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New World Wine Maker Blog - New World Wine Making Students

Wine Myths. Busted.

The wine industry, just like most other industries, is filled with countless myths that are made up by companies and countries to improve their wine sales. Sometimes the myths are just a different version of the truth or the truth has been tweaked slightly to make a story sound more captivating. Other times, the myths are so far away from the truth that it borders on fraudulent lies. Here is a look at some of the serious and not so serious myths that I have come across in the wonderful world of wine.

Corks are better than screwcaps

This one is a bit tricky as it of course depends on what you are talking about. Better for what? Aging a wine? In that case, yes, because the cork will let through slightly more oxygen than a screwcap over the long term. This in turn means that the wine in the corked bottle will age quicker that the one with a screwcap. But if you have wines that are destined for consumption right now, that extra exposure to oxygen is not such a good thing and it might lead to the development of undesirable smells or tastes i.e. spoilage of the wine. In that scenario screwcaps win. And in the practicality round, screwcaps are also victorious. How many times have you found yourself with a bottle of wine that is sealed with a cork, but there is no corkscrew to be found on this side of the Sahara? Too many times to count, right? And if you don’t feel like finishing that bottle of Chenin just yet, you can just close the cap and keep it in the fridge until later, whereas a bottle that had a cork will be much more exposed to oxygen if it is not sealed properly with something like a wine pump. Sure, corks are romantic and the sound it makes when it is pulled out of the bottle invokes nostalgia of candle-lit dinners with a loved one, but that image can be easily ruined without a corkscrew or if the wine smells like old feet.

More alcohol = less quality

This is a common misconception that has mostly been spread by European wine drinkers. South African wines have been criticised for years and years for having alcohol contents that are too high and being hard to drink. Before I start my defence, it is important to note that there are a few factors that influence a wine’s alcohol content. The most important of these factors are the style in which the wine was made and the climate in which the grapes were grown. Fortified wines are usually higher in alcohol because they were made by adding neutral spirits (like brandy) to wine to increase the alcohol content. However, wines that are naturally higher in alcohol have only climate to blame. Grapes that are grown in warm climatic conditions tend to ripen more rapidly and produce higher sugar levels. These very sugars are then converted to alcohol during the wine fermentation process. Therefore, wines produced from grapes from warmer climates will usually have higher alcohol contents when compared to their cool climate counterparts. Now, back to our European friends. Most wine producing regions in Europe are classified as having cool climates and even those that have warm climates don’t necessarily reach the same high temperatures or experience the same harsh conditions that we have here in South Africa. So, they are used to their soft, delicate, low-alcohol wines. And BOOM! This bold, robust South African red winds up on their dinner table and they are scared senseless. No need to fret, my fellow wine drinkers. Wines that are higher in alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to knock you off your feet. The quality of the wine, like the alcohol, is influenced by many factors. Maturation vessel (new oak vs old oak barrels, concrete or stainless steel tanks), wine style (soft and delicate or big and robust), residual sugar (sweet or dry wine) and maturation time (young or aged wine) are just some of these factors. A Cabernet produced in two different climatic regions can both end up having the same alcohol content, but their taste, aroma and mouth-feel might be different due to any number of the above-mentioned factors. So, don’t be so quick to judge a wine based on the alcohol content that is stuck on the back label- you might be pleasantly surprised by some of these “high” rollers.

France was the first country where wine was made

Sure, they have been producing wine for many more centuries when compared to us, the new kids on the block, but they most certainly weren’t the first ones in history to do so. The earliest archaeological evidence of winemaking in France is a limestone platform that was used as a wine press and dates back to 425 BC. However, evidence exists that wine was consumed in countries like China (c. 7000 BC), Georgia (c. 6000 BC), Iran (c. 5000 BC), Greece (c. 4500 BC) and Armenia (c. 4100 BC). Armenia is also home to the world’s oldest discovered winery. In 2007, a cave was found that contained a wine press, fermentation vessels, jars and drinking cups. Archaeologists also found old grape remnants like grape skins and seeds. These evolved relics also suggest that wine making technology existed some time before already.

Red wine should be served at room temperature

If we are talking about room temperature in Britain, then yes, you can serve your Cab right off the shelf. But here in our warm, South African climate it is best to chill your red wines to slightly below room temperature (around 15 – 20 °C for heavy red wines and 12 – 15 °C for lighter wines). Just pop your bottle in the fridge an hour or so before you plan on opening it and flavours and aromas will be at their optimum. Also, by cooling down a wine you might disguise some of the “off” aromas of a lesser quality wine. As for white wine, it is best served between 7 and 14 °C, while fruitier wines like Sauvignon blanc prefer the colder side of the spectrum and heavier whites that have been barrel-aged can be served slightly warmer.

Unfortunately, my time is up and I have only uncorked the big bottle of wine myths that are making their way around the industry. Hopefully I have helped you to realise that screwcaps might not be as pretty as corks, but they sure are the duct tape of the wine world. That France isn’t necessarily the best or oldest wine country in the world. And that your excellent quality, high alcohol red wine should be chilled before serving.

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My sister is an accountant and apparently, I am too

My subject choices for high school included Physics, French and Accounting. An interesting combination. I studied Physics and French with winemaking in mind. While accounting was chosen because it appeared to be an easy A. Which it ended up being. Actually – it ended up being my highest subject.

Bear in mind that Accounting in high school does not resemble the accounting done in an actual accounting degree. If studying a four-year degree and entering into one of the most well-paid careers was limited to the book-keeping we learnt in high school then my roommate’s late study nights would never have happened. Coincidentally she’s on her way to becoming a chartered accountant.

But back to high school accounting – or as we should more aptly call it “Bookkeeping 101”. It was an easy subject. And I enjoyed it despite its notorious reputation and the formidable teachers. So why didn’t I study Accounting?

My sister did. She’s currently a very successful CA working in London making more money an intern could dream of – to put it into perspective she makes more in one month than I would working a full year off an intern’s salary. But let’s rewind. The year was 2012 and I was a grade eleven student while my sister was completing her first year of articles at a large accounting firm.

That was a disastrous year which was filled of late nights and crying. Lots and lots of crying. And that was when I decided that I would never put myself through that kind of stress and misery (to be fair at this point “harvest” was an abstract world and I did not realise the amount of crying, cellar foot rashes and manual labour that it would include…but I digress).

So, sworn off from ever looking at something remotely financial except for my own bank statements I set off into the world of wine-making. And it went well. There were a few hiccoughs along the way. Mainly Plant Pathology 314 and the escapade of my first harvest. But ultimately, I was happy with my choice.

Then I encountered SAWIS.

That sneaky little organisation (which yes – if very important for certifying wines and making sure every is above board and legal) reared its administrative head.

But it immediately took me back to matric. Sitting in three hour exams trying to balance assets and liabilities. Back to the days of crediting bank statements, debiting balance sheets and learning the theory of inflation.

Except now assets have been replaced by grapes and balance sheets have become tank records.

Now, I understand that record keeping is an integral part of the winemaking process. And in no way, am I advocating for the removal of this record keeping… but if we were to hold a bonfire and throw in all those documents I’d bring the marshmallows.

This recordkeeping during weighing only to be entered into the tank records which must correlate with the green book which then will be needed to fill in BG forms which then are used to fill in the pink book and then back to the BG forms and then to the other side of the pink book then back to the BG forms then back to the pink books (I could go on but I think you get the gist).

And this must all be done during the pandemonium of harvest. I think we’re asking too much.

Any winemaker (or assistant winemaker) will have their elbows deep in grape must and yeast, running after interns and fixing broken tanks. 14-hour work days are no big deal during a harvest and between all that there’s 15 different forms to be filled out? Ouch.

But apparently it’s not impossible. So that’s fine. We can carry on with the paperwork and BG forms. And we will work towards our IPW certification and apply for seals and we’ll survive (don’t even get me started on IPW. Lot numbers are the enemy in the cellar. But again, I digress).

But I want really want to know is how did my science-based degree entrenched with biology and chemistry become accounting?

I’ve spent four years studying the art of fermentation. And approximately 0.2% of that was spent learning the ins and outs of SAWIS. A task which will take up 20% of a person’s time (whether it be winemaker, assistant winemaker or intern). Possibly less if you’re the administrative wunderkind that I am.

So, here I am. About to enter the workforce, balling meter in one hand; pen, paper and calculator in the other. Ready to tackle the cellar and make quality wine. And then spend late nights filling out SAWIS forms so I that I can do recordkeeping during weighing only to be entered into the tank records which must correlate with the green book which then will be needed to fill in BG forms which then are used to fill in the pink book and then back to the BG forms and then to the other side of the pink book then back to the BG forms then back to the pink books (I could go on but I think you get the gist).

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Inspector (wine) Gadget

The strange and sometimes unorthodox tools that make our lives easier have tickled my imagination ever since I was a child. Gizmos and gadgets were always on the top of my wish list for birthdays and Christmas. I suspect this fascination was passed down to me from my dad. He always buys the latest tech on the market even though more than half of the stuff he buys ends up in his desk drawer gathering dust. But that is where my father and I differ a whole lot. I like to know that something is going to be useful to me before I buy it and besides, as a student, you don’t have money laying around to spend on white elephants. So now that I am a “grown-up” I am buying more “mature” gadgets or tools that I can use on a daily basis i.e. wine accessories. But with all the hundreds that you see in the shops and online, it’s difficult to figure what is useful and what’s not. Here are a few of my favourites and some of the Old faithfuls.

No one who calls themselves a wine enthusiast will be caught dead without a decent wine decanter. For those of you who are not quite in the know, a decanter is a container, usually made of glass (but plastic ones are now also available for picnics), that is used to aerate red wines (i.e. expose it to oxygen) and to separate the glorious liquid from it’s not so glorious solid sediments. Although it might not technically be a gadget, it is something that comes in quite handy if you have the in-laws coming over for dinner and you want to impress with a well-aged Cab, but all you have are robust, raunchy 2014s. A decanter will not only look impressive, but it will smoothen that Cab out in two ticks. And with the variety of shapes and sizes that are now readily available, your decanter can double as a unique piece of art, exhibited on your dining room table, 7 days a week.

For those of you that might be a bit clumsier and fear the day that your very expensive decanter falls to smithereens, a wine aerator is probably a better option. This nifty little gadget can be screwed into or attached on top of your opened wine bottle and as you pour it allows for better aeration of the wine. These accessories can also sometimes look overly extravagant or other-worldly, but even the simplest ones can help to simulate the effects of years of bottle aging in a flash.

Hot summer days calls for chilled Sauvignon blanc on the stoep or next to the pool, but you forgot to refrigerate the bottle in time or the Stellenbosch sun heats up your glass faster than you can finish your wine (I highly doubt it). No problem. You can just add some ice cubes. But the melting ice dilutes my wine, you say. Well, not anymore. Waterless, reusable ice cubes have arrived to save many wine and spirit drinkers lots of sorrows. These blocks and balls of pure genius can be rinsed, popped back in the freezer and used again and again. No dilution. These are of course also great for the next family picnic. No more carrying around a cooler box filled with ice water to keep mommy’s wine cold. They are fun for the whole family!

And if, for some reason, you don’t like ice or having things floating around in your glass, there is always the revolutionary corkcicle. Yes, you read correctly. Cork-icicle. It’s a long, insulated chill-stick that is attached to a bottle stopper or cork-like stopper. This magnificent piece of wine artillery will help to keep your whites cold and get your reds down to sub-room temperature. Make sure to reserve a spot for this in your picnic basket as well.

Speaking of picnics (as you might have guessed, I am a picnic enthusiast), isn’t it just the worst when you’ve just settled down on your blanket with your glass of chilled Chardonnay and somebody asks you to hand them the food basket. Where am I supposed to put down my wine, you might ask yourself. That is where my next item of interest comes in. Sturdy, stainless steel wine bottle and glass stakes that can be pinned into the ground will ensure that your glass stays upright and out of the grass.

The weekend and the picnics have passed. It’s Monday after work and you just feel like winding down with a glass of red, but the day wasn’t quite that bad that you want to finish the whole bottle yourself. What to do? “Reseal” your bottle after you’ve poured your glass with your wine pump, of course! The pump usually comes with a rubber stopper that is placed in the mouth of the bottle. The pump is then placed over the stopper to pump the air out either manually or by the press of a button and then seals the bottle. Although the bottle is not completely resealed, this tool helps to minimise the effects of oxidation and extends the shelf-life of an opened bottle.

Most of the more lavish (and expensive) wine gadgets that can be found on the market today, will never have a place in my home. In fact, even some of these mentioned above are unnecessary luxuries and probably only destined for avid wine drinkers and enthusiasts. If you just love to drink wine, a decent corkscrew and a clean glass is all you’ll need to make the most of your wine.

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Wine tasting: an endurance sport

Written by Geena Whiting

Any athlete would agree that one cannot simply succeed on talent alone. Practise is key to becoming one of the greats. One cannot simply wake up and decide to run a marathon or swim an endurance race that same day. Your body is not the only thing that needs to be trained, mental endurance plays a major factor in achieving anything.

Recently, I had the privilege of being invited to sit on a judging panel. What a fantastic opportunity, to be able to sit with outstanding members of the wine community and taste some of the best wines our country has to offer.

Sitting there bright eyed and bushy tailed I was blissfully unaware that I had just stepped onto the starting block that would put my mental endurance and my passion to the test.

Generally a standard tasting at a wine farm is 5 wines. Where you can sit with your friends and laugh and chat. You enjoy the ambiance as the time flies by, sometimes easily spending 10 – 15 minutes tasting one wine as you are immersed in conversation and taking in the view. It is easy for 2 hours to slip by without ever glancing at the time.

Each day of tasting was spanned over about 4 hours; one would assume this is ample time for a great tasting. However this was no ordinary tasting, the wines were bought to us, twelve glasses on a tray. Each wine had to be carefully analysed: if any faults were present, for colour intensity, aroma, taste on palate, mouth feel, linearity of the flavours, the body and balance of the wine and of course the finish. For any avid wine taster this may seem standard practise, I too thought (quite naïvely so) it would be easy enough to analyse a couple of wines and then break early for lunch, but the trays just kept coming, like a turbid ocean the waves never seemed to stop.

At wine 52, I could feel myself wavering and we had already had our tea break.

“Wine 53, wine 54, wine 58… wait… did I skip a few? I haven’t written any scores since wine 53! I can’t even recall whether I rated them highly or not… Do we seriously still have 20 more to do? This is harder than I thought it would be; I can’t do this.”

Many thoughts such as these passed through my head. I felt overwhelmed as I watched how the other judges analysed wine after wine with precision and accuracy; it seemed to be easy as breathing for them.

“I cannot give up.”

I recalibrated myself, had a cracker to cleanse my palate and a glass of water to wash it down.

“Deep breath, start from number 53…”

It was imperative that I applied my mind equally to every wine, to give each wine a fair opportunity for analysis and the chance to amaze me.

Everyone has preferences: Tea vs. Coffee, Soccer vs. Rugby, Cats Vs Dogs. The same obviously applies to wine: White vs. Red, Sweet vs. Dry, Cultivar vs. Cultivar.  Looking a bit deeper into wine there can even be preferences of different styles under a Cultivar, different styles such as  fruit driven,  oaky/spice driven, a wine trying to be true to its terroir, full bodied or light bodied. Even details down to cellar management/practises can be tasted and preferred in wines.

By wine 50, day 1, it became more difficult to judge the wines as naturally I favour a certain style over others. It was important to constantly recalibrate and give the wine credit for its specific style.

One must also be very aware of the possible terroir influences that the wine may present, i.e. is there a fault in the wine or is the wine simply representing its terroir. Is the wine degrading and showing early onset tertiary characteristics or is it displaying qualities due to poor cellar practises. All of these things needed to be constantly contemplated whilst tasting quantities of wine on such magnitude.

The more and more I taste and learn, the more I realise how little I know and the more excited I get to learn more. Aspiring sommeliers and wine makers, the only thing we can do to improve our tasting skills and our mental endurance when it comes to fully analysing wines, is to taste more wines and when I say taste, I don’t mean to simply visit more wine farms. We must sit and analyse the wines we drink over a meal, we must organize tastings with our colleges, we must become more exposed to wines not just in or immediate region but from all the wine regions this country has to offer. The only way to improve our palate and become mentally stronger is to taste and analyse more.

Each wine, like a snowflake, is unique. Quality cannot be based on preference. One must have a keen mind and a good understanding of wines and wine faults. Which is why in my opinion to judge and taste many wines of the same cultivar in that have been made with different stylistic approaches requires the mental endurance of an athlete.

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Wine not?

With the heart of winter looming heavily over the wine producing regions of South Africa and the coldest part of the year slowly creeping in, red wine shows a higher preference amongst its consumers. South Africans are already well-acquainted with our beautifully crafted, full bodied and spicy red noble cultivars, but few are aware of their lesser known tantalizing relatives.

The chill of winter can often be fought off with a tot (or two) of port, now known as Cape Vintage, especially if said winter-delicacy is accompanied by a roaring, wood-crackling fire. Few consumers know that one of the major Cape Vintage producing cultivars, Touriga-Naςional, also produces a full-bodied varietal wine, driven by dark fruit and a smooth mouth feel, that is just as welcoming on a chilly winter’s eve.

So, instead of grabbing the well-known bottle of Pinotage, leaning into the comfort of a hearty glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or welcoming the familiar pizazz of a Shiraz, I want to encourage and challenge you to try something new and different. As you reach for that less familiar bottle of Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre, think, “Wine not!”.

The next time you venture out to one of our many well-known wine retail stores, take a closer look at the order in which wine is shelved. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to note that even South African retailers have recently taken to the increase in non-noble varietal wines and no longer shelve these wines together. Each cultivar now has its own section! I love being able to approach a section in a shop and know exactly where to find the Touriga-Naςional, Malbec or Mourvèdre. This leaves us, avid wine consumers, with an increased awareness of these wines. This also boosts their popularity and familiarity in the market because they are more visible in stores.

Our winemakers are now beginning to challenge larger wine producing countries like Argentina and Chile, by producing outstanding varietal wines from cultivars, that were previously better known for their excellent blending capabilities. You may have heard of some of these cultivars before, Barbera and Malbec for example, were previously used in blends mainly for their beautiful and deep colouration, which often added extra colour to lighter cultivar wines. Malbec, a familiar Bordeaux style cultivar, is fast proving that it can in fact find its legs, without the help of its four well known blending counterparts (Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

Elegant and full bodied SMV and SMG Rhône style blends have also shown face in the South African wine industry, both blends sharing a mutual cultivar of Spanish origin, Mourvèdre. This cultivar is certainly capable of creating beautiful varietal wines and is no longer considered for the sole purpose of blending. The typical wine characteristics of Mourvèdre include aromas of liquorice, violets, dark fruits and a long, lingering finish on the palate. If you ever get stuck while trying to identify a glass of red wine, Mourvèdre is most recognisable by its predominant ‘anys’ or liquorice aromas.

Familiarising yourself with these cultivars can be quite entertaining too! I often catch myself and other inquisitive wine-lovers pronouncing these unfamiliar cultivar names with a dash of Italian, Spanish and French flair on the tongue. This becomes increasingly fun after a glass or two of wine, after which creative pronunciations and various accents begin to surface. Malbec, for example, is an easy wine to integrate into our South African ways, simply by remembering that the wine is indeed, “Mal-in-my-bek”. A wine like Barbera rolls off one’s tongue, Barrr-Ber-rah, much like the wine rolls over one’s taste buds with fruity and spicy notes. Mourvèdre, also a bold wine, offers an almost tantalizing tango of flavours that dance on the palate much like the sound of the word itself.

If the winter chill does not deter you from drinking white wine, fear not! Cultivars such as Roussanne, Riesling, Viognier and Gewürztraminer are also on the rise. Many of these white wine producing cultivars are packed with fruity, floral and Muscat-like aromas that have proven to be particularly refreshing on a warm summer’s day. If the good and trusted Chardonnay and Chenin blanc no longer excite you, try something new and different. New cultivars are constantly introduced into the South African market, one of the most recent and lesser known cultivars being of Austrian origin, Grüner Veltliner. This cultivar produces softer wines, displaying an almost hybrid flavour profile combination between Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay. In America, this cultivar is more well-known as Gru-v, a rather fitting name for a very groovy wine!

One of the rarest white wine cultivars in the world, produced by less than five South African wineries, is Bukettraube. With only seventy odd hectares of Bukettraube left in the world, approximately sixty-eight of which are planted in South Africa, it is a wine not to miss out on. This unique wine is not only a blast to attempt pronouncing, it is also equally packed with a blast of crisp stone fruit flavours and a refreshing acidity on the palate.

Popping the cork on a bottle of one of these ‘bad-boys’ can add something unique to any experience. Whether its experimenting with friends and family at a braai or impressing a first-date at dinner with your wine knowledge, bringing something different to the table can be a fun and memorable experience for both you and those close to you.

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A Dear John Letter to Balling meters

Dearest balling meter,

Our relationship has always been a delicate one.  You have been there when I needed you and have offered me insight and support when everything around me was in pandemonium.

But it has also been a hazardous relationship.

You have always been around. Gathering dust in a draw for 9 months of the year only to be yanked out and used by a novice but you see past my fumbling moments when I have been dense. Because that’s what you do. You take density and calibrate the sweetness.

We saw each other every day. Twice a day. For three months. Every morning I would walk into the cool cellar still sleepy and tired from the labour of harvest the day before and there you would be – waiting for me in the lab, ready to be plunged into 30 samples of cold white fermenting must. Then again at the end of day – covered in a mess of sugar and yeast I would return to you and we would complete our bi-daily ritual.

It’s not you – it’s me. I was too young. I didn’t have years of experience. Our interaction was still one of bustling activity and commotion. Everything was going at full speed. I did not give you the gentle nurturing care of an experienced winemaker living their glory years in the cellar.

And that is how I broke you.

The first time it happened I was so scared. I did not mean to break you so brutally. I was worried. What would people say? How would we survive without your utility and convenience? I did not realise the fragile state in which you existed. I promptly promised never again to break you and I intended to fulfil that promise.

But then it happened again. This time it happened by dropping you from the stainless steel stairs.

It was so quick. We seemed fine but then I turned my back and you rolled away from me. I only heard the soft tinkle as you shattered on the dark orange tiles near the robust red wine tanks.

The third, fourth and fifth time became a blur. I could not say how or when it happened. Only that it did. Each time the clean-up became swifter; gathering glass in tissue paper; rinsing the floor or any discarded shards apparent of your destroyed state… and finally the hasty disposal of any evidence which could be incriminating.

You are a luxury I cannot afford. I am a student living off a measly intern salary. My idea of a luxurious date night involves going to Spur on a day when the two for one special isn’t on. So, I can’t afford your R500 aesthetic upkeep. No matter how pretty you come in your new packaging and the beautiful slip of calibration paper that accompanies you.

The cellar has always been the hub of chaos and dishevelment. To be honest I don’t know how managed to survive through the mayhem of previous harvests. You are far too delicate to survive in this robust environment. It’s a tough world and your lack of tough exterior is the fatal flaw in your design.

But I know why we keep you around. You offer a valuable service by tracking the rate of our tricky friend, fermentation. There is no better tool to measure density and we would be lost without your guidance.  Without you we have no way of knowing when to add our nutrients. When to adjust temperatures. When to rack. You are the decision-maker and because of that you are irreplaceable.

So I ask you. Why are you designed this way? Why are you made of flimsy glass and filled with mercury? I have heard it is the only way you work. Archimedes first uncovered the secret to your success when he stated his buoyancy principle. Thomas Thomson knew what he was doing when he designed the shape and material of your frame. Winemakers celebrated when they realised the impact of your function.  Your way of determining specific gravity is nothing short of remarkable.

You have been there for tiring times and I am indebted to you – as is every other cellar worker, intern, winemaker and cellar master. But our relationship cannot survive. You deserve someone who will treat you better and I need someone who will not break so easily.

I have been told that I am the weak link in our partnership; my mentor has only broken you once in 17 years.  Maybe one day I will be able to treat you with the respect you deserve – fulfilling your purpose in life. And I will be happy knowing you have done your job so that I may do mine.

 

Yours sincerely

The intern who broke you

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