On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by Louisa Rose, head of winemaking at Yalumba. The two discuss the winery’s long history in Australia’s Barossa Valley, how Rose ended up at the winery, and how Australia’s wine industry has changed and adapted to domestic and international wine markets over the decades. Tune in to learn more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and welcome to a special episode of the “VinePair Podcast.” For today, I’m joined by Louisa Rose who’s the head winemaker at Yalumba in the Barossa Valley in Australia. Louisa, how are you?
Louisa Rose: I’m great, thanks, Zach. Lovely to be speaking to someone in a beautiful part of the world like Seattle.
Z: Yeah, thank you so much. And same, although I can only envision the beauties of Barossa through pictures. I’ve never been, but one day soon, hopefully. It’s definitely near the top of my list. So, let’s start with just some background first for folks who might not be familiar. Can you tell me a little bit about Yalumba? What’s some of the history of the winery and maybe more specifically, where are you located?
L: Sure. Well, let’s start with where we are. And you’re right, we are another beautiful part of the world as most wine regions are. I’m in the Barossa and the Barossa is about one hour out of Adelaide, which is the small capital city of South Australia. South Australia is the state in Australia which, if you look at the big mainland of Australia, I would say it’s sort of in the middle and down the bottom. Most of Australia is desert on the inside. But around the edges, particularly around the bottom southwest and then the middle to southeast and up the east coast, is where we get some rainfall. And that’s where most of our population is. It’s where most of our food-growing and agricultural country is, and, of course, where most of our wine regions are. The Barossa was established back in the 1840s by settlers. Free settlers, as South Australians are very proud to say, that they weren’t settled by convicts coming out of England. But we were settled by a number of communities that came out, mostly from Europe, people from England, and also people that came out from Germany, particularly Lutheran people that came out to practice their religion. So we have this beautiful culture of all the Lutheran food and churches and things around the Barossa, as well as many of the vineyards that they planted.
Z: And then Yalumba itself is perhaps one of the oldest wineries in the country.
L: Yeah. So it’s the oldest family-owned winery, and one of the oldest. It was established in 1849 by an Englishman, Samuel Smith. He was a brewer from Dorset, and he brought his family out in the 1840s for a better life. I find it incredible that people would go halfway around the world to somewhere they’d never seen and probably knew very little about. It must have been tough times back at home. He came out with his family and he was a horticulturist, as well as being a brewer and a gardener. He worked for one of the families in the Barossa that was establishing the region. Then he went away to the gold fields for a few months in Victoria and made his fortune. A small fortune, but enough to come back and buy the land and start to plant grapes and fruit trees, and establish what is now Yalumba. We’re still owned by his descendants, Robert Hill Smith, the fifth generation, and Robert’s daughter, Jessica, who’s the sixth generation. They are very involved in the business. It’s a pretty amazing business and an incredible family.
Z: Wonderful. I think we’ll come back to Yalumba in just a moment. But also, how about a little bit of background on you. What’s your history in wine and how did you kind of get into it? And then how did you end up at Yalumba?
L: My story is pretty quick because I’ve only ever worked for two people. Well, two families, really, and my own family. So I grew up in Victoria, which is the state on the southeast of the mainland. In fact, I grew up in the city of Melbourne. And as I was growing up, my parents bought a small amount of land in the Yarra Valley and started planting some vineyards, so all my weekends and holidays were always spent on the vineyard. And I loved the seasonality of that. The winters were cold and muddy, but it was fun planting grapes and pruning grapes and, of course, training them, and ultimately picking the grapes. I loved doing that. That was my high school years. And then I thought maybe winemaking would be a good job. So I came to South Australia when I finished a basic science degree in Melbourne. I came to South Australia to study winemaking and got a job while I was still studying there. I got a job at Yalumba for a vintage, and they asked me to come back for the next vintage, which was 1993. And I’m still here.
Z: Wow. You’re right – in a way, that is a very, very simple story. But I imagine, as we’ll get into in a little bit, that almost three decades at one winery, you’ve seen probably a lot of things that have changed. Let’s actually talk a little bit about that. From your perspective, Louisa, what has changed at Yalumba and maybe more broadly in the Australian wine industry in that period of time?
L: Sure. They are intricately linked. I was very fortuitous and very lucky with my timing coming into the wine industry and also certainly to Yalumba. That period of time in the early ’90s was coming out of quite a depressed time in the wine industry in the 1980s. In fact, in the Barossa, the South Australian government had an incentive. They were paying people to pull out grape vines because there were more grape vines than were needed for wine. There were a lot of vines that had been planted to make fortified wines, which is where a lot of the Australian wine industry history had been. White wines had some sort of cachet, but people weren’t drinking reds. I know it’s hard to believe.
Z: That does feel like another era entirely.
L: Absolutely. And I suppose one thing you learn in the wine industry is that nothing is forever and there are certainly fashions and things, but we’ll probably get onto that later. It wasn’t a booming industry and it was still very domestic-focused. And then in the early ’90s, we started to send wines around the world and to the U.K. and, of course, to America and other places. All of a sudden there was this increase in excitement. There were people planting more varieties, new varieties. We talk about new varieties, but new varieties to Australia. They were looking at new regions, looking at new areas for planting grapes. And as the demand grew around the world for Australian wines, there were these opportunities for this expansion. So the people that were involved in it, and here I was as a young winemaker, take it for granted that this is the way things probably always were and always will be. And it was a really exciting time. We were able to do things like really start to work with our first Viognier grapes and established a new wine. We started planting grapes in a new region called Wrattonbully, which is right next to a very old and established region called Coonawarra on very similar soil. How exciting has that been to follow the development of that region and to see our wines in a global context? And to travel with those wines and to see how the great chefs of the world fell in love with them and created cuisines around them. It’s been a very exciting three decades, as you say. I’m sure there’s a decade in the middle I wasn’t there for.
Z: You mentioned something that I think is actually very interesting to talk about, both in the context of Yalumba as a winery and then you and your own career. Striking a balance, I suppose you might say, between understanding what an ever-shifting public might want out of an individual wine or a winery – or even a region or something like that – while also not flailing around trying to do something different every vintage or every two vintages or whatever. You mentioned a little bit about planting Viognier. I know there’s lots of innovation in your past, but how do you strike a balance between recognizing what consumer demand is at any given point and then trying to look ahead to where it might be? Because wine is not an instantaneous process — while still kind of saying, one of the values of wine is its ability to preserve tradition, I suppose.
L: That’s a really good question and one that we work with on a daily basis. If you look at the wines that we are making still at Yalumba, some of those labels — I’ve actually got a bottle sitting on my desk in front of me. It’s the Yalumba signature, which is a Cabernet Shiraz blend and it’s a wine that we’ve made under that label since 1962. It’s a wine that’s got a lot of tradition and a lot of history here. Each year, it’s actually dedicated to a person that’s had a role to play within the business. Here at a family-owned winery, there are a lot of people that have worked here all their working lives. There’s a lot of emotion around this wine internally as well as around the world and people know the wines often by the person they’re dedicated to rather than the vintage. So there’s an example of a wine that we’ve been making for 60 years — if my decade counting is correct.
Z: Math checks out to me.
L: And yet, of course, that wine’s had to evolve over time. Because if we were making wines like we were making in the ’60s or even in the early ’90s, you know, our customers today in the early 2020s wouldn’t be appreciative of that wine style. So it has to evolve. It’s important for us. For example, in the mid-’90s, many Australian wines were being made with a lot of new oak. In fact, I think it’s what put some of the Australian red wines, particularly, on the global map in many ways. They were really exuberant, flavorful, lots of oak, lots of fruit, lots of alcohol in many cases. Now, if we were still making those wines, people got tired of them fairly quickly. It’s that evolution away from big is better to more elegance and a more subtle use of oak. We have our own cooperage here, for example. It’s an amazing thing for a winemaker to have a cooperage on site. You can literally work with the coopers to make every barrel specifically for a parcel of grapes, a particular one, whatever it may be. We are able to evolve in the style of oak and things through that as well. We use less new oak even though we can make it ourselves. So there’s an example for you, just with one wine. We couldn’t not make the signature, but we have to make a wine which is both true to our style and our philosophy, but also something that people are going to want to drink. But within that also, I think, is the opportunity to do a lot of experimentation. And as a team of winemakers and viticulturalists particularly, we do a lot of research. We do a lot of experimenting. We do a lot of trials. Many of them will never see the light of day as a new product. But everything we do teaches us something about wine. Sometimes it might be looking at new varieties. In the case of Viognier, which is something that we pioneered in Australia over a very long period of time, it takes 10 years or more once you plant a new variety until you’ve been able to propagate it and plant a vineyard. You grow that vineyard for three or four years before it starts to get some grapes and then you try and work out how you’re going to make it. Now, how do you predict in 10 years’ time what people are going to want to be drinking? We don’t even know if we’re still going to be making alcohol in 10 years’ time. There is that balance of, what can I do right now to make sure that these are really relevant going out the door? But what can we build up in our repertoire and our knowledge so that if there’s a demand for something that’s a bit different, we have something that we can wheel out down the track?
Z: This actually prompted a question that I hadn’t even thought of before we started this interview but now I’m kind of fascinated to know the answer. You mentioned that in the early days of Yalumba and of the wine industry and especially your time in it, that Australian producers, probably including Yalumba, were really focused mostly on the domestic market. Now, obviously, Australian wine is available the world over. And Australia, I’m sure, is still an extremely important market for you but there are other markets that are also important. A thing that you hear sometimes in the wine trade is that there’s a very broad stereotyping of the wine consumer in a given country. I don’t think those tend to carry a whole lot of accuracy. They might be accurate in an extremely broad sense. What I guess the question is, do you see the demand from the domestic audience matching up with what people in the international market are looking for? And if so, has that always been the case? Or is it more a case now that the wine community is a little more global and people may be looking for some of the same kinds of things the world over?
L: Yeah, it’s a good question. It’s a really good question, actually, and something we talk about a lot. It’s very easy sometimes to pigeonhole a market. Let me take the example of the American wine drinker. Australians have told me that Americans like to drink all their red wines sweet. Now, there is in every country people, you know, that love to drink these beautiful, juicy, slightly sweet red wines. But there are also people in every country that prefer their wines dry or don’t like red wines and only drink white wines. When you really get to know a market, you realize that they’re all fairly similar and they all have the same different groups of people that have the diversity in their tastes. Where the really fun work starts is when you’re working with markets. That could be a domestic market in a different city or an international market. Then you start to work with the cuisines and work it out for those people that love to look at wine and how well it matches with food. That can be really exciting then because then you find lots of new ideas about your own wines and other wines and how they go with food. And how different cultures actually treat beverages, much less wine, with food. That was one of the really interesting things when we started to work more closely with a market like, say, China, for example. Because they’re not used to drinking alcohol necessarily as part of a meal. It’s more so with tea. Here I am, doing exactly what I’ve just said we should be careful of and generalizing. But you do have to start sometimes with generalizations and work to the specifics. But once you start dealing one-on-one with people, that’s when the fun really starts.
Z: Let’s take the example that you were mentioning earlier of Viognier. You mentioned that it’s this decade-long process from the first cuttings to a product in a bottle that you’re selling in quantity. What was it about Viognier that drew you and that drew the winery to it and really pioneering it in Australia?
L: So a couple of things: We have our own vine nursery and have since the 1950s. So we have the ability to propagate new varieties if we like. We import varieties from around the world through quarantine, propagate them up from a few cuttings, look at new clones, or whatever that may be. It’s a bit like having a cooperage at one end of the winery and a nursery at the other. It really is a candy shop of excitement here. We’ve looked at a number of different varieties over the decades. Why the Viognier specifically? Well, because the first vines that were planted in the Barossa included varieties like Shiraz, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre. They are varieties that we now know were planted and continue to grow very successfully in the Rhône; Grenache in the southern Rhône, particularly. Shiraz, also in the Northern Rhône. I didn’t give you much of a geography lesson before. There are two parts to the Barossa. There’s the Barossa Valley, which is the lower, warmer part, with lovely fertile soils. You could say it’s a bit like the Southern Rhône, very similar climate to that Mediterranean warm, dry summers and cooler, wet winters. Right next to the Barossa Valley, we have the Eden Valley. Now together those two regions are the Barossa, but the Eden Valley is higher in altitude. It’s cooler, soils are less fertile, and you could sort of say it’s a bit like the Northern Rhône. Shiraz grows beautifully in the Eden Valley. It makes beautiful, aromatic, perfumed wines. You know, we had the reds already. With Viognier, which does come from Condrieu and Chateau Gruyere in the Northern Rhône, perhaps it would grow well here in the Eden Valley. It was a variety that was almost extinct at the time. We think there was somewhere around 30 acres of it in the world in 1980 when we first planted it. It wasn’t really until the early to mid-‘90s that we really started to have vines that had some age on them and started to work with how to make it and how to produce a wine.
Z: For sure. For those who aren’t super familiar with Viognier as a variety, it’s known for its aromatic qualities. But it’s different in a lot of ways from some of the other aromatic varieties that we think about, like Gewürztraminer. What is your winemaking process like and what is it most similar to, I suppose?
L: That’s another really good question because to understand Viognier, we’ve really had to turn our winemaking on its head. If you go back to the early ‘90s, our winemaking here for white wines was really based around varieties like Riesling and Sémillon, which are the varieties that traditionally had grown in the Eden Valley and in the Barossa Valley. Even Chardonnay was very new in Australia at the time as a wine. Which is hard to believe now, given that Chardonnay is the second most grown variety in the country and our most grown white wine. So we were looking at this variety and it was completely the opposite to Riesling. Viognier is naturally very low in acidity, quite a full-bodied wine, with very thick skins. We started off trying to make it like we would make Riesling and made these very boring wines. They were lacking in flavors, no aromatics — very flabby wines. Well, that’s obviously not going to work. We then started to sort of let it get a bit riper on the vines. And so much of winemaking is actually about understanding what happens in a vineyard and maximizing the flavors and the characteristics in the grape. So, how do we do that? We let the grapes get a little bit riper. We realized by a bit of trial and error, the grapes actually needed to be out in the sunshine, almost to the point where they got a suntan, which you would never do. You’d never do that on a Riesling grape.
L: Then we started to get those flavors in the grapes. We started to see the beautiful stone fruit and apricots and ginger that we love in Viognier. And then we say, well, how can we make that in the winery? Typically, we’d been making white wines by bringing the grapes in, keeping them very cold, protecting them against the air, filtering the juice, and adding a yeast that probably came from Germany or France during these cold fermentations. And that’s perfect for Riesling. But it wasn’t doing the Viognier any favors. So what we started to do was experiment with using the natural yeast in the vineyards. Which at the time was very, very unusual in Australia particularly. Admittedly we started pretty small, just with a couple of trials. But we realized very quickly that that was just getting so much more character out of the wines. Nowadays, the way we make Viognier is we get it right in the vineyard. We pick it when it tastes delicious. We bring them in and we literally just press the grapes and the juice goes straight into wherever it’s going to ferment, whether that be a mature neutral French barrel or a stainless steel wine tank. We add nothing. We do no clarification. The wild yeast piggybacked in out of the vineyards onto the grapes and they’ve washed into the juice and they do the fermentation for us. And now, from that, that’s how we make most of the wines here. Even Riesling, which I know sounds crazy. It’s just a beautiful way to express the terroir and where the wines have come from. We use the yeast and the bacteria that come in from that terroir itself. There’s a really important thing that sits behind all of that, and that is the health and the biodiversity of the vineyard. A winemaker can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to make a wine using the yeast in the vineyard.” You can’t say that unless you’ve actually got a really diverse, healthy population of yeast in your vineyard. And that only comes if you’ve actually got a really healthy, biodiverse vineyard in the first place. That’s something that is incredibly important for us. It’s one of the five pillars of our sustainability program. But it’s a really important part, that resilient terroir. So we have lots of different things within all of the lands that we are caretakers of to make sure that we have that biodiversity and that natural balance and that really healthy ecosystem. One of the great things about it is you have this really healthy population of yeast that does your winemaking for you.
Z: I was going to say, you’ve got the cooperage and you got the vineyard greenhouse, and apparently, you’ve got the winemaker in-house, too. Besides you, of course.
L: Actually, it’s almost starting to sound like I’m a bit irrelevant now, isn’t it?
Z: I was gonna say, hopefully, your bosses aren’t listening, but I assume they probably will be. Someone needs to steer the ship such as it is. And actually, I’m curious about something that that prompted, too. Talking to some other producers over the course of doing the podcast and writing and things like that, one thing that comes up when we talk about biodiversity and vineyards and the health of the vineyard in a more holistic sense, is also that people have said that they feel like one of the things that it allows them to do is to produce wines that can be Goldilocks wines. They can be really long-lived. In red wines, they have that sort of tannic structure and acidity. And in whites, maybe more just the acidity. But also they have an approachability in their youth that maybe is not always easy to find in other vineyards in other regions. Is that something that you’ve seen? And more broadly, how do you look at that balance between a wine that is ageable versus enjoyable right when it’s released?
L: You are full of good questions, Zach.
Z: I mean, it is my job. I don’t want my bosses to think I’m irrelevant.
L: You do know how early it is in the morning for me? My poor brain. Look, that is a great question. I think the most important thing about wine is that, whatever the wine is, if somebody goes to a restaurant and orders a wine or somebody goes to a bottle shop and buys a bottle of wine, they should be able to take the cork out, take off the screw cap — however it’s packaged — open it up and enjoy that wine the day they bought it. That is the most important thing. There is no point in making a wine and selling a wine and saying to somebody, “Don’t open this wine for 20 years. Or 10 years. Or five years.” You might say to them, “Buy this wine. It’s going to evolve and it’s going to do all of these amazing things over the next couple of decades. You choose where in that evolution you might like it.” I’ll never say to somebody, “You can’t open this wine yet.” It would be like saying to somebody that just bought a Maserati, “Great choice of car. Don’t drive it for two years.” How ridiculous is that? If we really thought a wine wasn’t ready to drink, we wouldn’t release it. But what I know about wine, because I’m in that beautiful place where I can see wines from the minute they’re starting to be created, is that great wines are beautiful and enjoyable from the day those grapes are crushed. I actually think it’s a really natural thing for wines to have all those different stages in their lives. But they should always be enjoyable. Great wines will — and this is my definition of a great wine — be a great wine throughout its life. And that it will have some ability to age. Now, not all wines are necessarily made to be great long-living wine. Some wines are just there for a bit of fun. Drink them within the first couple of years and enjoy them and then buy the next vintage. Maybe I’m spoiled because maybe that is a particular characteristic of Australian wines — that they are so beautiful young, but then do have that age-ability.
Z: A couple of last questions for you since we’re sort of talking about some of these things. You mentioned the history of the winery at the beginning of this conversation. The thing that I always think about when I think about Australian wine and some of the more established producers, is some of Australia’s resources in terms of old vines. I’m curious, do you get to work with some old wine fruit or old vines themselves? And if so, can you explain what magic there might be in there for our listeners who might not get a chance to encounter it at the rate that you do, at least?
L: Yeah. Another thing that we’re incredibly lucky to have, particularly in South Australia and the Barossa, is that we’ve never had phylloxera in South Australia. And in fact, we never had many of the other diseases which limit the life of a vine that many of the Northern Hemisphere wine-producing countries do have. So that means that we have the oldest continually producing vines of varieties like Shiraz and Grenache and Mourvèdre and Sémillon and Riesling here in the Barossa. And that is an amazing resource to have. The oldest Shiraz vineyard in the world grows in the Barossa. It’s owned by Langmeil Winery and it’s called the Freedom Vineyard. It was planted in 1843.
L: The oldest vineyard that we own is a Grenache vineyard, which we call our Tri-Centenary Vineyard because it was planted in 1889. In fact, we make a one called the Tri-Centenary Grenache from that vineyard. The vines are quite incredible, really. To think about what they’ve been through and what they’ve done every year of their life while the whole world has changed in well over a hundred years. I think about them as having most of the biomass — most of the grapevine is under the ground because every year the roots just keep growing, assuming that you’ve got the soil depth. There is a little bit of the grapevine that’s on the top that every year, it grows leaves and grows shoots and then grows grapes and someone comes along and picks the grapes and then chops all the shoots off and the vines does it all again the next year. And yet, most of the vine is buffered underground in that much more moderate sort of climate that’s under the ground. So they’re buffered against seasonal variations there. I often think the vines are taking a much more long-term view than just that one year. You do see much more consistency with the old vines. Varieties like Shiraz that are more full-bodied are really beautiful. It’s not a bitterness necessarily, but it’s a length and it’s a texture to their beautiful fine tannins. They’re quite incredible. And again, a wonderful resource for winemakers to have.
Z: I can speak just as a wine consumer and person who who loves it. There is a magic to when you get the chance to even be in the presence of some of these old vines. I’ve had the chance to see some not quite as old vines, but some quite old vines in California. You realize what the world was like when they were planted, what they’ve lived through, and what they might continue to live through. It is a remarkable thing.
L: I was actually in our old-vine Grenache Vineyard yesterday with some restaurateurs from Sydney. I was talking about exactly that: pandemics, world wars, the invention of the airplane, and the invention of cars. These vines aren’t trellised because there were only horses and people in the vineyard when they were planted. And then I was thinking about the same thing about the whole Smith family, and that’s exactly what they’ve lived through in their six generations as well. With all the trials and tribulations that they’ve gone through with the technology increases, and all of those sort of things like that, and thinking what an amazing history it is to be involved in an industry like that.
Z: Yeah. And speaking of the family, let’s close on this. I know that one of the relatively newer things you guys have introduced is Samuel’s Collection. Can you tell me a little bit about those wines?
L: Sure. It’s a collection named after Samuel Smith, the founder from generation one. We have a Shiraz, which is synonymous with Barossa. So of course you’d have a Shiraz. And I think it’s quite a modern take on Shiraz. It is aged in oak barrels that we make here in our own cooperage. So we use French and Hungarian and American oak for that. And it’s from vineyards around the Barossa, so some from the Eden Valley with more aroma and perfume and some from the Barossa Valley, which is a little bit more textural and full-bodied. It’s quite a juicy medium-bodied style of wine. We have a Grenache which is old vine, so not from that 1889 vineyard, but from vineyards that have been planted in the early 1920s. The youngsters in there are more from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s the beautiful old, low-yielding Grenache vines. That’s quite a medium-bodied, juicy style. We don’t use new oak when we make Grenache. I think it’s one of our most food-friendly red varieties. You can have it in summer. You can chill it down slightly and match it with your foods. It’s more of a traditional red wine style in the cooler months. And then we have a Viognier, of course. We already talked about that. It’s not one of the vines that were planted early on in the Barossa, but something that’s really made its home in the Eden Valley and is synonymous now with Yalumba. That Eden Valley Viognier is, I think, our most food-friendly white wine. In fact, it’s incredibly food-friendly. It crosses the boundaries of everywhere you’d want to go with food and wine matching — to the spices, to the full-bodied foods, to what you might typically drink with a white wine but because it’s got that richness and it’s got quite a refreshingly bitter texture because it’s low in acid, but it has a beautiful phenolic structure to the palate. You can match it with anything you’d match your red wine with. You might have gathered, because I tend to mention food quite a lot, as a winemaking team here we are almost as passionate about our food as we are about our wine. So not only do we love to make wines together, but we love to cook together. We spend an awful lot of time matching food and wine. And what we’ve discovered over the years is we haven’t yet found something that doesn’t go with Viognier. Maybe there’s a challenge to to the listeners. If they can find something that doesn’t go with Viognier, they might let me know very well.
Z: Very cool. Well, Louisa, thank you so much for your time. I know you’re still just waking up in the wintertime — man, is that hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes here in the afternoon, in the summer. But that’s the world we live in. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s really fascinating to hear more about these wines and I look forward to continuing to enjoy them and talking to you again sometime in the future.
L: Thanks, Zach. I really enjoyed our chat.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.