of our 40 overs. That we didn’t use up the allocation is partly my fault. I came in with four overs to play, biffed a couple of twos and then got bowled. I felt for Dave Bowley, guest player over from South Australia. His wine label is Vinteloper. He is a good player who hasn’t played for a decade. He dispatched his first ball for 4, and then was run out: he called the batsman at the other end through, but said batsman changed his mind and ran Dave out. Poor show! And he only got to bowl once the game was pretty much decided.

David Bowley, Vinteloper

David Bowley, Vinteloper

Normally Fullers beat us, so we reckoned this was just a par score. It was the our turn to bowl. I took second over, and both Murray (opening at the other end, a proper opening bowler, unlike me) and I were a little wayward and our first couple of overs each were expensive. But then I began finding my length, and moving the ball a bit, and it just clicked. From my eight overs I dismissed five of the top six batsmen, 3 bowled 2 caught, and finished with figures of 8-0-43-5. The first five-for I have had. Thrilling! Possibly the moment of the game, however, was a remarkable one-handed caught and bowled by Christo Elliot-Lockhart, who just plucked a rapidly moving ball from above his head.

We ended up winning by just over 100 runs, and then enjoyed a quick drink. Dave had brought along one of his wines: a blend of Touriga Nacional plus a bit if Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Barbera. It was delicious.

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Vinteloper A/13 Adelo 2013 Langhorne Creek McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Sweet rich dense and powerful, with a lovely core of raspberry, blackberry and black cherry fruit, as well as some fine creamy notes. Very rich but well defined with fine spicy notes. Showing lovely intensity and balance, this is bold, juicy and delicious. 91/100 (£17.99 Red Squirrel Wine)

RAW and the London Wine Fair

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I am almost overwhelmed. Since Thursday, I have been tasting almost continually. And two events in particular – the RAW fair on Sunday (above) and Monday, and the London Wine Fair on Monday through to today (below) – have been particularly intensive.

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There is just so much wine in the world. That’s clearly a good thing. But the complicating thing is that the scale of wine production is quite small. Wine is best made by families, working on small, manageable properties of a few to several dozen hectares. Beyond this, it’s difficult to make great wine.

Adi Badenhorst and Duncan Savage (I think he's kneeling)

Adi Badenhorst and Duncan Savage (I think he’s kneeling)

This is because wine is complicated. It relies on the right grapes, planted in the right place, tended with care, then – after picking at the perfect moment – being guided through the winemaking process skilfully. There is no recipe. Great wine is the product of a place, interpreted well by the right people.

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Susan and Michael Grant of La Petraia, Tuscany

The result? Thousands – or tens of thousands – of different wines in the market place. A bewildering array, ill suited to modern channels of distribution. As a wine writer, I can’t hope to know everything. I just have to content myself with telling some of the stories, and covering some of the wines.

Larry Cherubino

Larry Cherubino

Above all, this diversity of wine teaches us all to be humble in the face of wine. We are all students. There is no room for ‘experts’.

The RAW fair was quite remarkable, with an amazing array of wines. The subset I tried led to many surprises, and I came away energized. Yes, this is why I fell in love with wine!

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The London Wine Fair is clearly more commercial in its scope, but it has brilliantly reinvented itself over the last couple of years. In the lovely setting of Olympia, it has lots to interest the wine geek these days – something that wasn’t always true in the past. There’s the great Esoterica selection, the undiscovered Wines Unearthed, and the high-end View Tastings. These are great innovations.

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I found lots of stories in my 2.5 days spent here, and I could have found more, I am sure. It’s so exciting to be exposed to so many great wines, but there’s also a sense of regret that in this sort of timescale you can only really scratch the surface.

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South African Vermouth from Adi

South African Vermouth from Adi