May 2008

As many people know, Randall Grahm, the canny proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is committed to listing the ingredients of all of his wines on the back labels, starting with the vintage of 2007. One would assume that this would be a simple proposition; the ingredient of wine is grapes. In fact, the wines from Heller Estate say exactly this on the back labels, as in: “Ingredients: 100% organic malbec grapes.” There you go.

But matters are never so easy for Grahm. Here, for example, is the ingredients list for the recently released Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2007 “Pink Wine of the Earth” (How’s that for an appellation?): “47% grenache, 27% cinsault, 14% syrah, 7% grenache blanc, 5% roussanne grapes, tartaric acid, sulfur dioxide, pectinase.” 4211.jpg

In the interest of complete transparency, Grahm goes farther, deeper: “In the winemaking process the following were utilized: Yeast hulls, bentonite, yeast nutrients, French oak barrels, untoasted oak chips, organic skim milk, copper sulfite.”

By this time, Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Wine-Drinker, standing in the retail shop trying to decided what wine to take home and drink with a ham sandwich, puts this bottle back on the shelf, muttering, “I’ll take my rosé without the skim milk, organic or not, thank you very much.”

It seems to me, in other words, that this is an instance in which complete transparency could backfire. How much do people actually need to know about how wine is made, when they just, you know, want a glass of wine with lunch?

Now it’s true that these constituents are traditional and harmless in winemaking, though some people are allergic to sulfur. Most of them are used to clarify the wine and “fine” it, as the term is for drawing particles to the bottom of the tank or cask to get rid of them. That’s the case with bentonite and skim milk, which is used in the form of casein. None of these elements is left in the wine when it is bottled. Pectinase is used to settle grape solids in the must, before the wine is sent to tanks or casks. Who, I ask, really needs this technical knowledge? Whose pleasure is increased thus?

On the other hand, the Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2007 is a delightful rosé. Sporting an entrancing ruddy watermelon color, the wine offers beguiling notes of melon, strawberry and plump. ripe peach with a hint of tart cranberry. Flavors are consistent with the bouquet, adding, though, strains of darker and slightly spicy raspberry. The wine is crisp and lively, just off-dry, with a dry, bracing finish that brings in a bit of dried herbs, a layer of chalk-like minerals. We drank this at home with salmon tacos. Thoroughly charming and delicious. Very good+ and Good Value at about $15, though I have seen it on the Internet for $12.

Closed with a screw-cap, as all wines from Bonny Doon are. Production is 7,800 cases.


… could be the first line of a “walked into a bar” joke, but really describe a pair of wines we drank with dinner last night and pico-madama-wine.jpg night before.

One must cook out on the grill on Memorial Day, but as I was preparing the hickory charcoal in the chimney — never, ever use charcoal lighter fluid! — the sky darkened considerably and the wind came up, shaking the trees. We had a couple of grass-fed beef strip steaks waiting for the hot coals. I said to LL: “Well, maybe the rain will hold off for half an hour or so. I’ll go ahead and light the fire.” The rain did not hold off for even three minutes, so I ended up cooking the steaks in the cast-iron skillet in the kitchen, which didn’t hurt them a bit, though they lacked that definitive, succulent charry edge that makes grilled meat so damned compulsively edible to carnivores.

And this is weird! Despite the fact that it was raining cats and dogs, I mean a real downpour, the charcoal stayed lit inside that metal chimney on the grill, continuing to glow and flicker eerily until it burned itself out. I had never seen that before. The magic of fire!

Anyway, I had these Spanish red wines I had been meaning to try, so I opened one to try with the steak.

This was the Pico Madama 2004, made by Bodegas y Vinedos Murcia in the Jumilla region. It’s a half-and-half blend of monastrell grapes (the French mourvedre) and petit verdot. The petit verdot ages in French oak, the monastrell in American oak, each for 13 months. This is a robust, powerful wine, but well-proportioned, not heavy, not a blockbuster. It’s ripe, rich and minerally, seething with smoky, roasted and peppery black fruit scents and flavors. A few minutes in the glass bring out the intensity of a tight core of moss and leather, gritty tannins, polished oak and vibrant acid; it’s a wine that feels alive in the mouth while not giving itself away entirely. The finish develops considerable dusty, foresty austerity. This was terrific with the steak two nights ago, though it could stand to age two or three years and drink through 2012 or ’14. I rate it Very good+. Prices on the Internet are about $29 to $35.

Last night, I rustled up a little pasta by chopping some guanciale — cured pig’s jowl — and frying it pretty crisp, then using a bit tagonius-wine.jpg of the rendered fat to saute diced onions and garlic. I cooked some halved cherry tomatoes with those for about a minute, dumped in the cooked linguine and a handful of fresh baby spinach and tossed it before dividing it into two bowls. Voila, dinner.

I opened the second Spanish wine, which turned out to be even better than the Pico Madama, but also proved to be too big and too complex for what was basically a simple pasta dish. This was the Tagonius Crianza 2002, Vinos de Madrid, a blend of 45% tempranillo, 40% cabernet sauvignon and 15% syrah, or as it says on the label, “shiraz.” Soon even producers in France’s Rhone Valley, the heartland of syrah, will be calling the grape “shiraz,” under the influence of its popularity in Australian red wines, mainly among American consumers.

Anyway, this is a wine made in a new style that manages to retain hold of the old-fashioned Spanish virtues of aloofness and austerity, though you wouldn’t know that at first. Initially, the wine is incredibly ripe, fleshy and meaty, packed with spiced and macerated black currants, black cherries and plums. It’s very dry, dusty, almost ecclesiastical in its ancient wood-like tones, yet this influence is balanced by an intense core of crushed lavender and violets, mocha and minerals; the wine flat-out smolders in the glass like a deep purple ember. After 20 or 30 minutes, the austerity of the tannins begins to assert itself in qualities like dried porcini, walnut shell and underbrush. This could hold for two or three years, or be consumed now through 2012 to ’14 with steak, venison, barbecue brisket and such. Excellent. Prices range from about $24 to $35.

These wines are imported by Well Oiled Wine Co., Leesburg, Va.

I bought a bottle of this wine at a small store last week in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. I suspected that it would be good rifflabel.jpg because it was “selected” and bottled by Alois Lageder, that exemplary producer of white wines in northeastern Italy. The result knocked me out.

The Riff Pinot Grigio delle Venezia 2006 is frankly one of the best pinot grigio wines from Italy that I have ever tasted. It certainly shows more character and nuance than the ubiquitous and over-priced Santa Margherita, at the top level, or than scores of bland examples at the lower level.

Made completely in stainless steel, the Riff 2006 is absolutely lovely, very fresh and crisp, with a hint of spritz. It’s like drinking liquid limestone and shale that are permeated by roasted lemon and lime peel, crushed jasmine, camellia and almond blossom, with a touch of almond. The texture is dense, almost talc-like, and the finish comes close to smacky in the power of its packed-in spice, yet the wine never loses its sense of delicacy and appeal. I rate this wine Excellent for drinking through the rest of 2008.

The price? About $9. Definitely Worth a Search, and I mean phone calls, twisting arms, and threats, if you have to.

It’s marketed in this country by Dalla Terra Winery Direct, in Napa, California.

In an ideal world, we would all drink great wine. Of course, in an ideal world, many Americans wouldn’t regard drinking wine as a sin or a bother or too complicated and pretentious or unnecessary and so on, and they would regard having a glass of wine with lunch or a couple of glasses of wine with dinner as completely natural and enjoyable.

But in this less than ideal world, many people who do drink wine are perfectly happy drinking whatever comes their way, whether the wine was produced by a megalithic conglomerate churning out millions of cases of wine a year or a tiny family-run vineyard where the earth and the grapes are held sacred and the wine is made with minimum manipulation.

In her new book The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (Harcourt, $23), the fearless Alice Feiring lays down this manifesto, what she calls “the dogma of authentic wines.” The tenets of this dogma are these:

Healthy farming practices
Hand picking
No extended cold maceration
No added yeasts or bacteria
No added enzymes
No flavors from oak or toast
No additives that shape flavor or texture
No processes that use machines to alter alcohol lever, flavor, or texture or that promote premature aging

As a purist — and it’s hard work being a purist — I certainly subscribe to this regimen for making authentic wines that embody the soil in which the vines grew, the climate and weather that nurtured them and the character of the grape varieties. And, as Feiring does, I deplore the strenuous mechanical interventions that turn proper Dr. Jekel-like grapes into overblown Mr. Hyde-like parodies of themselves, especially at the luxury end of the business.

But the authentic wines that Feiring and other enlightened wine writers and a cadre of sympathetic producers and importers thrive on and lovingly promote can’t be found in huge mass-market amounts. Most handcrafted wines, like handcrafted watches or handcrafted shoes or apple strudel, are made in small quantities, just because they’re, you know, made by hand. (Though we have to be careful nowadays; anyone can slap the buzz-word “artisanal” on a label or box of any sort of food-stuff, from apricot jam to epazote, because a segment of the public demands that “quality” and “authenticity.”) Many handcrafted wines are brought into the United States by small importers that deal with small distributors; many of these wines stay in the larger or more sophisticated markets on the coasts.

What I mean is that, loath as we might be to admit it, there’s a place for mass-produced wine. If the “masses” in this country ever decide that moderate wine-drinking can be a guilt-free pleasure and a benefit to health, that wine enhances food and the eating (or dining) experience, they’re not going to turn to the handcrafted wines of France or Spain or Italy or Argentina (or sometimes the United States) to satisfy their curiosities and palates. Much as I would love for America’s neophyte wine drinkers to cut their teeth on, say, one of Jo Pithon’s Anjou Blanc wines or one of Marc Ollivier’s Muscadets — and I wouldn’t mind a sip right now — there’s not enough of that fine stuff to go around.

If only 100,000 people, a mere .387 percent (not even four-tenths of 1 percent) of this country’s population — imagine Billings, mt_billings01.jpg Montana — decided that they were going to consume one bottle of wine a week, that would come to 5,200,000 bottles of wine a year, or something like 433,333 cases of wine. Whence will all that wine originate? Not in the hallowed precincts of artisanal producers; as I said, they don’t make enough wine. No, the wines for those 100,000 new drinkers will come from wineries or properties whose aim is to please many palates, the more, as it were, the merrier.

Not that I’m advocating industrial wine, short-cuts and easy outs. The huge companies like Constellation, Gallo and Fosters are too eager to launch series after series of wines intended for myriad demographic groups, price ranges and devotees of cute critter labels. I taste a great deal of that stuff, and it’s largely mediocre. Honest winemaking, however, can exist on a broad scale, and when I think of the California wines that I grew up with — Mirassou, Concannon, Parducci, Pedroncelli, Fetzer and such, even Carlo Rossi — I recall that wines made in the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of cases could be damned tasty, satisfying and enlightening.

Sure, many Old School producers harvested by tractor and used commercial yeasts, but those were the days before oak chips and powder, tannin and acid additives and the voodoo of micro-oxygenation and reverse osmosis. I think that it’s still possible to make tasty, satisfying and enlightening wines without those contemporary techniques, without the artificiality. But such wines don’t have to be great, they don’t have to floor you with vivid authenticity, they don’t have to wear their virtues on their sleeves.

They just have to be good.


Monday we ate lunch at The Green Table, a small, spare, almost zen-like restaurant inside the vast and fascinating Chelsea Market, on Ninth Avenue just at the northern edge of the Meatpacking District, which now, of course, contains more restaurants, clubs and boutiques than meatpacking establishments. It’s amazing! There used to be no traffic except for trucks and no people except for meatpackers wearing bloody aprons and their customers in this formerly quiet, way out-of-the-way neighborhood.

Anyway, Chelsea Market is a huge building that features myriad wholesale and retail food emporiums and restaurants. One of our favorite places is Buon Italia, a store that imports all sorts of foodstuffs from Italy. When we go to NYC, we always make it over to Buon Italia to pick up guanciale, coppa, panchetta and other cured meats. lime honey — great on my toast in the morning — and other items.

We stopped by The Green Table, an all-organic (but not necessarily vegetarian) off-shoot of The Cleaver Co catering group. LL had baked eggs with ramps and potatoes and a little salad, and I had macaroni-and-cheese, also with a salad. A nice lunch.

Now the glass of wine I ordered will, I’m sorry to say, have relevance only to BTYH readers in the Northeast. It was the Wölffer Estate Rosé 2007, from Sagaponack, The Hamptons, Long Island. This is a very spare, very dry rosé wine in the Provençal rose-2007-label-resizedpdf-main.jpg fashion, but there’s nothing Provençal about its make-up, which is 40% chardonnay, 35% merlot, 17% cabernet sauvignon and 8% cabernet franc. That roster of grapes raises the question: If the wine contains 40% chardonnay grapes, is it only 60% an actual rosé?

The estate was founded in 1987. Winemaker is Roman Roth, who has made wine in his native Germany, in California and Australia.

The wine, made, not surprisingly, all in stainless steel, is a classic pale copper/onion skin color. The bouquet offers notes of dried strawberry and and fresh peach with hints of dried thyme and wet rocks. The mineral quality intensifies in the mouth, while touches of pear and melon are added to the flavor spectrum, with more backnotes of dried herbs; the wine is vibrantly clean and crisp. This would be a great picnic wine, served with fried chicken, deviled eggs, ham, potato salad and such.

I rate the wine Very Good+. It costs about $15 at the winery.



The Modern is the fine dining restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s operated by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; Meyer is the well-known owner of Union Square, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and a host of other diverse restaurants in New York. Now appetizers at The Modern — at lunch — range from $17 to $42 and main courses go from $24 to $45. So most of us in the real world won’t be eating lunch there.

Fortunately, The Modern offers The Bar Room, a far more casual restaurant where patrons, hungry and thirsty after hours of looking at modern and contemporary art, can rest their weary bones and perk up with food and drink. There’s a small lounge waiting area, a bar appropriate for dining as well as imbibing, and an open dining area with tables and chairs. It’s all quite 10rest6001.jpg welcoming and attractive in a sleek modern fashion.

Chef at The Modern is Gabriel Kreuther, whose roots in Alsace are revealed in many dishes of the menus for The Bar Room and The modern.

The small menu in The Bar Room consists of three pages: The 18 items listed on the first two pages are served in appetizer portions; prices are $11 to $24. The 10 items found on the third page are served in “half-entree” portions; prices are $15 to $28. Now I didn’t say the The Bar Room menu was cheap; we’re not talking about $7.99 for meat ‘n’ three, including a refillable glass of sweet tea, but we are talking about delicious food that gratifyingly balances tradition with invention, lovely presentation, a waiter who knows the menu and wine list backwards and forwards and terrific wine selections.

So, perched at the bar, LL started with the shaved spring salad ($15), while I chose the veal and goat cheese terrine with watercress ($14). She followed with a fascinating item, a traditional “leftovers” dish from Alsace that featured lamb, conch and tripe is a spicy, savory ragout ($16). This baekeoffe, said our waiter, is the least-ordered dish on the menu, but it holds a special place in the chef’s heart. My second course was squid wrapped in pancetta with a black rice cake and Parmesan foam ($20).

So, how to tie these dishes together with one wine? Well, that wasn’t quite going to work. I suggested a riesling from Alsace, the Dirler Belzebrunem 2004 ($11), and while the waiter acknowledged that as a good idea, he offered to pour LL two half-glasses of wine so she could have a different experience with each of her two courses; when they came, they were generous “half-pours.” For her, he chose a gruner veltliner from Austria, the Prager Federspiel 2007, Wachau ($16) — a lovely gruner, clean, vibrant, floral and minerally — and for the red, the Umathum Zweigelt 2006, from Austria’s Bergenland region ($12). The zweigelt grape was propagated in 1922 as a cross between blaufrankisch and St. Laurent; it makes a deeply colored, spicy wine, hearty but not heavy.

The beautifully composed salad consisted of baby arugula, baby frisee, sections of grapefruit, slivers of cucumber and, according to the menu, Sicilian pistachios. The richness of my veal and goat cheese terrine was balanced by the slight bitterness of the watercress; all of this was draped by a light green sauce made of parsley pureed with a bit of garlic and olive oil.

More diners ought to order the baekeoffe, though I understand that many people are put off by the idea of tripe. Our waiter told us that chef Kreuther treats the tripe in three different processes over three days to ensure its tenderness and almost custardy texture. The dish is presented in a ramekin with a crust of breadcrumbs; the sauce that encloses the lamb, conch and tripe is deeply flavorful. It was a great dish for a chilly, rainy day.

My squid wrapped in pancetta like neatly tied presents were skewered on a shaft of rosemary. I’m not a true believer in the cuisine of foams and gels, and in relation to the grilled squid and the rice cake under them, the Parmesan foam was largely superfluous; better just to have shaved a few slivers of Parmesan onto the squid.

Still, that’s a quibble. This was a terrific lunch, capped off with two cups of excellent espresso. We would definitely go back, and since we visit MOMA every time we’re in NYC, we’ll probably eat there again soon.

The Museum of Modern Art is at 9 West 53rd Street. The number of The Modern’s Bar Room is (212) 333-1220. The Bar Room opens at 11:30 a.m. daily and closes at 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and 9:30 p.m., Sunday. Menus and wine list are available at

Here’s a nifty little Argentine malbec — the country’s great success grape — with plenty of oomph to stand up to burgers, hearty elportillo_malbec_lab_sm2.jpg pizzas and pasta dishes, grilled pork chops and perhaps even a ribeye steak. El Portillo — the portal or gateway — is perched about a thousand meters above the Mendoza valley in that area’s Uco region. The winery’s Malbec 2006 sees no oak, so it comes by its rumbling, cushiony tannins and firm structure naturally. The wine is highly perfumed, a beguiling amalgam of ripe black currant, blueberry and plum, dried flowers and dried herbs, cedar and tobacco. It takes a darker turn in the mouth, the black fruit flavors reveal more spice, hints of wild berry come in. The finish is chewy and a bit brambly.

Very good+ and fairly priced at about $12.

Palm Bay Imports, Boca Reton, Fla.

See if you can guess what wines are being considered in these reviews in the Wine Spectator, the issue of May 31.

* “Intense, with concentrated flavors of ripe pear, baked apple and apricot. Finishes with lemon curd and meringue.” Score: 90.
* “Muscular …, with rich, concentrated quince, peach, ruby grapefruit, guava and mango flavors.” Score: 94
* “Intense, with concentrated flavors of ripe peach, baked apple, apricot and spice. The long finish features lemon curd, spice and meringue.” Score: 90.
* “Full-throttle ….. Spicy and rich, with concentrated tropical fruit, glazed apricot and grapefruit flavors. Long, smoky finish, with plenty of creamy notes.” Score: 92.
* “Rich, ripe and exotic, with loads of mango, pineapple, ripe peach and guava. Viscous, with powerful, spicy notes that carry through to the long finish with plenty of hazelnut cream.” Score: 94.
* “A ripe, full-bore style, with golden raisin, baked peach, cream and spice. Shows lots of tropical fruit notes as well, including mango and guava. The rich finish features nutmeg and creme fraiche.” Score: 93
* ” … aromas and flavors of white chocolate, ripe apple, white pepper and grapefruit… The juicy finish is long, with hints or meringue and butterscotch.” Score: 93.

I know what you’re thinking: “FK, this is too easy. These are obviously reviews of huge, super-ripe, dessert-like, over-blown, over-oaked, malolactic chardonnays from California, the kind of chardonnay that the Spectator seems to adore but that millions of right-thinking men, women and children in America cannot abide.”


No, friends, the wines given such ecstatic reviews here are not super-ripe, over-oaked, tropical chardonnays from California. They’re super-ripe, over-oaked, tropical grüner veltliner wines from Austria.

American wine drinkers had no more gotten used to the fact that the grüner veltliner (“grooner veltleener”) grape produces (or can produce) eminently refreshing, crisp delightful white wines that open to charming intimations of dried herbs (often with hints of celery and tarragon) and nose-tickling touches of white pepper, with scintillating acidity and a pronounced mineral element than producers of these wines decided that letting the grape do its job wasn’t enough. No, now they have to pump up the ripeness of the grapes and deploy every manipulative trick in the winemaker’s arsenal to infuse their wines with a sheen of artificial significance and trumped-up glamor, intended, no doubt, for some mythical “American palate.” It’s true that grüner veltliner wines can attain a smooth, subtle honeyed quality, but that may occur naturally through bottle aging.

Meringue and butterscotch? Hazelnut cream and guava? Bad chard, meet bad grüner.

Like a zephyr on a perfect afternoon, the Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2007, Carmel Valley, is supremely attractive and refreshing. The grapes, 89% chenin blanc and 11% riesling, come from the property’s strictly organic vineyards. The wine is a pale straw heller_01.jpg color. The bouquet — and that’s the correct word — wreathes lemon balm and lime peel with lemongrass, dried thyme and tarragon, camellia and jasmine; a few minutes in the glass bring up hints of almond and almond blossom. Acid is as tart as a schoolmarm’s tongue, yet the wine sports a lovely texture, soft and almost talc-like while remaining spare and elegant. Flavors of spiced peach and pear, with a touch of lime, lead to a trace of grapefruit bitterness on the zesty finish. This is way too good to waste on aperitif duties — though even aperitif wine should be good; try it with a classic like trout amandine or with shrimp dredged in Southwestern spices and kissed by heat and hickory smoke from the grill.

Excellent. About $25.


Now we’re talking! Our first great red wine from Bordeaux!

Don’t laugh. The year — 1974 — vies with ’72 and ’77 as being the worst of the decade. Robert M. Parker Jr., never one to mince words, writes, in the last edition (the fourth) of his book about the wines of Bordeaux: “Should readers still have stocks of the 1974s, my sincere condolences. He goes on, in his triadic manner: ” … most 1974s remain hard, tannic, hollow wines lacking legay2_01.jpg ripeness, flesh and character.”

Well, what did we know? My note, from July 17, 1983, says that Chateau Le Gay 1974, Pomerol — the blend is typically half cabernet franc-half merlot — was “big, round, tannic and mouth-filling, and yet soft and supple. Absolutely wonderful wine.” We drank the bottle with Sunday dinner, but, uncharacteristically, I didn’t record what the meal was.

Old School wine writers and critics delight, somewhat ruefully, in tales of the dour Robin sisters, who owned the small property for decades and didn’t make much distinction between farm fowl, livestock and aging barrels, as the chai shared room with ducks, chickens and the stray goat. Very rustic and homespun. The wine was always described with such adjectives as “massive,” “unyielding” and “truculent” and the occasional concession of “classically proportioned for longevity.” As Michael Broadbent says of the 1970 version of Le Gay in The Great Vintage Wine Book, the first edition of 1982, “Not so much attractive as impressive: very deep, tough.” The estate was sold in 2003 to Catherine Péré-Vergé, who hired — who else? — Michel Rolland as consultant. Soon Le Gay will smell and taste like all the other “modern” Pomerols.

Were we wrong to be so impressed with this wine? I don’t think so. Looking at the page that holds my notes and this label, I clearly remember Le Gay 1974, against all probability, as being the best red wine I had tasted up until July 17, 1983. What struck me so notably was the combination of the brute power of dusty tannins and minerals with the irresistible suppleness and mellowness of the texture and flavors. The wine has probably been dead in the water for years, and, yes, it was assuredly a minor wine to begin with, but it certainly taught me something about the character of merlot and cabernet franc grapes and a valuable lesson about not judging a wine by the label and the year.

And I love the price: $10.99!

Here are the other wines we tried between the last entry of This Chronicle and the present post:

Chateau Larose-Tritaudon 1978, Haut-Medoc. $9.98.
Zaca Mesa Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Santa Ynez Valley. $7.15.
Teruzzi & Puthod Vernaccia de San Gimignano 1979. $3.99.
Folonari Bardolino non-vintage? $2.99.
Fetzer Cabernet Sauvignon 1978, Mendocino. $8.99.
Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages Jadot 1982. $5.99.
Mirassou Petite Sirah 1978, Monterey. $5.55.
Concannon Chenin Blanc “Noble Vinyeards-Kerman” 1981, California. $5.49.
Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Napa Valley. $8.29.
Quady Vintage Port 1977, Amador County. $10.53.
Santa Sofia Soave Classico Superiore 1979. $5.99.
Maitre d’Estournal 1978, Bordeaux. $6.99.

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