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Organic Wines

“Brett” is no taboo for Cain in Napa Valley.

I recently had the privilege of staying up at Cain vineyard and winery, on Spring Mountain, in Napa Valley. From an elevation of 2100 feet, the views were spectacular, overlooking Howell Mountain, Pritchard Hill, southern Napa, and Cain’s 140,000 vines. It’s a far different perspective than that of the tourists experience on highway 29; surrounded by nature, quiet, and without any pomp and circumstance.

I spent three hours with J.J. (the operations manager), and met the associate winemaker, François, along the way. We were able to try all three of their current releases, the “Cain Cuvée N.V. 12”, the 2008 “Cain Concept”, and the 2012 “Cain Five”. J.J. also broke out a crown jewel of a wine, in the 2006 “Cain Five”. All the wines were superb. One thing that stands out about Cain (relative to Napa wines, in general) is that they all have an earthiness that’s reminiscent of Bordeaux. They still have the lovely California fruit, but there’s a common thread about all these wines, that I’ve loved from Cain over the years.

During my visit, we were able to check out the cellar, a vast, air conditioned hall, containing myriad barrels of different shapes and sizes. What I found out was fascinating. The cellar contains Brettanomyces, a yeast strain that affects the bouquet and palate of wine. “Brett” occurs naturally, forming on the skins of fruit, then later marrying with the juice, and feeding off the sugars in new oak barrels, as the wine ages. It can have a wide range of effects on wine, from an orange citrus / cranberry note to leather, tanned leather, and even a barnyard-like quality.

To some, this may sound off-putting. Merryvale winery, in Napa, spent millions ridding themselves of their “spoiled” barrels, worried that they might fall out of favor with certain wine publications. But to those of us that love the earthy component in our wine, “Brett” can have a balancing component to the lush fruit that California terrior evokes. Cain embraces this concept. In fact, it is a part of the winemaking process that fascinates them.

There’s a mystery here, though. When speaking with the very people that have been working with “Brett” for years, they don’t know how to predict it. They can tell you that two out of every three vintages of “Cain Five” (2012 has notes of floral citrus and tanned leather) have it. “Cain Five” contains only estate fruit (where “Cain Concept” is all purchased fruit, and “Cain Cuvée” is a blend of estate and purchased), and “Brett” is definitely present regularly in some of their vineyard blocks that make up “Cain Five”. But it doesn’t show up in the wine every year. Ultimately Mother Nature decides when “Brett” will make an appearance. The most fascinating part of this is that, even though all three wines rotate and share oak barrels (“Brett” can be passed through oak), it shows up in the “Cain Cuvée” and “Cain Concept” a lot less frequently. It is in these mysteries that wine continues to captivate those of us who love it.

Let me know if you’d like to visit Cain for a tasting. I’ll connect you.

Current Cain releases:
Cain Cuvee NV12
A blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, with 60% from the 2012 vintage and 40% from the 2011 vintage. Notes of coffee, leather, moss, licorice, minerals, blackberry liqueur, black tea, sage, and lavender. Dry finish, with firm tannins, balanced acid, and a Campari finish.

Cain Concept 2008, the Benchland, Napa Valley
“Concept”, meaning, in the style of the great 70’s Mayacamas wines of Napa. A blend of the “who’s who” of Napa Valley vineyards, including George III, Tokalon, Missouri Hopper, Stanton, and Morisoli. Nose of spice, leather, bramble, and blackberry lemonade. Round, and silky texture. Vibrant acid, and a chocolaty finish.

Cain Five 2012, Estate
A blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All estate fruit (see the photo for this spectacular view!). Nose of violet, “Sen Sen” candy (back in the day, you’d pop these after leaving the bar to “freshen the breath”!), citrus/floral, tanned leather, brandied cherries, black cherry, toffee / coffee, and pine. On the palate, chocolatey / silky tannins, rich body, mocha, and structured. Try is with grilled ribeye and cippolini onions.

And if you are lucky enough:
Cain Five 2006, Estate
A similar blend to that of the 2012 vintage. As with all wine that ages, the palate is much more integrated, and a bit rounder around the edges than the 2012. Nose of minerals, pencil lead, barnyard, blueberry, black tea, exotic spices, black cherry, sage, citrus/violet, umami, and plum. Still plenty of tannins on the palate, with a well integrated body, and transcendent finish. Try this with beef tenderloin, sauteed mushrooms, and turnips.

We can never know everything about wine. Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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Verdad Winemaker Louisa Sawyer Lindquist Grabs Back

“I once asked a friend of mine, who came back from France, to describe a famous winemaker in the Cornas region of Rhone. They said, ‘you know, kinda earthy, a little bit of brettanomyces!’”  

– Louisa Sawyer Lindquist

Louisa Sawyer Lindquist has been making wine for her label, Verdad, since 2000.  She has been involved in the wine business since the 80’s, and has known her destiny as a winemaker since the age of 18.  She is modest, an artist, and knows the business well.  She’s self critical, yet proud, and very clear about her vision.  Her wines have a beautiful femininity;  vibrant acid, flowery nose, earthy / minerally complexity, that pair well with food.  Louisa follows in a line of pioneer women in the industry; Heidi Peterson Barrett, Milla Handley, Merry Edwards, Kris Curran, and Carol Shelton, to name a few.  I really value the female perspective in the wine business, and find that my palate is moving towards feminine wines.

Louisa, along with her husband, Qupé winemaker, Bob Lindquist, were the first to convert pasture land into biodynamic vineyards, in California, in 2004-5.  The wine industry is leading the organic / biodynamic charge in agriculture, and I can really taste the vibrancy and life in these wines.  Verdad’s wines are no exception.  The focus is on Spanish varietals, Albarino, Garnacha, and Tempranillo, with a some rosé as well.  She had me at Albarino!

Her Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in Edna Valley is really special, in part, because it’s farmed biodynamically. Biodynamic farming was originally conceived by Rudolf Steiner in the late 19th century.  Think of it as an extension of organic farming, using plants in the vineyard to attract insects that positively influence it, feeding the vineyard nutrient rich manure teas, and composting.  When getting certified by organizations, like Demeter, they’re looking for an ecosystem unto itself, on the property.  I’ve never been to the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (looking forward to visiting, Louisa!), but I once stood in Michael Topolos’ biodynamic vineyard, and there was an energy about it that was so vibrant.

Let’s get to the interview already!

What got you started in the wine business?   What led you to make wine?  Who are your influences?

“I was 18, working in Yosemite, hanging with a lot of older friends, sharing wine and camping.  I immediately fell in love with it.  The taste, the ambiance, the communal aspect;  I saw that wine brought people together, and it had a story.  Right then I wanted to be a winemaker.  

I went to school in Long Island, NY.  Coincidently, a Long Island wine industry was beginning to emerge.  I was able to intern with Hargrave cellars, the first winery on Long Island, in the 1980’s.  I pruned grapevines and worked in the winery, and that was my first job.  I also worked in wine shops and restaurants to supplement my income and gain wine knowledge, but never wavered from that initial focus to make wine.  Then I met Walter Channing, who was a venture capitalist, and artist in NYC. He started an experimental winery (now known as Channing Daughters), and I made a little wine for him.  I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I worked with other local winemakers and found my way.”

What brought you to Cali?  Tell us about the birth of Verdad?

“I moved to SF to work for an importer, but I always wanted to get back into the production end.  When I met my husband, Bob Lindquist, that became a possibility.  We had a shared interest in wine and winemaking.  I turned my husband on to Albarino and Spanish varietals.  Bob had a long term lease with the Ibarra – Young vineyard, so we were able to plant a couple acres of Albarino, slowly from ‘96-’98. Sticks propagated from vines that Brian Babcock brought over from Spanish icon Bodegas Morgadio.  A lot of the early Albarino planted in CA were from those cuttings.  It was sorta like, ‘oh wow, you have Albarino!?  Let’s get some sticks and plant them!’”

Albarino was not a varietal that Americans knew about in the 90’s. It is only in the the last 15 years, that the world has come to know the magic of this varietal.

“In the late 90’s, the economy was soaring, and it never seemed like it would end. Verdad was born with visions of making Albarino, Tempranillo, and rosé.  Rosé represents the joy of summer and outdoor living in California.  When I wanted to start my own label, I wondered why California wine had no relationship to Spain, when the geography was so similar.  With CA history ties to the missionaries and the Mission grape history, I wondered what happened to grapes like Tempranillo (and why was California not interested)?  In 2000, I spent six weeks in Spain, researching.  I got the name ‘Verdad’ from going there.  I was particularly interested in Galicia (where Rias Baixas lays claim to Albarino), cool climate Rioja (Alavesa and Alta), and coastal influence reds.”

What are your obstacles?   

“The cost of production is really high.  The smaller the winery, the more it costs;  trucking, labels, and bottles.  It’s hard to make a return on your investment.  In eight years, I haven’t been able to raise prices, yet  everything else has gone up.”   

Why is the cost of wine so high?  

“Trucking companies are doing great.  Warehouses are doing great, yet it’s very difficult for a small winery to succeed.  Delivering out of state fees place a bottle of wine beyond the price point of what you originally envisioned.  There are so many moving parts, and there’s a correlation between winery and restaurant.”

The restaurant industry is struggling right now.  

“Your customer base is price sensitive, but they don’t realize how complex it is to run a business like that,  with so many moving parts.  Chefs work so hard just to get their food out there, to cook.  It is a fleeting moment in time…”

Being a woman in the business.  Do you see any challenges to being a woman in a male dominated biz?

“There were very few women in the business in the 80’s and 90’s, in NY and CA.  American, the offspring of distributing giant Southern, led the way, and hired a bunch of women in the mid 90’s.  The liquor sales reps, in their Seagram’s jackets, or Italian suits (depending on the distributor), dominated the business then.  The business has been a “guy” culture, but I think it’s changed a lot.

Doing the physical work as a woman is demanding.   I think it’s more about being a small winery in this business that’s very difficult.  When you get less of a piece of the pie, and you’re less represented in the industry, people look at you differently… they talk over you.  It’s subtle, but you know when you’re feeling it.  It’s hard to quantify.”

Do you have any words of advice for women who want to start their own business?  

“You might have to work a little harder to get noticed.  Pair up with people that know what they’re doing and have experience.  You can have a big picture of where you want your business to go, but the devil is in the details.   All the little costs and steps along the way – it really pays to analyze it.  Over time you realize how important every detail is to having a successful business.  It’s a joyous business when things are working. Making it, seeing the grapes come in, and having your wine turn out the way you want, it’s just delightful.”

What’s unique about Edna Valley?   

“Edna Valley is a very small AVA (American viticulture area), 6 miles from the ocean, with a direct coastal influence.  We have cool summer temperatures, with a really long growing season.  It gets warm and sunny in September / October, when the onshore marine layer moves offshore.  It’s really ideal, cool grape growing.”  

Like most great wine regions, the best soils are in the hills.

“Sawyer Lindquist is hilly, with rocky, clay loam, decomposed sedimentary soils, and a volcanic influence from the Seven Sisters.  There’s also a glacial influence, where I find fossils in the soil.  It’s very rocky, white San Luis Obispo mudstone, which I call “limestone’s poor cousin”.  Because the valley is so small, there’s a common thread in soil types throughout.  A much larger valley would have many different soil types.”

Tell me about the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard.  Why Biodynamic?  

“Over time, using biodynamic farming brings in rich biodiversity within the soil.  Since 1998, I started thinking more about organic. Steven Singer (Olive oil and vinegar importer, and husband of Alice Waters) was very influential on me.  I would send him wines, and then talk about them with him.  When he was married to Alice, they only and wanted to work with only organic wine producers, people who really cared about the soil.  1999 was our first year of going organic.  I’m close friends with Steve Beckman, who was doing a lot of experimenting with biodynamic farming, and getting great results.  I thought about it for a while, you know, a lot of people think it’s about fairy dust, when they first hear about it.  We were a little bit skeptical initially.

Bob (Lindquist) went to London for a semi-annual trade tasting, and it just so happened that there was a biodynamic conference in London at the same time.   He saw Andre Ostertag and Dominique Lafon there, and had dinner together.  Ostertag was all biodynamic, and Dominique Lafon was doing both organic and biodynamic, and they were both totally singing its praises.  That was the game changer.  Bob and I decided to do biodynamic farming from the beginning. We started doing a biodynamic prep, on pasture land.  It’s one of the first vineyards in CA to go straight biodynamic from raw land.  At first it was a lot of work, but as the years went by, we didn’t have to do as much, because the land was really healthy.  It’s super labor intensive, but it gets easier as you go along.  The vineyard is teeming with life.  Philipe Armenier (biodynamic wine consultant) pointed out, that in the afternoon sunlight, the vines that use organic farming are a light green translucency, and the conventionally grown vines are a duller, more darker green color in the leaves (further evidence that organic / biodynamic farming produces healthier vines).”

The vibrancy in the vineyard is palpable for biodynamic vines, and that translates into wine that smells, tastes, and feels so alive.

I feel like, when I try your wines, that there’s a real femininity that comes out in them.  The grace, vibrant acidity, floweriness, and earthy / minerally complexity.   Do you sense that in your wines, and when you try other wines, do you see wines as masculine or feminine?

“I agree.  Wines reflect the winemaker.  Often times, there’s a thread that you can carry through to the winemaker.  Cool climate has the elegance that’s lending to the wine as well. I put my Tempranillo against many domestic Tempranillos, and it’s completely different.  It takes years of winemaking to see that thread.  I started making my Biodynamic Tempranillo in 2008, and now I’m on the ’14 and ’15 vintages.  My first Tempranillo was in 2001, from the Ibarra – Young Vineyard, perhaps the first Tempranillo produced in Santa Barbara county.  It takes so long to change anything in the wines.  Even if you want to tweak anything stylistically, it takes years out to see it.  You need to be true to your vision.  It’s easy to be discouraged, if you have anything go wrong.  Going entirely biodynamic and using native, wild yeast, I’ve had stuck fermentations, where I’ve had to sell the wine out bulk (not bottling it under the Verdad label).  In 2013, I experimented with whole cluster fermentation, and some of the barrels ended up being a little weird, but then it ended up coming around and being really good.  Then I got really nervous, and didn’t do it again until the 2016 vintage.  Time moves really fast, but sometimes it doesn’t move fast enough to make changes for the consumer market.”

That’s something that consumers have no idea about.

“As a winemaker, if you’re not absolutely crazy about a wine you’ve made, sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut.  I tend to be hypercritical of myself, and my winemaking. But, overall I’m really excited about what I’m making these days, and proud of my wines.  It’s joyful.  I love how wine brings people together, and how I get to facilitate that.

Do you see the business changing from the high scoring, fruit forward, extracted wines of the 90’s to wines that are more food friendly?  

“I noticed that on the east coast (NY and Boston), they’ve been on that for quite a while, with the influence of European wines.

I was on a panel a few years back, tasting Tempranillo, and I noticed that my palate was obliterated after tasting a couple flights.  The really big, extracted wines are what you remember.

The Wine Spectator, because 1998 was a difficult vintage in Napa, declared it a horrible vintage.  They didn’t bother to look at other wine growing regions, such as the central coast and Santa Maria Valley, where it was an excellent vintage.  They misrepresented the vintage as a statewide issue, which is always a mistake given the many growing regions and microclimates we have in CA.  Many of us stopped sending our wines to the publication after that.”

The Wine Spectator declaration ruined the vintage, as many consumers avoided the ’98 vintage, and wineries lost thousands.  In my opinion, the ’98 vintage was one of the more interesting California vintages in recent memory, with really complex, feminine, earthy, well balanced wines.  Contrast that with the 1997 vintage, touted as the “vintage of the century”, and fell apart after less than 10 years of bottle age.

Millions of Americans still pay attention to what these publications are saying. That’s got to be a challenge for you?

“I’m grateful if someone’s interested in learning about the wines, and tasting them.  I used to submit my wines to contests, but realized that a wine needs to be over 95 points to mean something.  Blogs are becoming more meaningful, rather than a point system.  Wine changes so much.  It evolves.  Something that tastes beautiful, or conversely is closed (goes through a shy phase where the fruit doesn’t show), and you give it to the reviewer, and the wine changes, how can you predict that?”

My favorites of her wines (you can purchase them HERE):

  • Verdad Albarino 2014, Sawyer Linquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
  • Verdad Garnacha / Mourvedre Rosé 2015, Central Coast
  • Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley
  • Verdad Tempranillo 2013, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley

 

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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Tablas Creek. One of California’s “First Growth” Giants.

cal poly honored alumni

Hello Folks.

A bunch of people have been egging me on to brag about the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – Volume 1, I recently held w/ Executive Chef Amy Murray.

I tend to be a modest fellow, but honestly the event was off the hook. So, here’s what you missed:   Amy and I made an elegant but cozy impression, from the laid back atmosphere to the diverse menu.  It was a perfect learning environment;  relaxed, yet full of hands-on experience and useful information.

We wanted to make sure that everybody, from beginners to advanced wine connoisseurs, would feel welcome and learn something new.  We started the afternoon off with two courses out on the deck.  The first, grilled shrimp paired with the 2015 La Marea Albarino from Monterey;  oceanic saltiness in the shrimp paired beautifully with the minerality of the Albarino, a classic pairing technique.  For the second course we had ricotta and goat cheese stuffed squash blossoms paired with the 2015 Cochon Rosé from California.  Goat cheese and rosé are a classic pairing that always delivers.  

In between each course we took questions, and I showed folks how to key in on bridge ingredients with each wine.  It really helped step up people’s pairing knowledge.  One person even said:  “this was the best use of my Sunday”, and “I feel like I’m more confident making food & wine pairing choices”.  Another couple, from Stomping Girl winery, despite their experienced background in the wine world, were so happy they came because they learned a lot.  Food & wine pairing is not an exact science.  The more we experience it, the more comfortable we get talking about it and applying it to our own lifestyle.

You’ll definitely want to reserve your spot for next time in the fall, as I had to turn folks away!  This is wonderful opportunity to refine your palette, and learn the Secrets of Food & Wine Pairing in an intimate environment.   

In the meantime – you can make sure you get this on your calendar. I’m hosting a wine dinner Wednesday June 29 at 7PM, at the Vestry on Valencia St. in San Francisco . I’ll be featuring one of my favorite wineries in California, Tablas Creek.  I’ve selected my favorites of their current releases, and am delighted to pair them with chef Elaine Osuna’s creations.  Go HERE to get tickets and more info.  

Tablas Creek winery is considered by many in the wine world as one of California’s great Rhone-style wine producers.  I’d go so far as to put them up there with some of the best producers in the French Rhone.  That’s how good the wines of Tablas Creek are.  The Perrin family from Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape collaborated with importer Robert Haas in 1985 to pick the Rhone-like Paso Robles AVA (American Viticulture Area – like Russian River Valley or Napa Valley) as the place to break ground.  The limestone soils, hot sunny days, and cool, ocean-influenced nights reminded the Perrin’s of the French Mediterranean, where Rhone varietals flourish.

There are very few limestone deposits in California, and the bulk of them are in the Central Coast, where Paso Robles resides.  It is limestone that holds the key to greatness in places like the French Loire, Champagne, Bordeaux, and Rhone.   How do limestone soils influence the quality of the wine?   The answer is 4-fold:   1.) these soils retain water and need less irrigation.  2.) they are more “basic” in their PH so vines can retain maximum nutrients, and help to maintain acidity late in the season.  3.)  it allows for a deep root system, encouraging vines to find their own water table.  4.) the vines are more disease resistant in limestone soils.

Specifically, in Southern Rhone, white varietals, like Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and red varietals like Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Counoise, and Cinsault flourish in conditions similar to west Paso Robles.  Combined with organic farming, the close proximity to the ocean, and ideal terrior, Tablas Creek uses their rich history of producing Rhone varietals to make such fabulous wines.  Check out their entry level “Patelin de Tablas” line at $20 retail.  Their white and red blends all have lovely minerality, with undeniable California fruit, vibrant acid, and a restrained, food-friendly finish.  If you’re feeling like you want to get something special, go for their “Esprit de Tablas” line.  These wines are most similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with actual vineyard cuttings transported from the Chateau Beaucastel estate. They have serious richness and depth.  What I love most about the “Esprit…” is that Tablas Creek doesn’t sacrifice acidity in the wine to add more depth of flavor.  They are age-worthy, if you want to lay them down for a few years, and delicious to drink right now.  

My favorites of Tablas Creek:

  • Patelin de Tablas Grenache / Counoise / Mourvedre / Syrah Rosé 2015 – $20
  • Patelin de Tablas Grenache Blanc / Viognier / Roussanne / Marsanne 2014 – $20
  • Esprit de Tablas Roussanne / Grenache Blanc / Picpoul 2013 – $36
  • Patelin de Tablas Syrah / Grenache / Mourvedre / Counoise Rouge 2014 $20
  • Esprit de Tablas Mourvedre / Syrah / Grenache / Counoise 2013  – $44

 

Are you a fan of French Rhone wines?  Are you a fan of California Rhone-style wines?  Have you tried Tablas Creek?  I’d love to hear from you.  Your feedback is important and may help someone else in this process.

We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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Every now and again there’s a wine that comes along that doesn’t fit into a box and helps redefine the definition of a really great wine.

Preston Vineyards 2

I love my job, because I love to learn and get surprised. Discovering new treasures never gets old. I find that staying curious, open, and available to experience the unknown always works in my favor. Last Thursday I was lucky enough to have one of those magical moments.

I attended a wine pairing event at Millenium in Oakland. The featured winemaker was Chris Condos (Vinum cellars, Kathryn Kennedy ) from Horse & Plow. The surprise gem of the evening was an unsulfured and organically farmed 2013 Sauvignon blanc from the Preston Vineyard in Dry Creek. WOW! The texture and complexity was absolutely sensational.  It reminded me of 1er Cru Chablis from Bourgogne because of its viscosity and weight while having well balanced acid, lovely minerality, and delicious fruit.

The most intriguing and paradoxical aspect of it was that it was completely different than any other Sauvignon blanc I’ve had before.  Unlike the usual suspects of Sauvignon blanc – being predictably clean and crisp, it was complex yet accessible.  It also had beautiful fruit mixed with earth, minerals and nutty undertones.

Most winemakers never go the route of making unsulfured wines because it’s too risky. Sulfur helps stabilize the wine and prevents oxidation.  If you don’t have the perfect acidity — your wine turns to vinegar.  It takes a master of alchemy to pull this off.  And in my opinion, Chris hit it out of the park.  One of the things I admire most about him is that he doesn’t shy away from the challenge of producing natural wines.  His philosophy is to use sustainable practices to craft wines with greater complexity and sense of place, while caring for worker health and the environment.

Despite some of the stressors that can come with growing organically Chris stood firm in his beliefs.  He chose to experiment with the Preston vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley as his #1 choice of fruit because of its pristine quality and high acidity.  He didn’t add any sulfur, left it in neutral barrels for 4-5 months on the lees (dead yeast from fermentation that give a wine texture and a subtly nutty taste), and sweated it out.

With tremendous faith he had to give the wine enough space to go through a series of phases, including a “dumb phase”, where the wine’s earthy and tannic qualities dominate the fruity qualities.  The result is the fruit caught up with the earthy minerality, and tannins and became a real symphony of a wine;  silky texture, delicious fruit, rocky minerality, and great structure.  All of these qualities reminded me of Bourgogne which uses a different varietal but has a similar flavor profile.    

Chris is a maverick.  His patience, courage, and keen sense of knowing how to put the right variables together created a delicious product with just enough experimentation and originality.

I recommend the 2013 Horse & Plow Preston Vineyard Sauvignon blanc with herbed goat cheese, Petrale sole with butter and parsley, grilled pork chops with sauteed mushrooms, seared scallops, or trout salad with toasted hazelnuts.  

You’ll want to grab your bottle HERE.  There are only few more bottles left so jump on it and don’t miss out.

Be sure to also leave a comment below.  What have been your favorite wines that have made you think outside of the box?  What did you think of this Sauvignon blanc with the suggested pairings?   Your feedback is very important to me.

Again…you can never know too much about wine.  Let’s keep learning.

Patrick

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